CiRCA, meet Twitter. Twitter, meet CiRCA. Photo by Karim Kanji.
Erin Bury and Sarah Prevette have had a very long month. The two women were the chief organizers behind the Toronto version of Twestival benefiting charity: water, which builds wells in impoverished nations. The event, held last Thursday at CiRCA, included live video streaming of Twestival parties from around the world; a community fair that showcased organizations that were, according to Prevette, “harnessing social media for social good”; and three rooms for dancing, networking, and photograph-taking.
Only a few weeks ago, however, the event appeared in trouble. Twestival TO faced tentative interest, slow ticket sales, and criticism over its lacklustre communication. Although Toronto was only one of two hundred cities participating in Twestival, with its large population and tech town rep there was pressure to deliver. Here’s the story of how Bury, Prevette, and the rest of the Twestival TO team bounced back from an initially mild reception to raise over ten thousand dollars in donations.
Twestival was the brainchild of a Canadian living in London named Amanda Rose. After organizing a Twitter party for charity: water, it occurred to Rose and others that similar parties could happen across the world. A month ago, Rose put out a call on Twitter for interested parties. Bury and Prevette, both of online startup Redwire, decided to spearhead the Toronto version. Redwire already had experience from hosting a monthly mixer for start-ups called “Wired Wednesday” in Yorkville, and Twestival’s “idea of social media bringing together the local community to collaborate globally” was similar to what Redwire was doing for entrepreneurs, says Bury.
The timing couldn’t have seemed better: Twitter use was gaining momentum in the Toronto tech community and popular events like HoHoTO, ChangeCamp, and CupcakeCamp demonstrated that the micro-blogging site could get the word out.
Organizers Prevette (top) and Bury (bottom). Photos by Rannie Turingan.
Things started promisingly for the event. A week in on the gig, Bury and Prevette had found a venue that could hold their targeted six hundred attendees for Twestival TO: CiRCA. (They had also considered Courthouse and Ultra Supper Club.) Prevette says the club was chosen for being “socially innovative, interactive, and forward-thinking.” Tickets went on sale a few days later at a reasonable early bird price of fifteen dollars.
But the tickets sold slowly. Twestival TO faced a problem: it wasn’t breaking out the way previous events had. Maybe the third-world cause was too distant from Toronto; perhaps the cavernous venue was too impersonal. Either way, as late as two weeks before the event, few were discussing the event online but its organizers. Even after web giant Mashable lent its support to the global Twestival effort, the Toronto version was failing to gain traction.
The main complaint seemed to be a lack of communication from the organizers. Participants had no clue what was happening at Twestival; instead, pushing ticket sales and sponsors had been prioritized. The charitable cause had seemingly become a hook for the marketing: Microsoft was offering a free netbook, but apparently only if you were a “local web designer, web developer, or agency” and Banana Mobile, a discount service accessed through mobile phones, was offering a chance to win free tickets if participants texted the company, an apparent attempt to boost its bank of phone numbers.
Prevette, for her part, understands the criticism and chalks it up to poorly managed expectations. “With such an engaged and event-experienced community here in Toronto, expectations were high right from the get go,” she says. “We unfortunately had some trouble initially pulling together details and I think the lack of information flow was seen as poor transparency. We [were] certainly learning a lot on the fly.”
Twestival TO attendees get hands-on. Photo by Rannie Turingan.
In response to the criticism, details began to pour out of the Twestival TO camp the week of the event. Ticket sale numbers were given: two hundred tickets had been sold and there were hopes of selling two hundred more. Fundraising was discussed: $6,500 had been raised through sales and sponsorship, with Bury and Prevette hoping to reach $10,000. Entertainment was announced: DJs, photographers, and the Raptors cheerleaders would all be at CiRCA.
The increased flow of information quickly turned sentiment positive, and momentum for the event began to pick up. While Twestival was in essence a Twitter party, Bury and Prevette also spoke to local media to increase awareness for the event. The focus went back to the importance of the cause, and some of the original critics even joined up as volunteers for the event, adding ideas like the community fair.
In total, Twestival TO saw over 450 attendees and ended up raising over $10,000 for charity: water. (Worldwide, Twestivals raised over $250,000.) The success is “again proving how incredible Toronto’s online community really is,” says Prevette. With Twestival TO over, Prevette can return to real-life, which includes debuting a new version of Redwire. “The past few weeks have led to a declaration of email bankruptcy and a backlog of priorities, but it was definitely all worth it.”
In the end, Prevette notes that everything was done in service of the cause: delivering clean water to impoverished countries. Torontonians have immediate access to clean, safe water, she says, a luxury compared to the over one billion people who do not. She hopes that Twestival will “raise awareness about water crises around the world and make people think about their own relationship with water here at home.”