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An Interview With Sarah Knapp of OutdoorFest

By Posted in - Interviews on July 5th, 2014 Sarah Knapp watching Barbara Hillary

An Interview With Sarah Knapp of OutdoorFest

Sarah Knapp (photo: third from right), the creative energy behind New York City’s OutdoorFest, is quickly establishing her bonafides as an expert on building participatory outdoor communities in urban contexts—a status well suited to her personality, disposition, and experience. Combining her passion for the outdoors with her innate business sense, Sarah deftly organized a complex, 10-day, festival in the country’s largest metropolis, without a snag. Our recent conversation touched on the future of OutdoorFest, her work ethic, and the importance of following your intuition, even when it feels like you’re working without a net.

Avi David Edelson, Traverse

Photo Courtesy: Sarah Knapp

Avi David Edelson: What is OutdoorFest?

Sarah Knapp: OutdoorFest is an initiative that’s helping to create a community of outdoor enthusiasts in New York City. We’re doing this in a couple of ways. For one, we produce a weekly e-newsletter that highlights what’s going on in the outdoor community around the city. It keeps people connected with the outdoors, day-to-day, week-to-week. We also run a monthly event called Mappy Hour, which provides an in-person experience for people to connect, look at maps, talk about adventure and meet others who also enjoy getting out and exploring. And our big product is the festival itself—OutdoorFest, a 10-day event that brings people together from across the city to experience the outdoors and nature. OutdoorFest ran from May 30 through June 8 in locations throughout New York City. Over those 10 days we promoted more than 80 events that connected people through real experiences, education, and opportunities to give back.

Avi: So, how did the inaugural launch of OutdoorFest go?

Sarah: It went really well. We connected over 7,600 participants to more than 30 partners during those 10 days. We also had hundreds of people tag photos on Instagram and interact with us on Facebook and Twitter. It was a very ‘social’ event, which was really important for me. We’re in New York City, a location with an outdoor community that really enjoys using social media. I’ve found that you need to connect with people in a way that they connect. Sometimes that means online. Through social we reached people from the larger community and got them excited about the outdoors.

Throughout the festival I heard again and again from participants that they had no idea that this place, or that place, existed. While this is just anecdotal evidence, it’s evidence nonetheless that there is a need in New York City to provide opportunities for people to get out. I think OutdoorFest helps to create some of those opportunities. Bringing people together from across the area—who might not otherwise get the chance to meet or work together—creates a stronger and more engaged community.

Avi: How do you define success in the context of OutdoorFest?

Sarah: One measure of success is knowing whether the people who participated enjoyed their involvement. This is something that you can measure through social media as well as through feedback forms and email responses. Those are all good ways to get feedback on the direct after-festival effect and our success. But as the summer goes on, I’ll be looking at something else. Success will be apparent when the people we’ve reached continue to be involved with the places and events they’ve experienced. Will they continue to kayak? Will they try surfing again? Will they go hiking with the people they’ve met? Will they continue to come to Mappy Hour? And, will they get their friends involved with what they’ve discovered? That’s how I’ll determine success moving forward.

Avi: What was the most challenging aspect of planning and implementing OutdoorFest?

Sarah: I think the most challenging part was at the beginning, when it was just me telling potential sponsors what it was going to be. In November and December, when we had just started, it was difficult to say to potential underwriters that x, y and z were going to happen. But if there’s nothing concrete to show them, it’s hard to build those organizational partnerships. But once the spring hit, and we had a schedule and some hosts involved, it got much easier. Building the database through our newsletter helped quite a bit too. As we created our contact list and put together some good partnerships, we were then able to go back to those targeted sponsors and show them that OutdoorFest was real.

Avi: Would you have done anything differently?

Sarah: I think I would have. Originally, I put a lot of effort into building those sponsorship relationships, rather than building the community. I figured that I needed to get the bigger organizations involved well in advance of the festival. But since I didn’t have much data to show them, a lot of the initial pitches were ignored or flatly denied. So, I decided to refocus. I started working on the schedule and on putting together a really strong base of local partners. And once I had that, going back to sponsors and saying, hey ‘this is who’s involved, and here’s what it’s going to look like,’ became much easier. I think I could have skipped over that first sponsorship push and gone straight into building the community. That would have sped the process up a little bit.

Avi: Will there be an OutdoorFest II?

Sarah: OutdoorFest will happen again next summer. It’s just a matter of seeing what kind of support we’re going to get and how big we can make it.

Avi: Much energy went into launching OutdoorFest. From the outside it looked like a herculean effort to get it going. When did you know it was over?

Sarah: I’m not done yet [laughs]. I’m still working on wrapping things up.

Avi: Do you think you’ll take a break, or are you going to transition right into next year’s festival?

Sarah: As we speak, I’m finishing things up on the first one and starting to make plans for the second one… But there were a couple of days just after the festival when I got to take a step back.

Avi: How did it feel having those days off?

Sarah: They were stressful. I knew how much I needed to do, but I wasn’t doing any of it [a little nervous laugh]. Yeah, my best form of personal relaxation is to be proactive. I like figuring out what I need to do, and then putting aside the time to do it. It’s just a little management tool that I’ve developed. Taking a whole week off after a festival is not something I’d want.

Avi: So, the most painful thing you’ve ever done—OutdoorFest?

Sarah: No. It wasn’t painful at all [pause]. Do you mean physically, emotionally, psychologically? [longer pause]. Well… [pause] Maybe it was OutdoorFest [we both laugh]. I don’t have a great short-term memory so it’s hard to remember what happened before, well—last month. But, if you want to hear about the hardest part of OutdoorFest, it was probably the day before it started. Everything was ready but I had this feeling of impending doom, that nothing was going to work. It’s a feeling that’s hard to shake when something big is about to happen. When you start something like this, there is this moment when you feel like you’re jumping off a cliff. That’s how I felt during the final 24-hours before the first event—and it was a big one, too. Bringing 50 people out to camp is complicated and kind of a big deal. Yeah, those 24-hours were probably the toughest.

Avi: That sounds pretty tough. I’m anxious just thinking about it.

Sarah: But we did it and it went exceedingly well. OutdoorFest works because it provides a forum for the community to do what it wants to do, whatever that is. And you can see that in the events that our partners and hosts put together. Some organizations chose to do educational events and some chose to do adventure-based one. It really varied. From here we need to proactively seek feedback and find out what the community wants in terms of future offerings. And we’re getting good feedback, which makes me very optimistic about what we’ll do next year. I think as we build OutdoorFest and Mappy Hour, we’ll continue to create additional opportunities for the residents of this city to bring the outdoors into their lives and into the lives of people around them. And while it’s hard to know exactly what that’s going to look like, I’m proud to be doing something like this in the city I love.

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