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Mullins: If you let them play along, they will come

Give people a chance to play along, and they might just show up in droves.

That's the lesson I'm learning after talking with organizers of several break-out events that managed to draw big crowds around town. And isn't that the perpetual challenge for everyone from the marketing VP for Delta to the outreach committee of the struggling corner church?

Turns out, there's real magic to be had in tapping into people's growing craving to participate, and there's opportunity in offering a life raft to parents desperate to pull their kids away from the TV and video games.

Here are two recent events that struck me as brilliant.

♦ The Tampa Bay History Center is a beautiful building, and it's a shame more people haven't visited there yet. Recently, the museum struck upon the idea of tapping into the powerhouse appeal of American Girl dolls. (If you don't know A.G., it's a wildly popular brand with dolls that “live” in a specific historical decade, as told through books, clothes, movies and everything else.) So, the museum built weeklong summer camps where girls could bring their dolls to the museum and actors would play characters from that era — the 1900s immigrant days, the 1930s depression struggles and so on. Museum staff showed what daily life was like for girls in Tampa back then, and to cap it off they rode the streetcar through Ybor, with the dolls, and talked about life in Ybor back then. The camps quickly sold out, and the museum will likely add more camps along those lines. That's a grand slam: Getting girls engaged with history in a way that connects with them personally, all while raising the profile of a local museum.

♦ The Tampa Theatre each summer has a classic movie series. But instead of just selling tickets for people to sit and watch flicks, theater managers turn each movie into a participatory event. For a recent “Mary Poppins” showing, the theater invited people to come dressed as their favorite character in the movie, then let them walk in a parade across the stage and sing along with the movie. The theater sold more than 1,000 tickets and had to delay the start time because so many people wanted in. Not bad for a downtown movie palace in the summer.

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As I started searching for more examples of “playing along,” the success stories around Florida all seemed to have that dimension in one way or another. Legoland has a new World of Chima water ride that's hugely popular. Besides just splashing along, riders can squirt people waiting in line for the ride, and people in line can squirt back. It's hilarious. Total strangers blast away at each other and laugh like crazy. That's engagement.

More malls and stores are having special events, and the standard feature now is a red carpet with a backdrop so people can take their own red-carpet photos to post all over social media. Some of the longest lines at the Florida State Fair are for people who want to milk a cow.

Donating to veteran care groups is a worthy cause, but how about going shooting with a Navy SEAL? That's the opportunity people get at “Shooting with S.O.F.” (Special Operations Forces). The event has grown each year and supports more than a dozen military-related charities.

At the end of a recent Tampa Yankees minor league baseball game, the field managers let kids come down to the infield and, one by one run, around the bases. It was a near stampede. I think every single parent in the stadium had kids out there and was taking video of them running for home base. Not to downplay the baseball game, but that might have been the highlight of the day.

More than a few organizers of these events say their real competition isn't movie theaters or amusement parks or whatever. It's this: Xbox and every other video game console or tablet that becomes the default activity sucking down hour upon hour of couch time.

There's no one-size-fits-all magic formula for success in creating such an event. Rather, the key seems to be thinking very seriously about your core mission, then finding a few pure passions that people have within themselves, and then creating an experience to connect the two. Go beyond just opening the doors and expecting people to buy tickets just to stare at what you have to offer.

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So, while I'm not a marketing VP, I've talked with a few experts about hypothetical suggestions for real “play-along” events. Here are a few:

♦ “Minecraft Day in the Park”: Take the video game that's hugely popular among the grade-school set and build a real, physical experience counterpart. Hello Mosaic, maybe this is your chance for a big, feel-good brand event. Bring in bulldozers for kids to be photographed on. You're a mining company, after all. (See what I did there?)

♦ “How to Look Good in Holiday Photos”: Most people dread those awkward family group photos where we all look uncomfortable or out of shape, particularly because those photos end up posted all over the Internet. An aspiring mall manager or photographer or stylist could set up an event to show people the best look and posture for photos. There's a key to this, and it works.

♦ “Game of Thrones Throne Day”: Yes, the medieval drama is basically a TV version of Renaissance festivals, which are real-life versions of fantasy books. (Kind of a cultural feedback loop there.) But let's go with it. The book series is hugely popular. Maybe local libraries could commission thrones for library patrons to sit and be photographed on. Even Queen Elizabeth recently visited the “Game of Thrones” TV set, and I'm told, sadly, that no, she didn't sit on the Iron Throne. Missed a cool selfie op there, Your Majesty.

♦ “College Preview Weekend”: Want your grade-schooler to think seriously about college? How about a two- or three-day weekend where kids live in dorms overnight, (supervised, of course) take real classes for a few hours and even practice a sport on the college fields with the real teams.

♦ “Orange is the New Black Day in Orient Road Jail”: OK, maybe that isn't such a good idea.

♦ “True Blood Donation Day”: Everyone knows donating blood is good karma. Fewer people get around to doing it. So, play on the HBO hit vampire show and make a combination haunted house/blood donation event around Halloween.

Hey, I'm just throwing ideas out there people, because there are more than a few sleepy institutions and worthwhile causes out there that could use an injection of energy and engagement. Perhaps the answer is more than “give them something to watch.” Perhaps it's “let people play along.”


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