Located in a parking lot at Soldier Field, CHI-Together bills itself as the largest ongoing socially safe event in the Midwest. But it’s not just the entertainment that’s putting this platform on the map. It’s the touchpoint-rich programming that is helping forge a new path for sponsorship engagement in the COVID era. Since its launch on July 8, CHI-Together has caught the eye of both local and national sponsors—Clif Bar & Company, Heineken 0.0., Lifeway Foods and Nissan, to name a few.
Tickets are sold in advance for $55 per carload (up to six people). After displaying their ticket code and receiving a playbill, attendees drive through the sponsor zone (more on that in a minute) before heading to their designated parking space. There is a 90-minute pre-show experience with entertainment and then the movie screening, which includes an intermission. Gates open at 7 p.m., movies start around 8:15, and the event wraps up at 11.
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The reach is enticing with 400 cars a night, Wednesday through Sunday nights, and more than 1,000 people on-site for each event. But the mission, even more so. This “party with a purpose” benefits the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which is supporting Chicagoans in need during the COVID-19 crisis. The event is also designed to be unifying and has attracted attendees representing a cross section of Chicago. The entertainment roster features diverse local talent ranging from south- and west-side mashup DJ Duo LAB3L to Oak Park School of Rock student bands to kid-focused artist Ben Tatar & The Tatar Tots from the northern suburbs of Chicago.
For Tionna Van Gundy, owner and managing partner of Fueled Events, the brainchild of CHI-Together, the program is personal. She fed her life’s savings into launching the platform, which to date has put more than 85 Chicagoans across 11 small businesses back to work.
CHI-Together is an ongoing, large-scale event program that’s putting modern health-safety policies to the test—and succeeding. We reached out to Van Gundy for insights on what she and her team have learned along the way.
Screening movies is more complicated than you’d think.
Drive-in movies were among the first types of in-person events to lift off the ground in the wake of COVID-19, because they accommodate social distancing so well. But to screen movies requires working with licensure companies to get access to blockbuster films. Then, you must pay a licensing fee and hand over 64 percent of your profits in exchange for the rights.
“It’s really hard for any of these concepts to be profitable, honestly,” Van Gundy says of drive-ins. “And we’re not a drive-in experience in a dirt lot in a backyard; we’re in the heart of the city with city prices, so because of that our operational costs are really high, on top of then paying royalties.”
A/V partners familiar with your venue are essential.
Parking lots have become the new sought-after venue for events in the COVID era. But they come with their fair share of production challenges. The CHI-Together lot is long and wide, so it requires three jumbo-screens (attached to stacked shipping containers) and well-placed speakers to be sure the viewing and listening experience is a quality one and in line with local ordinances.
Enforce and reinforce the policies and procedures.
The first call Van Gundy made to get CHI-Together off the ground was to the City of Chicago to develop health and safety policies based on their recommendations. The result of that work has led to the creation of a playbook for all events moving forward in Chicago. Enforcing policies well, however, requires more effort than signage.
On every digital ticket stub there’s a reminder for attendees about the mask requirement in addition to signage at the entrance. Staffers ask attendees if they have their masks with them and, if not, there are masks available to purchase. All attendees are required to wear masks when outside of their vehicles at the event.
To keep it light-hearted and energetic, staffers (including a “CHI-Dog” mascot wearing his own mask) walk up and down the aisles to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing the entire night. “CHI-Dog” even carries measuring tape to ensure groups are six feet apart.
“We enforce it every step of the way,” Van Gundy says. “That’s probably one of our biggest best practices is making the policies viewable to the eye because that’s what makes people feel safe, the fact that it’s active.”
Be very visible with your cleaning efforts.
You can read more about the event’s policies and procedures here. But one of the biggest changes to event operations in this new reality is that cleaning is no longer something kept behind the scenes. Cleaning should be visible, purposeful and scheduled.
CHI-Together makes portable bathrooms available on-site, and a group of them are closed every 30 minutes for a deep clean where Soldier Field sanitation staffers spray out the spaces and allow a disinfectant solution to sit for 10 minutes. The sanitation schedules are posted on the stall doors. In addition, CHI-Together staffers come through every 15 minutes to wipe down high-contact surfaces like the restroom door handles.
Anchor the activations as part of the experience.
As attendees enter the CHI-Together footprint, they check in and then take a ride alongside a giant red carpet rolled out as “sponsor row.” Staffers in masks and gloves pass out giveaways and samples, like Lifeway Kefir, which hands out smoothie samples, and Heineken 0.0, which is sampling its non-alcoholic beverage (designated drivers receive a coupon for a free Heineken 0.0 at the concessions tent).
Inside the event footprint there’s a main stage for performances and Nissan’s display for the new Nissan Sentra, where a mic’d product specialist talks vehicle specs and passes out swag. There’s also a “best seat in the house” footprint for The Dowell Group, a Chicago real estate company, which features plush outdoor furniture and doubles as both a hospitality zone for the company’s VIP guests and an upgrade opportunity for attendees.
Layer up those sponsorship moments.
Van Gundy says an experience like this should feel more like the experience of being in a sports stadium than a movie theater. That means incorporating mobile moments, like text-to-win programs, sponsored contests during the pre-show experience, callouts by the emcee, and creative content spots that can be displayed on the big screens.
“All of the five senses are constantly stimulated in a stadium and we wanted to have that same effect,” she says. Encore.
Agencies: Fueled Events (owner/event production); EXO|EXO Marketing (pre-show entertainment); Frost Chicago (A/V).
Take a spin through the CHI-Together Drive-in Experience:
Photo courtesy: lorisapiophotography.com