For 25 years, the Napa Valley Vintners Association (NVVA) has been raising millions of dollars for local nonprofit groups through its annual auction. But the event was facing an identity crisis despite its success.
Several other wine auctions had cropped up in California over the years, stealing a bit of the NVVA's spotlight. Plus, the three-day event was attracting more and more attendees who cared more about the opening party and hobnobbing with local vintners and chefs than the auction, leading some to believe that the philanthropic goal was becoming an afterthought.
"We just felt like we needed to reinvigorate our event," says Tori Wilder, director of communications for the NVVA.
NVVA teamed up with marketing and communications firm Lane to restore luster to the NVVA's auction, with a particular focus on philanthropy and the craft of winemaking.
After interviewing past bidders, NVVA and Lane recognized that many who came for the auction were bothered that more people seemed interested in the party than in the event's philanthropic goals. In 2004, the event attracted about 1,100 people, but less than a quarter of them attended the auction.
So NVVA decided to split the function into two events - a Friday night party for the community at large, at a lower cost than the previous year's ticket, and a much more upscale, intimate weekend for those interested in the auction. While ticket prices for the latter would be much higher and attract a smaller crowd, NVVA was banking on the more intimate event attracting a more philanthropic-minded audience willing to raise money for charity.
But the NVVA knew splitting the event in two could make it look more exclusive, particularly the more expensive, auction-oriented event.
"We had to make sure people didn't get the impression that we were alienating or turning our back on the rest of the community," says Wilder. "At the same time, we wanted to let those who were participating in the auction know that we heard their concerns and were doing something about them."
"We tried to get the local papers focused on where the money goes," says Wilder. "We needed them to [realize] that the black ties and limousines generate revenue to keep foster homes and health clinics funded."
Outside the community press, the effort focused on food and lifestyle media, with a particular focus on philanthropy, to return Auction Napa Valley to its rightful place as one of the leading wine auctions, explains Kristen Siefkin, a director with Lane.
NVVA and Lane also recruited past auction chairmen and top bidders to help with community outreach and to explain that the community at large was not being cut out of the event, but that it was being split to serve two distinct audiences.
"We knew people were going to be upset," concedes Wilder. "So we did a lot of local community outreach to get the word out that the focus on the event needed to be about the auction, not just a big party."
Broadcast media were invited to the Friday opening event to show that it was truly a community gathering.
This year, the auction raised $10.5 million, even though the NVVA sold 200 tickets - with each ticket good for two people - at $7,500.
By contrast, in 2004, the NVVA sold 550 tickets - also good for two people - at $2,500 a ticket. All the tickets were sold, and the auction raised $5.25 million for local charities.
Even though the NVVA sold fewer tickets at a higher price, it saw this as a success because it was a more intimate experience that catered to serious bidders, who helped raise twice as much money as last year.
As for the Friday night event, 1,000 people bought tickets, and 90% of attendees came from Napa County.
The NVVA will look to build upon the success of this year, continuing to reach out to all local and regional stakeholders, and to create events that meet their needs, while helping raise more money for local charities.
PR team: Napa Valley Vintners Association (St. Helena, CA) and Lane (Seattle)
Campaign: Auction Napa Valley 25th anniversary
Time frame: February to June 2005