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Small Business Center

A Comprehensive Guide to Grand Openings

October 5, 2023

From giveaways to a ribbon-cuttings, grand opening events enable small businesses to generate buzz, attract customers and establish strong presences in their communities. “Grand openings are the first opportunity for the market to know who and what you are,” said Stacie Schmidt, vice president of marketing for Stark Enterprises, an owner, developer and manager of commercial real estate, including retail.

The phrase “grand opening” also might place undue pressure and expectations on small business owners. That’s why Schmidt advises small business owners to think of successful grand openings in a simpler way. A grand opening, she said, offers a small businesses the opportunity to tell its story to a wide audience. And research shows that customers form stronger connections to businesses they personally relate to.

Still, to convey your narrative effectively, you first have to get a large audience to your grand opening. And you want that audience to be excited to be there and excited to come back. That’s why details matter when introducing your business to a community.

Schmidt, who has assisted dozens of businesses in planning and executing successful grand openings, shared with ICSC’s Small Business Center her insights on triumphant grand openings.

Figure out a date, budget and goal.

Before you get too far into planning a grand opening, decide on a budget for the event. You don’t want to find yourself overwhelmed by unexpected expenses and financial stress on the day of the event. Consider things like: Will you serve food? Will you have entertainment? Will you need any audiovisual setup? Do you want to hire a photographer or videographer? Do you need to hire security? But as you get enmeshed in details, don’t forget your governing goal. A grand opening is not about just having a great party, Schmidt said. It’s about getting customers excited to come back and support you. In the end, she said, businesses “need to generate revenue” and grand openings are simply one tool for gaining publicity, loyalty and connection.

Start planning early.

“I meet with [tenants] a good six months out before they open,” Schmidt said. A longer runway means more time to build excitement about your grand opening. In storytelling terms, the process of starting a business is “really a unique opportunity to show the behind-the-scenes details of a store in the making,” allowing your business’ story to unfold in present time. Sharing details online of your opening process, such as construction milestones, allows people to become invested in your business before your grand opening. “They feel a part of the growth; experiencing the highs and the lows with you,” Schmidt said.

One store owner Schmidt worked with had been sharing the process of opening the store on social media and posted about finally getting its inspection passed. “The whole community cheered for them because they had been rooting with them through the process,” she said.

When you involve your customers emotionally in your story, they are more likely to show up for your official opening. What you don’t want to happen, Schmidt added, is “to open and people to say: ‘Who are you? Where’d you come from? I have no idea who you are.’” That’s why Schmidt also advised putting up signage months in advance. “When people are walking by, they get glimpses of what the [business] is going to be,” she said. “You don’t want to delay spreading the news.”

Come up with a hook. 

Every good event, like every good story, needs a hook to get people engaged. If you’re opening a yoga studio, the first 50 people in line on opening day could get a free class. Or anyone who shops with you on your first day could get a 20% discount. The important thing is to create a sense of urgency. “We all have FOMO, fear of missing out,” Schmidt said. “You want people to feel like if they don’t show up now, if they don’t join that first day, then they will have missed out.” This exclusivity, Schmidt said, turns into a sales opportunity at the same time. Customers think: “What if that product is sold out if I’m not there?”

Create a unique experience.

Sometimes, it takes a little oomph on your end to get people to come to your opening: live demonstrations of one of your products or family-oriented activities like face painting or balloon animals. The added features should connect to your business or targeted audience in some tactile way. Hiring a food truck when you’re trying to sell books might be popular and eye-catching, but it doesn’t help you attract the book lovers you’re looking for. Schmidt recalled a popcorn shop she worked with handing out free popcorn to everyone. “When we did the ribbon-cutting, we all threw popcorn and we made a cool boomerang [video] of it.” The audience enjoyed it because it “wasn’t just a ribbon-cutting where you cut a ribbon and go: ‘Yay, we’re open,’” she said. There was a festive element to it. “It made everyone think: ‘OK, they’re fun.’ And everyone wants an experience and something entertaining.”

See what your landlord can do to help.

The small business itself isn’t the only party who benefits from successful grand openings. “It’s hard to turn over a tenant in a space year after year,” Schmidt said on behalf of landlords. “You’d rather have longevity, so investing in [small businesses] from the beginning benefits everyone. By helping them launch their business successfully, it will hopefully make them love being where they are.” Stark, with Schmidt at the helm of marketing, helps tenants with everything from promotion support to logistics planning to public relations assistance for grand openings. She walks every new business through a three-page grand opening checklist that helps tenants think through everything from press releases to social media marketing to signage. “We’re aware a lot of small businesses don’t have a PR agency or a marketing manager on their team yet, so I run our marketing department as a mini ad agency to benefit and utilize our knowledge to support our tenants,” she said.

Landlords also can encourage other tenants to support the event by attending or promoting it. The landlord and fellow tenants also might help secure food or alcohol permits, recommend vendors or provide security.

At the grand opening of Bahia Bowls in Stark Enterprises’ Crocker Park in Westlake Ohio are owners Hemil and Liz Patel, at center with their kids, joined by staff and family members who came to celebrate. At top, at Kerwell’s grand opening at the same property, are franchise owner Vanessa Wilhelm and Westlake, Ohio, Mayor Dennis Clough holding scissors; West Shore Chamber of Commerce executive director John Sobolewski holding the plaque; Kerwell founder Kerry Aiyash next to him; and family and friends of Wilhelm.

Make sure potential customers can find you easily.

It doesn’t matter how great your story or product is if no one can find you. Before your grand opening, make sure your small business is easy to search and find online, no matter what device or platform customers use to search. Schmidt advises her clients to make sure their business is updated and displayed properly on:

  • Google My Business
  • Apple Maps
  • Yelp
  • Bing Places for Business
  • Bing Maps

A lot of these sites are connected, information from one funneling into others. “That’s why, for instance, I tell people to have a Yelp page,” Schmidt explained. “Yelp is what connects to a lot of people’s Alexa [Amazon voice assistant]. Yelp is what feeds information when people ask” questions like “Where should I go to get coffee nearby?” or “Where’s the closest pet shop?” The goa is “to make sure you’re visible and your brand is out there,” she said.

Invite local leaders to the grand opening.

“I always invite the mayor to our grand openings, as well as our chamber of commerce,” Schmidt said. Having local leaders there can make your opening feel more credible and be more newsworthy, and local leaders can be the best brand ambassadors for your small business. “Later, they can say [to constituents]: ‘Oh my gosh, I met Emily the other day and she’s just so kind. I think she’s going to bring a vibrance to our community. You should really check out her business.’”

At Urban Air Adventure Park’s grand opening at Stark Enterprises’ Crocker Park in Westlake, Ohio, from left to right are location assistant manager Brittany Boyd; city of Westlake, Ohio economic development manager Michelle Boczek; West Shore Chamber of Commerce executive director John Sobolewski; Stark Enterprises CEO Ezra Stark; Urban Air franchise owner Ted Grambo; Ward 5 City Council Member Amy Havelka; City Council President Dave Greenspan; and Ward 6 City Council Member Mark Getsay.

Market the event widely.

Your grand opening is the chance to create buzz. You want as many people to know about your story and product as possible. When thinking of targeted audiences, use every avenue you have, Schmidt advised. That means reaching out to your network of friends and family, investing in social media advertising and inviting press. Schmidt emails Stark’s listserv advertising the business’ opening, assists in writing press releases and then sends the releases to her media list. This creates a larger net audience. If someone sees your name on a news feed or TV segment, “it makes people feel like you’re more credible,” Schmidt said. “If someone else thought you were cool enough to talk about, it might make [other people] want to check you out, as well.”

Do a walkthrough a few days before the event.

Details matter when introducing yourself. To that end, make sure the dust has been swept off the floor, the light bulbs work, the bathrooms are clean and your merchandise is positioned correctly. Invite others to the walkthrough. “Sometimes, you walk past something 100 times and don’t see something,” Schmidt said, “so having fresh eyes coming in and making sure that things are buttoned up — that’s a nice twist.

Make sure you have enough staff on hand.

As they say, you never have a second chance to make a first impression. “The experience for your guests coming in from the beginning needs to be successful,” Schmidt said. Nothing turns people off more than long lines to purchase things or the inability to find someone to ask a question about a product. You’d rather be overstaffed than understaffed on grand opening day, Schmidt said. “If not, you might lose people before they even sit down.”

Capture customer information.

The goal of a successful grand opening is to sustain the excitement and further communicate your story and products to your audience. People can be so caught up in the details of the event that they forget to capture customers’ contact information for follow-up emails and email blasts. “Make it as easy as possible to get and retain their contact information,” Schmidt said. Many small businesses offer incentives like a raffle or the chance to win discounts to entice people to provide their contact info. A lot of customers like the perks that come from being frequent-fliers. “You might drive through that same coffee place every day because you know when you buy the fifth one, you’ll get the sixth one free, Schmidt said, adding that this creates a bond between the business and the customer.

Don’t think of the grand opening as a one-day event.

It takes a while for customers to adjust their routines and incorporate your business into their daily or regular habit, so maintain marketing efforts after the grand opening. Sometimes, it makes sense to think of grand openings as weeklong celebrations instead of single-day events, Schmidt said. “Everyone can’t go that first day, and sometimes on the second or third day, someone is just seeing you on social media and thinking: ‘Oh crap, I didn’t get to make that. Can I still go?’” Think of grand openings like “sidewalk sales, which isn’t just one day or a couple of hours,” she said. “It’s multiple days to allow more people to learn about it and have the opportunity to come and support.” And keep up the buzz past that initial opening. “You always want to make sure [the customers] know what the next deal you’re going to have is or what the launch of your new line looks like,” Schmidt said.

Success, after all, even for a grand opening, relies on a continuous connection.

Attending the grand opening of The Escape Game at Stark Enterprises’ Crocker Park in Westlake, Ohio, from left to right, are assistant manager in training Konnor Nicholson; Stark Enterprises vice president of marketing Stacie Schmidt; West Shore Chamber of Commerce executive director John Sobolewski; The Escape Game Crocker Park general manager Abby Bittlinger; Mayor Dennis Clough; and employees Gabriel Candelario; and Emily Weisbarth.

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center


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