published on Jun 15, '16
Brain Download is a new series where we interview event experts. We intend these interviews to range a wide gamut of personalities and event spaces, with an eye towards bringing you awesome, valuable advice from some of the best in the industry. Our first download is with Evan Juda…
Evan Juda, Director of Fun at Penn Social has brought the venue to the forefront of the Washington, DC social scene over the last 18 months. His unique events and creative partnerships have helped build a nightlife anchor in downtown DC. We sat down with Evan to learn a little bit more about his past and what goes in to a great event.
SceneSquid: You’ve orchestrated quite a few events at this point, but let’s start from the beginning – can you tell us about the very first event you organized?
Evan Juda: The earliest I recall was a house party in high school. My parents left, invites went out, great times were had by all. This laid some groundwork for college, which I’d say were my true early days of organizing. A group of friends and I lived off campus, we had the biggest house on the block. This house was iconic. So of course we had tons of parties. In 3 years, we had at least 50 parties – 10 parties per semester, and at least a party every other weekend. We’d book DJs, bands, sometimes we’d charge $5 for a cup.
10 of those 50 would be absolute blowout ragers, the kind where the cops ultimately showed. In those instances we were able to clear the house in minutes. With six or seven entrances, everyone would stream out.
SceneSquid: After college, what was next?
EJ: I actually took a hiatus from events. I helped found a web development company called Squiid.com We eventually built the website for the DC-based Riot Act comedy club, after which I switched over to help Riot Act and found myself back working with events.
SceneSquid: Can you tell me more about the comedy days and how that evolved into Penn Social?
EJ: Riot Act opened in August 2011, and it was strictly boring comedy events. From an organizing standpoint, it’s book, sell and promote. Not a lot of variety. So by June 2012 Riot Act was caput and we reopened as Penn Social. What we do here now is strictly fun. We take the natural cycle of a crowded corner in downtown DC, and leverage holidays, days off, the federal government, and anything thematic in the city or pop culture to hold awesome events. For example, this past February we held our first noondance – a dance party at noon on a workday – as well as a singles soiree on Valentines Day a la Singled Out, where comedians MC’d. So there’s a tremendous amount of variety.
SceneSquid: Can you talk about the evolution of an event?
EJ: It’s really about iterating. We’d done Singled Out here four times in the run-up to the Valentines event. Sometimes it was a great crowd, sometimes not. But we got the logistics down, thought we knew what worked, and finally pitched it to Washingtonian as an anti-valentines day singles party on a Friday. Perfect timing, and the event went down extremely well.
In other cases, we start in-house or form tight partnerships with folks like District Games. In a lot of these instances, it comes down to collaborating and having an eye for picking your partners. You need to recognize what is a good collaboration and why in order to make the business money.
SceneSquid: Where is an event most likely to go wrong?
EJ: Communication. It comes down to communication between the venue and person planning the event. Things can and do go “wrong” all the time. Unless people notice, it’s not really a problem. Sure, you need to make sure you’re ready to handle volume, but everything else can be handled. Now if something goes wrong, like really wrong, that’s generally due to communication.
SceneSquid: What was your biggest ‘oh shit’ moment?
EJ: Presidential Inuguration, 2012. Booking a band and throwing a big party on inauguration day was a big fail for us. We misdiagnosed what would happen here in Washington. What we heard about the first inauguration – constant, raucous celebration and droves of people downtown – did not apply to the second inauguration and resulted in a major learning experience for us.
SceneSquid: What’s the biggest challenge facing your industry right now?
EJ: I think the biggest challenge is making the right decision about which events you do. Once you make the right decision, everything falls in place and things go smoothly. But it feels like I’m always working overtime for the wrong events, and to me that’s a sign I made the wrong decision.
SceneSquid: As event organizers, all too often we don’t get to enjoy ourselves during the event. What are you doing during your events?
EJ: My job is to prepare the event, not be the manager on the floor. The sound crew, the partners, the bar – they’re the people running the show once it actually goes down. So sometimes I’m like Billy Beane, who was notorious for not watching his team’s games live. I put people in place to make the events work. Me being there should not be the guarantee that it happens successfully. If an event doesn’t work when I’m not there, then I don’t think I’m doing my job.
SceneSquid: So how do you measure success?
EJ: There are multiple ways. Money in the pocket is one. For us, it’s really rare that we don’t make our “nut” (costs back), everything on top of what we do is fun. So of course I consider a measure of success to be fun. That’s why, at this point, I’m very particular about what events we do.
SceneSquid: For yourself, what is your favorite event you’ve been a part of?
EJ: Two events. First is the record fair which we did this past January. We were home to the DC Record Fair I loved that my bar could be the spot where music lovers come to trade and have fun on a Sunday afternoon. Personally, I’m a vinyl collector. I’ve probably spent $5k on that nonsense. But I’m proud of my blues, jazz, funk, classic rock collections. So I loved the vibe that day.
The second was the Donut Fest It was wildly fun and worked super well. We featured donuts from all the local artisans and bakers around DC. We judged the donuts, had live music, a donut eating contest, and beer pairings with the donuts.
SceneSquid: Thanks again for joining us and offering up your thoughts. One last question – what would you want to learn about other people in the events space?
EJ: I want to know the normal pitfalls that everyone else encounters.