CLERIC’S NOTE: This was originally a 3-part series I published for Firepedia.com. Firepedia was hacked, and the article was lost, so I’m reposting the whole thing here just for security measures.
In January 2011, Alex Hernandez (stage name: Artista) gave me a call on the phone. Artista is Fire By The Palm’s talent recruiter and community development go-to guy, and he had an idea…
Alex Hernandez, aka "Artista." But his friends call him Scuba Steve
But before we get to that, you need some backstory. You see, I can’t really travel to train. I went broke in the recession and am still struggling, now with two young kids as well, so I’ve never gotten a chance to see global flow legends up close because none of them ever come to Miami. So no Firedrums, no Burning Man, no $3000 Costa Rica or Bali master workshops with modern-day poi godfather Nick Woolsley, I can’t even realistically hope to get to Afterburn or Preheat, and they’re in my home state. I’ve got youtube and tons of DVDs from Circles of light and others, but there’s nothing like training in person.
Alien Jon is one of my all-time hero instructors, I still train with Encyclopoidia volumes #1 and #2, and he’s just freakin’ awesome – a rich trilogy of flow, tech, and self-amusement and I consider myself far short on at least two of those qualities. Between him, Zan Moore, and Nick Woolsley, I was taught via DVD virtually all the moves I knew through the first formative years of honing my flow. Through Nick (Hi Nick!), I was put in touch with Alien Jon. DUDE! Maybe he’s coming to town? Can we train with him? This would be a friggin’ DREAM. We started direct talks – what an awesome guy – and worked out a few details on classes, class prices, couch-crashing, dates, etc. We also drafted up contracts and revenue splits, etc (more on that later). I knew the workshop wouldn’t make a lot of money to the organizer, but I get to meet a hero and train and not leave town, so woot woot, right?
Our unassuming hero
The crown jewel of this workshop was the venue we scored. We hooked up with the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, and it was with that awesomeness, along with the celebrity of AJ, upon which we would build the coolest and most successful flow arts workshop EVAR.
But it was not meant to be in 2010. You see, AJ was going to do this Orlando gig, then he was going to come to Miami from there. BUT, AJ was going to Orlando with Burning Dan – and then Burning Dan died – so the gig evaporated, the workshop evaporated, and to add insult to injury, we had lost one of the biggest and most positive names in the history of flow, so now we’re all grief-struck to boot. I recap the events above with a certain amount of flip, but when we were dealing with it at the time, it was an emotionally crippling period for all involved. Burning Dan was young for a dead guy, and WAY to good a person to be both young and dead, and that always hurts more.
AJ went to do some soul-searching, so I left him be. I broke the news to Artista and the rest of the sponsors, with whom I had gotten verbal interest. I then decided to let workshops go for a while and concentrate on getting more shows.
So now that you’re all caught up, we’re back to the phone with Artista:
Artista: “Yo, man, I wanna bring in this killer instructor, Aileen Lawlor. She teaches contact staff”
Cleric: “Meh… Never heard of her.”
Artista: “Check out her video, I’ve been talking with her, she’s interested if we can get her a workshop set up”
Cleric: “Fine. If she’s in town, and if we’re not busy, I’ll host a workshop.”
Artista: “We need to fly her in”
Cleric: “Good luck with that. Bring her in yourself, Fire by The Palm isn’t flying in anyone yet, the market is too small and this is too experimental. Aileen’s full revenue, even assuming success, would only pay for her weekend’s expenses in Miami, if we have to pay to bring her in, there is no chance she OR Fire By The Palm can make a successful business workshop. So I will do it as an art project, but no plane ticket and no hotel.”
Artista: “No, man, we really NEED to fly her in.”
Cleric: “Then you buy her a plane ticket, I’m out.”
Artista let it go for a while, I knew his pride and determination was either going to find a way or that he was going to buy her a ticket with ill-gotten money. You see, Artista has two strong qualities about him: he’s extremely determined when he sticks to something, and he’s a pure natural at persuading people, so I knew even after the first conversation that if he stuck to this, he was going to make it happen with or without me.
A month later…
Artista: “Aileen is going to use her frequent flyer miles and stay with a friend, so she’ll be here already and for free. Did you watch the video?”
Cleric: “No, I was busy trying to figure out how to pay for food.”
Artista: “DUDE! Come on, bro!”
Cleric: “Sigh…Alright, I’ll watch the video.”
Now, I had a little experience watching contact staff going in… Shane Morris, aka Prodigy OnFire, is the best local contact staffer, self-trained and an original founding member of Fire By The Palm. Having watched him work up some impressive contact staff moves from scratch when we were first training, I had decided long ago from watching him that it was too hard and too much training to bother to do one set of tricks, so I never got into it.
But Artista, as I said, was very persuasive and he got me to watch the video.
I also suspected that he and Aileen conspired to buy a plane ticket with cash and not tell me about it, but even if that is what happened, my conditions were met so I decided not to pry.
Oh, and the video? SIC-K-K-K-K. Aileen is a staff virtuoso and a contact staff pioneer. Even though I didn’t know her at all, I thought a) hosting someone I don’t personally geek out over will help me keep my head on straight and be a better organizer, and b) I seriously wanna learn how to do THAT. Did you see that rolling around on the ground shit? Crazy/sexy/cool/WANT.
So finally, once all the arrangements for Miami travel were complete, I got involved. I called Aileen, introduced myself, and told her Fire By The Palm would be hosting the workshop, and taking care of all the logistics including marketing, promotion, payment, accounting, everything. All she had to do was be here at xyz time, teach, burn with us that night, teach again the next day, and bail.
Artista had already done all the heavy lifting, so all we had left to do was everything else. We worked up two 3-hour classes on 3/5 and 3/6, and we traded the Botanical Gardens a $500 credit with Fire By The Palm for use of the space for both days. I never looked at the prices for renting the gardens straight out, I may have saved some money, but trade is cash-free and cash was the one thing we did NOT have going in to this project.
So now we’ve got the artist, the dates, and the venue. The framework is built, but we have no contract in place yet – and no sponsors – so unless we bring in some partners, this is not going to get the buzz it needs to be successful.
So now on to the contract, aka the booking form for Aileen. Like most negotiations, many of the clauses that went into the contract were already discussed verbally, the only thing we didn’t discuss on the phone was the cost of the workshops and how we’d split it. The split was easy, 75% – 25% Aileen/FBTP after top-line expenses, so that works out. I assumed that the market would generate about $600 on this workshop gross revenue, so we’d walk with $150 before expenses, and Aileen would make about $450. We also set a goal of getting 10-15 students in the door and paid, and a $500 gross revenue goal. We then broke off tickets for would-be sponsors. It started to get a little less agreeable when we got to the cost of the workshop. I had done a few workshops where I was the instructor, and I learned that like me, most flow artists are super-broke. So I said, “let’s charge $25 per workshop and $40 for the pair.”
Aileen balked; she wanted to charge more. I stopped short of telling her she was wrong, after all she does these workshops all the time and she likely knows better than I what people will pay. Also, when you’re working with a global name, producers and organizers try not to forget that a happy celebrity is a productive and effective celebrity, so even if I thought Aileen was off her rocker and dooming us to fail, I wasn’t in a position to force her hand or correct her. So I held my breath and went with it, charging $30 for either workshop or $48 for the pair, saving 20%. And in the end, she was right, I did a lot more research and found out that most other dance workshops cost in my market are at least $30-50 for 2 hours, so even going with Aileen’s higher rates, the workshop was still priced to sell.
Here’s a copy of the final signed contract. Much thanks to Aileen for agreeing to publish this with me, most people would never show such a thing lest people learn our secrets. I say to those people, it’s a workshop, not a nuclear bomb recipe. If someone else uses this in its exact form, changing only the names, then good for them. That’s kind of the point. I want others around town and around the world to be able to do this kind of gathering if the idea calls to them. Maybe I’ll get to just go to someone else’s workshop. Remember, in this particular segment of Fire By The Palm’s business interests, we need training and don’t focus much on the money, and that makes me worry very little about getting “scooped” I don’t really care who “scores” Alien Jon’s arrival, just tell me where he’ll be and that’s good for South Florida and I still get to meet a hero, train with a living legend.
At first, I was going to go after cash sponsors. They bleed money, and if you can speak their language, they’ll bleed all over you. Cash sponsors would give advertising and promotion money, and if done right, can be its own revenue source outright. But cash sponsorships would prove elusive; a first time event with a relatively unknown organizer, organizing an obscure (so far) dance form would not go well, and even with all that, it didn’t put students in the class, which was what we were going for before any of us aimed for profit.
So I decided to take a gamble… a big one, and one that would virtually shut off any hopes of securing a whale sponsor.
I decided to get other fire troupes to co-sponsor. Now they’re just as poor as I am, so none of us are going to shell any money, but it gets all the highest profile flow-arts names on the same page and focuses the entire south Florida professional spinning community – and all their non-professional spinjam friends – to one single project. It would also prove, by the end, to be the fastest way to reach the fringe elements of other cities’ dancers, people I do not usually reach on my own.
So I came up with four names:
- BlazeNaples: Marie Barnett and Christar Damiano, fire arts producers and firedancers from the southwest coast of Florida.
- Pyrofusion: Palm Beach fire tribe and as big a name (if not bigger) as FBTP.
- Groovolution: Pyrofusion’s studio
- Fire-toys.net: A newly forming fire gear supplier that shows great promise in improving the quality of fire props across the board.
Now using these names – assuming they wanted to participate in the first place – was going to be tricky. Pyrofusion has always viewed FBTP with apprehension; we’re business competitors by most traditional definitions, so even though I don’t view it that way doesn’t mean they don’t. Groovolution has never been for or against Fire By The Palm, so I had no idea which way Heather (owner) was going to go. BlazeNaples and Fire-Toys.net are friends and love to train, so I figured they’d be more amenable. One hurdle to overcome at this point was a schedule conflict – Marie had an flow workshop scheduled and rescheduled already, and now it was when we wanted to do ours. So now to bring her in, we needed to move her event. A big ask (it felt audacious even thinking about it), but we told her we would do whatever she wanted in return, and she knows us long enough to know that we meant it, so she said yes. As a result, she moved the date and Artista and I went to promote and support her workshop and meetup in Naples on the rescheduled date. Thanks again, Marie.
I did my best to make this super easy for the sponsors to say yes: help FBTP promote, the sponsorship is a cash-free commitment, every organizing sponsor will get a free ticket to the workshop (one per organization). Fire Toys will work up staves for newbies who want to take the class, BlazeNaples will simply commit to driving to the workshop, presumably with locals from her market who will pay for the class. Groovolution would vend and promote, and Pyrofusion would promote. I also worked up a Facebook ad, so I communicated that there was a lot of buzz and juice behind this one. All the organizing names will be on all sponsorship and promotional materials, including bios.
Also, there would be some fun involvement and some shameless benefit of the self. Fire Toys would wick up my moon staff for exhibition as well as provide practice staves for students in need. Fire Toys balked; they wanted to vend. I had already given vending to Groovolution because I did not anticipate Fire-Toys.net having inventory for sale by the time the workshop started, I figured they’d have a few prototypes to show off, some practice staves, and little else. But they did, and now they couldn’t sell it, so they threatened to pull out. To soothe this, I pointed out that if folks trained up with Fire-Toys staves, they’d be bonded to that staff for life, (which is exactly what wound up happening to me and at least a few other people). Fire Toys relented, but not before backing out of wicking up my moon staff, which I wanted for myself personally and wanted to burn/birth at Dreamfire. And they didn’t even say they wouldn’t wick it up, they just stopped agreeing to pay for the Kevlar, valued now at about $100, but thought at the time to be $200. So the involvement of the moonstaff for this weekend was to die a sacrificial death on the altar of keeping a sponsor from pulling out completely. I could live with it. Truth be told, no sponsors were necessary in the first place, but this was for me to be part of a training exercise, and one rule I knew going in was “do not offend thy sponsor.” Progress, people, isn’t always pretty, and the lesson is that if you’re going to try to slip in a bonus for yourself here and there, sponsors aren’t always the best place to seek delivery of said bonuses, no matter how well-suited for the task they are.
No kevlar for you!
This is the balance of power that occurs when dealing with sponsors. Paid sponsors, when present, are footing the bill for the whole job, and they know it, so they tend to be quite dominant and demanding, with no consideration of what other interests need to be served to make a project successful. These workshop sponsors were coming in for free, which made it a little easier to hold to the original vision, but I still needed to acknowledge the dynamic because paid sponsors will be coming sooner or later and I need to remember how to deal with them. Or, as Zan Moore once said, “Practice the way you perform, perform the way you practice.” Good stuff, Zan – I was practicing my sponsor management and it served all of us to treat it like it was high-stakes.
All said and done, all four sponsors got on board. I worked up the flyer myself, also needing permissions from Flowtoys and Vulcan Crew to put their logos on the flyer. Aileen’s a Flowtoys employee, founding member of VC, and half of a fire duet called “Fire Smoothie,” so I didn’t need their permissions as sponsors, just let me put it up there with the bio so the flyer looks better. Logos are the property of their owners, you can’t go posting up other people’s logos on a commercial project without their permission, so it needed to be done. Aileen secured these permissions, so the flyer was a go.
It was, as flyers go, one of my better projects. Have a look for yourself.
Go for something different.
We also arranged a Dreamfire meetup, an evening of open firedancing on Miami Beach and what I hope is to become the predecessor of a much larger fire workshop/fire camp production, also called Dreamfire. So two workshops, one big fire meetup, and lots and lots of community bonding. It is, with any luck, going to be a hell of a weekend.
And it was. I learned much, trained hard, and students, sponsors, and celebrity were absolutely blown away. The weather was great, the gardens are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and there’s a little architectural art piece on the training lawn made up of staves J.
The secret ingredient is love.
As we had hoped, the sponsors held up their promotional end (as much as I enforced it, which is to say I kinda kept loose on that) and came through with at least half of the paying students between them all. Our reach carried all the way to Orlando, which I did not anticipate, so people even traveled for it. We had 23 paying students over 2 days, and for a first-time project, I was absolutely floored.
Heather Phoi, 1/3 of Pyrofusion and the owner of Groovolution (a double-sponsor individual, and as such, the second most powerful person in the garden after Aileen) said when the workshop wrapped, and I quote:
“This is the best workshop I’ve ever been to in my life.”
My jaw fell to the floor. I asked for that in writing. That is a validation for Fire By The Palm that money can’t buy. Heather is a studio owner and a major badass fire artist – her JOB is to do workshops like this. AND she’s been to Burning Man… AND Firedrums. AND Afterburn. AND Preheat, and many other burning/training festivals that I’ve only ever seen on youtube. If I can satisfy her artist AND her businesswoman, the formula we’ve worked up for these projects might just have legs.
Now this isn’t to say everything went perfectly, it didn’t.
- We got one workshop rescheduled forward three hours on us by the Gardens, and despite efforts to communicate this to everybody, one person slipped through the cracks and didn’t show up until the workshop was over. We refunded his money, apologized profusely, and we were all pissed, mostly at me. The guy came from Vero Beach, a long drive indeed.
- Some sponsor peeps had conflicts, so people I really wanted there couldn’t make it, like Lisa Shehan and Debby Carrigan, two of my local favorite firedancing women. I had a gig pop up in the middle of it all, which distracted from preparing for Dreamfire.
- The Dreamfire meetup was a near rain-out and windy to boot, two things you never want to see at a fire jam. Between the gig and the weather, by the time I caught up with my own fire jam half the peeps had bailed.
- Poor planning on my part almost caused Aileen to miss her plane back, a prospect that seemed to make her extremely uncomfortable. My bad!
- There were also naysayers – outright haters – who talked against the workshop and tried to psych out anyone and everyone involved in its organization. The name was too big to handle, the organizers too small, there are too many unknowns, you’re all doomed, blah blah blah. If you want a business or a project that puts you out front, you had better get used to haters – specifically, ignoring them or only listening to them strategically.
- We budgeted a facebook ad for $50, but it only got 6 clicks. I tried increasing the bid, but to no avail. Only about $6 of the $50 was spent. You may think that’s a cost-savings and one to be happy about, but it’s not. Advertising is critical when reaching out to a wide area, networking alone will not get it done. FB ads can be targeted like a laser beam, any click we got would’ve been from a staff-spinner so we wanted clicks, dammit!
I changed the name of the classes going forward. I learned that what we were going for wasn’t really a workshop, it was more a “master class,” using traditional definitions. So, master class it is. I also have tons of new ideas for the next set of workshops, including:
- Scholarship and intern programs (somebody ELSE pick up the celebrity from the airport please… 5AM? Really?!)
- Hotel group rates for out-of-towners
- A follow-up workshop instructional/inspirational DVD; lots of other good stuff like gear+ticket packages and goody bags;
- Prepay discounts, and much more.
- Taking Dreamfire public, rather than on a dark secluded beach. We need to show the world what we can do.
All told, the workshop generated about $800 or so in revenue, and after expenses, Aileen walked with about $529 and Fire By The Palm got about $150 in cash. So I lost money, but I made sure that where I lost money, I got something else in return. The flyer took three days; I’m a decent designer but I design slowly. Outsourced, that would’ve cost $250 alone. I gave away a $500 fire show, but locked myself in with a killer venue that throws high-end events daily. I threw in for a round of drinks and food on Lincoln Road for a little wrap party ($60 I think?), but I got to listen to uninterrupted feedback my target audience – my tribe – for over an hour. I gave all the glory and marketing value to the sponsors, but in return I got to train with a legend in my own backyard, and the sponsors did all the driving. And I shouldn’t say that FBTP got no brand value, we listed ourselves as an organizing sponsor, even if I did ultimately wind up paying for my own ticket (remember, only one ticket per organization was allocated, and Artista was clearly the force to be rewarded on this one).
Who knows? Maybe this actually could make money in the future. But either way, when all is said and done, South Florida spinners are going to be some of the best-trained dancers in the world, and thanks to many blessings, that includes me.