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Making the most of a good situation

Last week, I promised suggestions to exploit opportunities that Northern Illinois University, DeKalb and Sycamore will benefit from in light of NIU landing the Illinois State High School football championships Thanksgiving weekend in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021.

The IHSA deal is big, but it can be even bigger and better if NIU, DeKalb and Sycamore (code name: “Communiversity”) work together effectively.

This is more than a passing interest. I’ve had several jobs involving event planning/execution, and events are also a big part of public relations, which I sometimes teach at NIU.

Successful events hinge around a body of crucial considerations. Among them are serendipity, mobility, accommodations, signage, safety and marketing/promotion.

I’ll ignore marketing/promotion for now because that will get adequate service.

Serendipity is the “gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for,” according to Webster’s.

By serendipity, I mean that nothing should detract from the games, but Communiversity planners should try to co-mingle the finals with other events, festivals, etc.

The finals are on Thanksgiving weekend, which makes promoting shopping a no-brainer, but we should dig deeper than no-brainers. We should be as out of the box and varied as possible. Hot-air balloon rides? Chili cook-off? Air show? Outdoor bowling? Barbed wire sculpture competition?

We want visitors to say, “Hey, besides the game, ______ is going on. Let’s make a weekend of it.”

Mobility: One big hassle of travel is getting around, finding restaurants, parking, road construction and so on. Visitors would be really impressed if there were trolleys, “shopping shuttles” or whatever. Huskie buses should modify routes and run nearly 24/7, and it’s past time this area had a real taxi service.

Signage: The last time you went somewhere unfamiliar – even with GPS – I bet you experienced the signage phenomenon: not enough signs, they aren’t large enough and they’re badly designed. Few things are guaranteed to generate ill will as quickly as being lost and in a hurry because you can’t find the way. Planners need to assess and create signage so that it’s nearly impossible to get lost anywhere around NIU, DeKalb or Sycamore. When it seems way over the top, that will be just about right to new visitors.

Accommodations: My hope is that, like PumpkinFest in October, the finals will make getting a hotel room around here difficult. But since I arrived in 2000, I’ve lost track of how many articles and discussions I’ve seen about how NIU/DeKalb needs a signature hotel near the university. That new hotel needs to become reality, like, now.

Safety: Absolutely nothing will mess up an event faster than the reality or perception of danger (which, sadly, is one of the biggest obstacles our Communiversity faces). NIU, DeKalb and Sycamore should plan now to have maximum personnel on hand throughout those holiday weekends. State police also will help.

Last, but perhaps most important, the NIU community needs to see the finals as a possible recruitment tool for students, not just student-athletes. The players aren’t the only ones who will form an impression. There are parents, siblings, band members, cheerleaders, friends and so on.

All these things come at a cost, and costs – not just revenue – should be clearly and carefully documented so we know without spin just how big the payout really is in the end.

Still, if done correctly, the direct and indirect benefits could be huge.

Let me know if I can help.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at

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