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Inviting local residents and media into your backyard can help people see your company as a great neighbor providing an indispensable product. By the

NEAL LORENZI

Inviting local residents and media into your backyard can help people see your company as a great neighbor providing an indispensable product. By the same token, botching such an event can severely damage a company's reputation. Clearly, hosting an open house is a gamble. But, there are ways to shift the odds toward success.

Holding an open house or conducting a tour offers benefits for both the producer and the community, according to the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association. The producer profits from having the community gain a clearer understanding ó and, hopefully, a greater appreciation ó of the beneficial uses of aggregates. If the producer chooses to allow the event to benefit a local charity, civic institution or community project, the community can profit ó literally ó from proceeds of the event.

For an aggregate operation, the time and cost involved are minimal when compared to the positive results. Karen Edgar, public relations manager for Tilcon New York, says, ìThe cost of an open house varies from year to year, but the good will that it generates is priceless.î

ìAn open house is a good way to interact with external publics in a nonadversarial environment,î says Thomas Roach, professor, consultant and Rock Products' communication expert. ìYou don't have to indoctrinate people, just meet them. Executives and workers at all levels should be on hand to meet the guests.î

Louis Griesemer, president, Springfield Underground in Springfield, Mo., has held several open houses. Having an open house presupposes that the quarry operator desires positive community relations, he says. The first requirement is that the quarry operator has a good attitude toward the public he or she intends to invite. The operator must accept the public as a legitimate partner to the quarry operations.

Good planning is Griesemer's second requirement. Open houses can be small, limited to a few adjacent neighbors, or they can be opened up to anyone who wants to come. Make sure to host a quality event appropriate to its size, he says. Decide what your objective is and make sure to follow up with an evaluation after the event to measure its effectiveness.

For Jason Conner, environmental director, B.V. Hedrick Gravel and Sand Co., in Swannanoa, N.C., the most important part of holding an open house is employee participation. The first step should be to inform employees and explain why the company wants to hold an open house. Then ask employees to describe what activities or areas of the operation they would like to show to the community.

Next, inform any community groups that quarry personnel meet with on a regular basis. Explain to them that the operation is going to have an open house and would like suggestions from them on what activities and areas they would like to see, he says.

Tilcon's Edgar, another open house veteran, says that organization is a key factor in planning an open house. She agrees with Conner that employee and family volunteer participation also are critical. Getting the word out to let the public know about the event is imperative. Planning should begin about six months prior to the event, she says. Choose a date that does not conflict with any holidays or major community events. Maintain and use up-to-date mailing lists and invitations.

She also says that ordering supplies and planning displays and activities that are geared to the aggregate industry requires some creative thinking. Tilcon tries to make the event fun, and it updates activities for the public every year. The company's main goal is to provide a better understanding of the importance of the industry in today's society.

Griesemer says that no operation is too small to host an open house. By controlling who is invited and what the objectives are, an operation can control its time and money costs. He advises starting small for a first open house. More important than size is the quality of the event. Make sure that all attendees are treated to a high level of hospitality.

Most open houses can be accomplished on a small budget, Conner says. The biggest expense is providing food for the event. However, an operation can charge for the food and donate the money to a local charity.

Tilcon employees volunteer their time; thus, the matching shirts that make volunteers easily recognizable to visitors are the only real cost. Most Tilcon operations personnel help out at the event, too. Last year, 150 volunteers worked as tour guides, traffic controllers, refreshment servers and grill masters, Edgar says. Production during the day of the event should be minimal. Try to display equipment in various quarry locations in active poses, so that visitors can see how the pieces are used during operation.

But despite good planning and good intentions, things will go wrong. Griesemer says to expect some visitors to be adverse to the operations. Take time to listen to their concerns. Respect their point of view. Try to answer their questions and be sure to follow up with them after the event for those questions that cannot be answered, he says. Be honest. Nearly everyone will appreciate your effort, even if they don't like your answers.

It is also wise to expect the local media to show up, invited or otherwise. Decide what key messages the company wants to convey through the media. Make sure an appropriate spokesperson has been selected and that person is prepared to field tough questions.

Conner says the main pitfall is not starting the planning process soon enough. Start planning one year in advance. Four months prior to the event, planners should have commitments from all outside vendors. Make sure to acquire the correct permits. Check with the insurance provider and legal counsel to avoid potential lawsuits. It is also important to have adequate parking and restroom facilities.

Weather can play a big factor in the success of an open house, Edgar says. Bad weather definitely cuts back on the attendance. However, there's an exception to every rule. Tilcon's Clinton Point, N.Y., facility had a huge rainstorm a few years ago on the day of the event; that didn't stop residents from attending.

Keeping the potential for problems in mind, it is important to set reasonable goals for the open house. For Giesemer, that means trying to gauge public reaction immediately, as people are leaving the event. If there is media coverage, determine if the key messages got through in the next couple of days. Within a week or two, comments from people in the community should start coming in, he says.

For immediate feedback, an exit questionnaire can be given to a random sampling of the crowd. To help measure success, ask attendees to sign a guest book and leave their e-mail addresses, Roach says. Then, when an issue arises that involves the neighbors, quarry operators will be able to contact them to solicit their opinions and provide the company's side of the story.

Edgar measures success by the expression on visitors' faces. Visitors should be amazed at the size of the quarry and how well it is maintained. She tries to educate them about the operation and the importance of mining in everyday life. It is also important to show that the quarry operates in an environmentally safe manner.

One problem facing first-time open houses will be getting the word out to the community. Griesemer says his most-effective publicity tactics are direct-mail invitation to immediate neighbors. A public notice has proven less effective.

Conner agrees that personal invitations always work. That way, recipients feel that the aggregate company cared enough to handwrite an invitation, he says. Advertising through traditional media such as radio and television, as well as new media like Facebook and Twitter, also works.

Edgar says she avoids advertising in the local media and instead works with her existing mailing lists and uses word-of-mouth. The company gives promotional flyers to local schools and posts information on its Web site. It also post signs throughout its facilities advertising the event; this makes customers aware of the plans.

A well-planned, well-executed open house will be a success. And sometimes, that success is profound.

Griesemer's first open house drew 200 visitors, a respectable showing. Now, however, he partners with a local church that hosts a Fourth of July event. Last year it drew 100,000 attendees. He could not host something of this magnitude with only his company's 14 mining employees.

Every year, Edgar invites the mayor and city council to Tilcon's open house. Two years ago, the mayor of Rockaway Township issued an official proclamation naming June 7 ìTilcon Dayî in the township. This led to lots of recognition afterwards from local newspapers and industry trade magazines, she says.

Most importantly, the open house will open lines of communication between the public and the mining company. An open house is a great way to establish a relationship between the township and your aggregate operation, Edgar says. It allows the company to communicate the importance of the industry and the contributions that it makes to the community. It puts a face on your company and provides a forum to educate the public, she says.

Griesemer agrees. The community needs to know about our operations and employees, so they feel comfortable coming to us with their concerns, he says. By visiting the property, hopefully, they will see that the company is just another component in a successful, working community.

An open house is your opportunity to show the community that you care, Conner says. Most people have a negative perception of the mining industry. By conducting an effective open house, you can show them that you are a positive force in the community. Many attendees will have a predetermined mindset before entering the site; it is your job to change that perception.

Neal Lorenzi is a frequent contributor to Rock Products.

Steps to Success

The National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association suggests completing these steps six months before an open house.

  • Set a date. After selecting a date that works internally, notify community officials and check for conflicts with other planned activities. Then, notify employees.
  • Set goals. Determine what you hope to accomplish. While most open houses are about building community relations, consider additional goals, such as meeting community leaders, educating the public about aggregates or encouraging the development of a community advisory council.
  • Set a budget. Estimate the number of attendees, events, food and beverages, and promotional materials. Use this to draft a budget. If holding a fundraiser, set admission fees for adults, seniors and children that will enable the event to make a profit.
  • Determine the format. School tours, fundraisers, concerts and potluck events are a few options. Choose a format that suits the goals, abilities and budget. Depending on the size of the operation and the size of the community, it may pay to consult with a professional events planner.
  • Select a beneficiary. Fundraisers accomplish a one-two punch by bringing people into the operation and by demonstrating how the company benefits the community. When selecting a beneficiary, such as a school or charitable organization, consider its significance to the community.
  • Review the site plan. Determine which area of the operation offers the best location for an open house. Consider traffic, safety, parking and terrain when selecting the site. If on-site parking is a problem, designate a parking area and bus people to the event.
  • Analyze equipment needs. Large equipment is one of the biggest attractions at an aggregate mine open house. Provide visitors with an opportunity to see the equipment, preferably in action.
  • Procure supplies. Work with local vendors to obtain things like tents, chairs, portable restrooms and booths. In case of inclement weather, consider what supplies and logistics may be needed to relocate activities indoors. Also, provide relief from sun and heat.
  • Ensure compliance. Review the permit conditions and how they relate to the event. Find out which local ordinances must be complied with and which special permits must be acquired. Talk to insurance agents about special coverage that may be necessary. Consult with the local police about traffic issues and the fire department about providing emergency services.
  • Prepare food and beverage services. The scope of the open house will influence the amount of food and beverages provided. For a small event, consider using a caterer. For a large event, a secondary sponsor or beneficiary may be an option.
  • Plan activities. Regardless of the type of event, plan appropriate activities for the target audience. Be creative in selecting and developing activities to suit the event. Examples include fossil hunt, panning for gold and rock climbing.
  • Hand out souvenirs. Consider tot-sized trucks, toys, t-shirts and coloring books. Rock and mineral books, kits and mineral samples are other options. If the event is a fundraiser, consider selling some items, with the proceeds going to the designated charity.
  • Spruce up. The event planner and plant manager should discuss housekeeping issues well in advance. For summer events, consider a spring planting. A few flowers around the entrance will make a favorable impression on visitors.