Proud Irish-American Ray Sheehan is something of a party animal, and yes, it’s fun, but it’s also a serious business.
Sheehan is a partner at UpcomingEvents.com, a Philadelphia-based event company. The company is responsible for producing and promoting a wide variety of events in the Delaware Valley area and beyond. Some examples: the recent Taste of Philly culinary sampling experience in the Wanamaker Building’s Crystal Tea Room, and upcoming events like the New Year’s Eve Buffet & Fireworks Family Celebration at the Hilton Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing.
The company has also produced some very large-scale events throughout the nation, including big-ticket items at Major League ballparks.
UpcomingEvents.com also publicizes other, smaller-scale events, such as the recent Celtic Christmas in Bensalem.
Sheehan’s interest in event promotion all started about 20 years ago, when he was going to school at Temple’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management.
“I was just a promoter,” he says. “We were doing events in bars and restaurants. I was a D.J. We were just getting the attention of these bars and restaurants by just throwing parties.”
The question the bars and restaurants had all started to ask was this: how do we get more people to come to the parties? Sheehan had a ready answer.
“This was when the whole digital thing was happening—meaning Friendster, Myspace and AOL. I was noticing that a change was happening from a marketing perspective. We were simply just dipping our toes into the digital space,” he explains. “Thank goodness, we had the foresight to say, OK, these consumers are coming to our parties. Let’s figure out a way to make sure we’re collecting data. At the time, it was just their email address. That was the big thing. That meant we never had to find that consumer again, once we had them within out network. This was almost like the start of a social network—a social network of people who were interested in going out at night.”
Over time, the restaurant and bar owners were spreading the good word to the beverage companies and distributors, and they started investing in the company.
“It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and putting together some really interesting programs for them based around holidays, like St. Patrick’s Day.” Sheehan says. “The beer companies saw us as having this audience, a community of consumers who are very impressionable. They’d say, ‘Hey, Ray, let’s purchase some email blasts. Or we want more visibility on your website, knowing that you’re going to drive the consumer to a certain bar or restaurant and, oh, by the way, when they get there, we’re going to have a Miller Lite special.’”
Not a bad set of accomplishments for someone who, as a high school student, wasn’t sure where he was going to go with his life. His guidance counselor, he recalls, suggested to him that college wasn’t for everyone. By his own admission, he was a free-spirited party kind of guy. A lot of kids would have listened to the guidance counselor, and just kept on partying.
That’s not the kind of guy Ray Sheehan was, or is.
“I was smart enough to know that I needed to monetize this,” he says. “I needed to figure out how to turn some of my skills into a business setting, but I couldn’t figure out how to create a business from throwing a party.”
He recalls sitting on a beach one day in the summer when he saw one of those ubiquitous planes hauling a banner advertising Temple’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management.
Sheehan made an appointment to meet Jeffrey Montague, who was the school’s academic adviser. He asked Sheehan: What do you like to do? Sheehan’s response: I love to throw a party. Sheehan remembers Montague’s response well. “He said, ‘We’ve got a program just for you.’”
Sheehan graduated in 2002.
Post-graduation, he was unable to wrangle an internship that would put his skills to good use, working for concert and event promoters like Live Nation. So for a time he worked with Ray Murray’s Banyan Productions as an intern, working on shows like “A Dating Story,” recruiting young men and women to appear on the show.
Still discontented with his internship and hoping to land a real job with Banyan, he decided to take a chance and organize a Singles Mingle in Old City in coordination with a radio station, ostensibly on behalf of the show. No one caught on to the fact that he was just an intern. The event was a success, and he landed a full-time job with Banyan.
That lasted for two years, but Sheehan continued to have an itch to go out on his own. “I wanted to be a producer of events and a promoter,” he says. “So I got back into that and I haven’t looked back since.”
Over time, the business has grown. Not everything has been a success. Big events, like renting out a major league ballpark and lining up A-list acts like Tim McGraw, can be risky. “We’re a smaller company here,” he says. “In the beginning things were a lot easier. As we’ve grown, we’ve gotten bigger, the paydays have been bigger, but not all these events have been successful. Trust me when I tell you, we have failed and have had to pick ourselves back up.”
By and large, though, when the paydays have been bigger, the rewards have been bigger, too. Still, Sheehan says smaller events are more his firm’s specialty.
“Our lane is, we love doing sampling events,” he says. “We love bringing people out and having them experience things like the All-Star Craft Beer, Wine and Cocktail Festival at Citizens Bank Park. And then there are food events, like the Taste of Philly and the Philadelphia Restaurant Festival. We’ve been really good at producing those types of events. We try to capitalize on days like Halloween, New Year’s Eve and holidays like St. Patrick’s Day.”
It’s an incredibly busy and challenging schedule.
“After Halloween, then it’s Taste of Philly. Then it’s Thanksgiving, then it’s New Year,” he says. “After that, we do the All-Star Craft Beer, Wine and Cocktail Festival, and we’ll go into six different markets. We’re in Tampa in February. Then in March we’re in Houston. May, we’re in Arlington, Texas. June, we’re in Pittsburgh. July we’re off. I’m not sure where we are in August—maybe back to Minnesota where the Twins play. September, we’re here in Philadelphia. Then we’re right back into Halloween and Taste of Philly again. We also have a lot of little side projects, as well. Many of those events are charity-driven.”
Sheehan credits his small but mighty team with helping pull off all of the events. “They’re just hard workers, and they really like Philadelphia,” he says. “They’re really passionate about what they do.”
Looking back, regardless of the size of the event his firm puts together and promotes, Sheehan says the model that guided him in his earlier days hasn’t changed. His audience is older, true, but the fundamentals are still there. “For me the model has always been girl meets boy,” he says. “It’s recession-proof. For me, it’s always been focused on bringing people together.”