This past weekend was the 5 year anniversary (or Tramiversary) of the Tramontane Cafe in Utica. The Tram is at first glance a coffeeshop and cafe, but for those who have been patrons of it over the years, it’s also part venue, party community center, part social club and even part home.
To celebrate the past 5 years, owners Garret Ingraham and Robin Raabe took several notable local performers from their weekly open mic night, gave them sound, lights and a stage at a local theater, and threw a huge anniversary party.
But would people buy tickets and show up on a Sunday night, with an impending snowstorm to see local performers (many who are not very well known – but immensely talented) and celebrate a cafe? This could be a tall order in a city such as Utica, which is a tough town to be a musician, particularly if you perform original music.
What I discovered was that the answer was a resounding yes. The Tramiversary smashed though and surpassed all my expections. It blended music, spoken word, puppets and dancing into a remarkable 5+ hour variety show. But this shouldn’t surprise me. Why? Because of what the Tram’s business really is…
As I spoke with different performers during the night and some familiar patrons they all had similar responses when asked about the Tram:
- It’s a place that gives opportunities to artists and musicians no matter their level of experience and provides a place to hone their craft in front of an audience.
- It’s a place diverse groups of like-minded people go to gather to collaborate and talk about their passions such as poetry, photography, storytelling, filmmaking, politics, local issues, knitting, roller derby and more.
- It’s a place where people feel welcome and encouraged.
Interestingly, no one mentioned that they have the best cup of coffee in town, or great food, or that their location or hours is super convenient for them (though many of these things are true). No, what the Tram sells in addition to food and drinks is community. And what a community they’ve built. To galvanize and mobilize that community and put on a huge event, a great show – is something that I’m sure wasn’t in their core business plan and wasn’t a marketing tactic. It was about doing something awesome for their community. I know that the buzz surrounding the event, the photos, videos, facebook posts and yes even traditional press, should only help their core business as well.
To lay the foundation for a successful business I’d rather have 100 passionate customers who would walk through fire for you, and genuinely miss you if it were gone, than 10000 passive patrons who don’t know you from a Starbucks.
But the problem with building community as an integral part of your business is that it’s a long process. It takes inordinate amounts of time, effort and some even some luck. It’s about mutual benefit and lifetime value. It’s about providing a platform or an opportunity rather than simply a service and up-selling. That’s why most businesses (and people) give up on finding or fostering a community around their product, service, or location. Its really hard, but not impossible. Where to start?
- Identify – find your core customers, the passionate ones, the ones who will crawl through fire for you and ASK what they love about your business and what they want to see in the future.
- Make it Easy to Connect – Make it easy for your customers who have common interestes, issues or problems to meet up either online or offline. You can help foster that connection.
- Lead – Speak, attend and support local events, events in your industry and make those connections to help find ways to become part of other communities and hopefully introduce others to yours.
- Be Awesome – Step out on a limb. Do something uncomfortable. Ask for help. Involve your community. Make them the stars of the show. Be awesome.
If done right, it can lead to a lasting foundation and great success. And when you have a community, as the Tram has demonstrated, amazing things are possible and I for one wish all the folks there very much more success in the years ahead.