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Getting flamed over the Blaze

October 22, 2007


This weekend, the family and I checked out the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze.  This is a holiday tradition that takes place during weekends in the month of Halloween at a historic estate north of NYC.  It’s billed as the largest Halloween celebration in Westchester and involves the installation of over 4,000 carved craft and genuine lighted pumpkins at Van Cortlandt Manor.  It’s pretty amazing (ablazing?) thing to witness.  I was so inspired, that I changed the header to one of the photos I took at the blaze. 

We went for the first time last year.  I could not say for sure how many years the Blaze has been going on, but it definitely has been growing by leaps and bounds in popularity.  Last year, we joined Historic Hudson Valley because as members you could visit the Blaze as many times as you wanted, utilizing your free admission benefit.  This year, they made the change to ticketed admissions, and members of our level only got to enjoy the Blaze once.  Since this is an event that sells out almost completely, picking one night to go can be a bit of a gamble, and a big downer in the case of rain, but more on that later.

Historic Hudson Valley is the not-for-profit that operates Van Cortlandt Manor and about 6 other sites.  They’re typical of most other organizations not run by “professional” business people – you have to have a bit of patience in navigating their quirks and trying to get stuff done. I worked for several years at a not-for-profit, as well as spending time in college with museum directors as a history major. They’re brilliant people, but don’t always emote business savvy. However, with the Blaze, HHV has rocketed into Web 2.0 by starting the Blaze Blog and runninga Blaze YouTube contest.  I’ve been most impressed with their blog.  They started it months ago, detailing the preparations that go into planning and executing an installation of this magnitude.  They’ve now evolved into reporting on what’s going on when.

In my view, the most impressive thing that has happened with the Blaze is the dialog between HHV and the Blaze patrons.  For instance, as I alluded to above, your Blaze ticket says “Rain or Shine” right on it.  The Blaze is totally outdoors, so in the case of rain, who the heck would want to tramp through the Manor in the mud?  But that is how you buy your ticket, and they are quite clear about that.  However, on Friday night, the weather was predicted to be so awful that they cancelled the Blaze for that night.  Ticketholders who paid by credit card had their purchases refunded.  Members were able to use their tickets on another night.  As a result of these actions you had several flavors of unhappy patrons.  You had the people who rightfully assumed rain or shine, and showed up only to be turned away at the gates.  There were others who complained on other rainy nights when they did not cancel the Blaze.  Paid ticketholders were upset that their ticket purchases were automatically credited and they were not given the option to rebook – since the Blaze always sells out, it would be hard for them to get back in on another night now. 

Now, what do these people do with their complaints?  They post them on the blog.  They detail long stories about how they traveled 2 hours to see the Blaze, after calling at 3pm to be assured it was still on, who learned of the cancellation at 6pm when they showed up.  And what is HHV doing with these complaints?  They’re answering them, right there in the open on the blog.  They are engaging in a dialog with their patrons, explaining what they did, and why.  Turns out they debated whether the weather was going to be that bad, and took a lot of care in making the decision to pull the plug on the pumpkins.  Is everyone going to be satisfied with their efforts at explanation?  Probably not, but I bet a lot of people appreciate the fact that they took the time to communicate with them and answer their concerns,  instead of hiding behind a computer screen.  For that, HHV deserves a lot of credit, and serves as a model for how an institution that celebrates the past is moving into the future. 

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