Many of us in the U.S. spend all year looking forward to attending Longpoint, Iron Gate Exhibition, SoCal, WMAW, or even Swordfish. These larger events are, especially relative to the size of HEMA, spectacles that dominate the consciousness of event-goers. They're big, and professional, and educational, and everyone is hitting everyone else in the face but they love each other anyway. But, and here's the rub, a lot of us only get to go to one or two of these a year. What if I told you that you can experience almost the same enjoyment with 30 people as you can with 150? Surprise!
Running a small event can seem like a lot more work than it really is the first year. How do you find space? How do you know who will attend? What should you focus on? Do people think I'm cool enough to come hang out with me? These all crossed our minds in 2010 when we started the Mid-Atlantic HEMA Gathering for the Baltimore region. I'm sure similar questions crossed Mike Edelson's mind when he set up Fechtschule New York, or Keith Cotter-Reily's mind when he set up SERFO. Both events were loved the very first year by the people who attended. Midwinterfecht last December, hosted by Ben Strickling and TSG, was a perfect weekend HEMA vacation.
There are only two reasons a HEMA group might not want to try to run a small event in the US. Allow me to enumerate them:
- There is straight up no one else for hundreds of miles around.
- There are so many groups in your region that you're already helping other clubs run four other events throughout the year.
That's it. If you don't fall into one of those two categories, and most of you don't, you should look into running an event. Small events serve to expose your newer training partners to the wider HEMA world. They serve to bring experience straight to you, instead of relying on a couple people to attend a far off event. They provide a platform for a laid back exchange of ideas, training methodologies, and club cultures. They can even provide new blood for all of the local groups. As someone who runs both Longpoint and Shortpoint, events on total opposite ends of the spectrum, it is 100% worth it.
So how do you start down this path?
Develop a concept. Are many of the groups likely to attend competitive? Then try some quirky rule sets in an informal competition. Are the groups likely to attend a healthy mix of ideologies? Invite different group leaders and key people to teach classes. Do you all just want to hang out with other sword people? Don't provide a structure; provide a location and let things develop organically.
Contact regional groups. A simple heads up to any group you would like to attend your event within a 3-5 hour drive will give you an idea of who is likely to come and if they're already planning something you want to avoid overlapping.
Find a location. I've been to events in hotels, sports halls, community centers, camp grounds, farms, and back yards. Whichever works for you is okay. In 2010, the location for the Mid-Atlantic HEMA Gathering was a small indoor gym costing us about $500 to use for a single day. If we had charged $25, we would have only needed 20 people to attend to cover it. Small events are extremely low-risk, financially, for regions that are even only mildly populated by HEMA groups.
Set a date. Do not be concerned with a majority of the large events. If you are setting up a small, low-commitment event in Washington state, scheduling it two weeks before Longpoint, the whole way across the country, will not notably affect attendance. Only a small number of people who would consider attending your event will be going to Longpoint, and half of them would be perfectly fine driving a few hours to a small, inexpensive event and then traveling to a large event a couple weeks later.
Create a Facebook event. You don't need a fancy website. Most group leaders are connected to each other by an intricate HEMA Facebook web. People will hear about it if you simply invite everyone in your region to attend.
Create a schedule, if applicable. At this point, you know where and when the event is going to be. This is where you create your schedule. Do not be overly ambitious here. Slush time, especially because smaller events are mostly about socializing, is highly preferable to dense scheduling that causes timing issues. Give plenty of time for competitions, classes, sparring, lunch & dinners, and drinking mead as applicable.
Offer an Intro class. Providing, advertising, and charging for an Introduction to Longsword class, for example, can both provide much of the income you need to pay for your event and bolster your local groups with new people. Depending on your region, you can pretty easily get away with charging $30-$50 for a 3-4 hour Intro to Longsword seminar and get 10-20 people to sign up.
Help people attend. Some people who want to come may not be able to afford the trip without crash space or other accommodations. Try to meet these without putting yourself out. Find out who in your area is willing to put someone up in a bed or on a couch. Is there anyone a little further away that you definitely want to meet? Invite them for free, as long as your expenses are covered. This isn't a business endeavor. It's a a gathering that benefits you as much as it benefits the people attending.
Help yourself attend. Don't do this by yourself. Rely on other members of your group or other groups in your area to help you run any day-of activities. Roll with any problems and make changes on the fly. If a scheduled class gets missed at a 30 person event because of a scheduling mistake, whatever. Don't worry about it. No one else is. Chances are that person can gather up interested attendees in the evening to run an impromptu session.
Plan something Saturday night. I'm adamant about this. The Saturday night activity is the absolute best part of any small event. Sitting at a bar or sitting around a fire pit are both accessible, cheap, and easy to look forward to.
That's it. If you give yourself 3-5 months to set something like this up, it is almost an unnoticeable amount of work in exchange for a weekend of fun. It took the Longpoint team all of ten hours of work to plan Shortpoint last February with over 50 people attending simply because the scope of the event was low-key and purposefully laid back. Don't worry about where your event goes in the future. Some of you might even want to set an upper limit to how large it can ever get simply because you enjoy the benefits that a small event brings.
Realistically, this applies to the East and West coast more than it does to the lonely souls in the middle of the country. Events like this, considering the Intro class, can help to create new groups when someone attends who is more isolated. Eventually, events like this spread HEMA organically across and outside of your region. So please, host a small event. Contact us if you need any advice. I'm looking forward to taking more weekend HEMA vacations.