5 Hospitality Lessons from Running a Speech Contest

The oratory contest on May 1 went amazingly well. I had been quite overwhelmed with the last-minute entries (that more than doubled the number of contestants), but with a lot of support and help, it all came together.

In my second year of running this contest, here are a few things I learned about hospitality:

1. Market the heck out of your event
Invitations are a type of marketing. Your goal is to get the people you want at your event to attend your event. So essentially you’re “selling” your event, even if there’s no ticket price. There’s a cost for people to come: their time, their attention, transportation costs, and, for a contest, the time they take to prepare their entry. You have to convince them that the benefit is worth the price. This means you have to ask.

I hate selling…I hate “the ask”…because any time I ask someone for something, there’s an opportunity for rejection. But I try to overcome this to promote things I believe in, so I did a lot of asking in preparation for the contest.

The best thing I did was focus on inviting several specific teachers to help their students attend. Taking an idea from a teacher involved last year, I suggested they give their students extra credit for participating. I got my 13 last-minute registrations from two teachers.

2. Deal graciously with changes to make people feel welcomed
More important than my stress about having to restructure the whole contest two days before it was that all the participants feel welcomed. I went out of my way to assure them we were delighted to have them involved.

3. Realize there’s a difference between “coordinating” and “hosting”
Coordinating involves making sure all the details are coming together. Hosting involves making sure all the people are coming together. I confused the two and was running around at the start of the event focusing on score sheets, pens, stop watches, and chairs instead of ushering in the contestants and their parents as they arrived, making them feel at ease. My husband pointed this out to me in a whisper, and I realized I needed to delegate the details and focus on the people. (As an introvert, it’s MUCH easier for me to do the opposite.)

Next year I will get more help with clearly defined roles: One person to MC and one or two people to set up the details, freeing me to actually host.

4. Don’t go it alone
I could never have pulled off this event without a lot of help. My high school intern Meagan helped me plan the event and arrived early to set up tables, chairs, signs, etc. My husband helped with my kids all morning as I printed certificates and sign in sheets, then he wrangled the kids at Office Max while copying score sheets so I could head to the venue to set up. Our executive assistant – with 4-month-old baby in tow – made sure we had enough snacks and refreshments. The judges who arrived early even helped me finish setting up the competition rooms. Don’t think you can host alone – not only is it more feasible with help, it’s also more fun to work in community.

5. Hosting is a type of leadership
I forgot this when I focused on the details. Hosting is about leading people. You need to subtly guide them with verbal and non-verbal cues through the event. When people walk in to a new situation, they often gaze around, frozen and lost. The host is the one who notices them, makes them feel important and welcomed, shows them where to go and what to do, lets them know what’s coming next. The best hosts are able to communicate to their guests how to act in any situation without the teaching being overt. That’s the kind of host I strive to be.

What else have you learned about hospitality from big events such as contests or meets?

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