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BY PAUL QUENEAU
Chatting over beers has likely generated more business in the outdoor media profession than any other activity, indoors or out. OWAA recognized this from its inception and has always served up a cocktail of mingling opportunities at its
As simple as that might be, these chances to hobnob remain a top reason many members return to conference year after year, stay involved in between and send in their annual dues.
So why leave face-to-face networking as a once-a-year event? We outdoor communicators often live in outdoorsy places that attract other media professionals doing similar work, although our paths might not often cross. Why not invite those folks to sit down and have a beer?
With that in mind, two years ago we launched a gathering we call Off the Record, in Missoula, Montana. I’ve seen those that attend make new contacts that lead to selling articles and photos. While these aren’t recruitment events, its elevated awareness of OWAA in the town where headquarters is based and I’ve seen many of those who attend the monthly gatherings join OWAA.
Off the Record is now spreading to another of Montana’s outdoor epicenters — Bozeman — thanks to the efforts of Tom Sadler and a dedicated new OWAA member named Jesse Bussard.
And it wouldn’t be hard to launch a similar event in your community.
Staging an Off the Record is simple.
First, gather the emails of everyone you can think of working in outdoor media in your area. Pick the most gregarious and well-connected contacts and email them about what you’re planning and for additional names of people to invite. Ask anyone who is particularly enthusiastic to help brainstorm and plan the event. It will get them more invested in its success and the more people that take pride in a good event, the better.
Next consult the mastheads of outdoor publications produced in your area and local newspapers, TV and radio stations. Think about local authors, professional photographers and agency and nonprofit communications people.
When you are ready to send out an email invite, consult the example we’ve provided with this story. You can fly the invite under the flag of OWAA while keeping it clear that it is simply a chance to hobnob and share war stories, not a formal recruitment event.
It can be tough to find emails for everyone, but consult their websites or ask friends who might have contact info. We are lucky to have a university with a journalism program in town. We invited Nadia White, an outdoor writer who is also a professor in the University of Montana’s School of Journalism. She’s used Off the Record as a good excuse for her grad students to sit down together and have a beer. That inspired them to launch an OWAA student chapter at UM.
Decide your desired frequency for the event, whether you’d like to aim for it to be a quarterly or monthly gathering, or simply a one-time event. OWAA staff will happily provide an email list of the members in your area to include in your invite.
Now consider the ideal location. It helps to choose a watering hole that sells beer by the pitcher, one that is somewhat quiet to allow for conversations, and where you can be sure you’ll have room to pull together some tables to accommodate your crowd. If you are concerned attendees might not know who to look for when they arrive, OWAA headquarters can email you a PDF file for a tri-fold you can print out on cardstock with “Off the Record” easily identifiable in large print.
Talk to the bar owner beforehand to let them know of your plans and to see how they might best accommodate your group. Our attendance has varied from only a few people to more than 40. If they try to rent you a separate space, make it clear it’s a free event and it will get them good business from the best-known and most respected outdoor storytellers in your area. Don’t be afraid to drop some names of local personalities you think will attend. It won’t hurt your cause if they feel it’s a high profile group with names they recognize.
In Missoula we’ve found our best turnout typically comes on nights with a presenter. Think about having a designated speaker to kick the night off with a 15-30 minute talk or slideshow on a professional subject. Once again, it helps if that
person is at least locally well-known and respected, with a good story or pertinent subject to tell about. It also provides a can’t-miss hook so people won’t put off coming out until the next gathering. Just remember the venue must be quiet enough for the audience to hear and keep it short with plenty of time for casual conversations. Hobnobbing is cornerstone of these events and your audience may begin to scatter if it stays too serious for too long.
Be prepared to buy the first couple of pitchers and if you are willing, say it is compliments of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. If the Excellence in Craft contests, John Madson Fellowship or Bodie Mcdowell Scholarship deadlines are approaching, these can be great to mention to get people interested in OWAA, as can the national conference. But be absolutely sure not to make it a hard-sell situation — this isn’t a formal recruitment event but merely
a reason to get together and at the same time raise awareness about the existence of OWAA. People will avoid the gathering if they feel pressured by it.
The most important thing is to keep it low-stress, informal and fun.
That’s the nuts and bolts of it. Take a few images of the gathering to send into OWAA headquarters to be shared on Facebook.
It’s impossible to know all good that can come of an informal get-together until you try. You might leave with a new assignment, story idea, or the name of a potential OWAA member. ♦
Sample Off the Record email invite
You are invited to Off the Record, a one-of-a-kind gathering of [TOWN-NAME]’s finest outdoor writers, photographers and other media-creators on [DATE AND TIME], at [LOCATION AND ADDRESS].
The Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA), a national organization based in Missoula, will buy the first few pitchers.
So come down, drink some beer, enjoy the good company and chat about our evolving field of outdoor storytelling. And please spread the word to anyone else you think would be interested in attending.[/box]
— For the past 11 years, Paul Queneau has worked as an editor for Bugle magazine at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula, Montana. He is also a freelance writer and photographer with credits in Outdoor Life, Montana Quarterly and others.