Yes, Lake Arrowhead did partner with American Idol


One of the most recognizable brands in the world came calling regarding a marketing opportunity in early 2008.  To this day what happened over the next 9 months still seems so surreal.  Because you never know when a fantastic opportunity might pop up and because those of us with small marketing budgets struggle daily to market our businesses, I thought I would share what I learned and what my community went through when American Idol came calling.

It was January 2008 and I received a phone call asking me if I had time to meet with someone from American Idol, who was at Lake Arrowhead.  Now I have been an Idol fan since day one, but all I could think of at the time was “What????  Why in the world would American Idol be at Lake Arrowhead?”

This is what was presented during the afternoon meeting:

  • American Idol has a summer program called Idol Camp.  Kids pay to attend a 2 week Idol Camp session which is mentored by past Idol finalists along with other music teachers and mentors from the music industry.  Idol Camp does not guarantee any connection to American Idol, but it does train budding singers, songwriters and musicians how to advance their music career.
  • The camp had previously been held on the east coast and now American Idol wanted to move it closer to Los Angeles.  Lake Arrowhead is 90 minutes away from downtown LA so an upscale camp had been secured a few miles away from Lake Arrowhead for the new location of Idol Camp.  And as a result, American Idol wanted Lake Arrowhead to be the new “Official Home of Idol Camp.”
  • The big draw for Lake Arrowhead would be concerts, twice a week throughout the summer, by the Idol finalists who mentor the kids each week.  (We have a small outdoor stage in the center of our village and as we were already host to a summer-long concert series, this was a natural for Idol Camp.)
  • The world-wide marketing/branding of Lake Arrowhead was going to be mind-blowing and what exactly would we want to get out of this partnership?
  • The slogan for Idol Camp is “Dream Big.”  How big did Lake Arrowhead want to dream?

I sat there stunned. “You’re asking me out of the blue, over taco’s and a diet coke, what I want our community to receive from a partnership with American Idol?,” I thought.  A community with a very small marketing budget, a community not used to the spotlight – could we even handle something as big as this?

For the next two hours we discussed what could be done, how big we could dream – the marketing was phenomenal!  Newscasts, webcasts, mentions, product sponsorships, branding, world-wide celebrity status for our small town – my head was reeling.  How could this be happening to us, how could we be so fortunate?  And all for no cost?

Oh, oops, my mistake.  Two hours into the meeting it finally came out, that while American Idol was not charging us anything, the camp (being run by a sub-contractor to Idol) would need money to offset the marketing and need some money to pay for appearance fees for the past Idol finalists involved.   “How does approx. $100,000.00 sound?,” I was asked.  That was a bit more than the $15,000.00 we had budgeted for advertising, which I had already allocated for the year, so needless to say, I didn’t think it sounded too great and I think I started choking on the chips I was eating.  That part is a bit of a blur.  And by the way, it came out that the person I was meeting with was from the sub-contracting group, not really American Idol.

To make a long blog a bit shorter, fast forward a few weeks later when we held an evening community meeting to see if we could raise the money needed via our business community, who would then be official sponsors of Idol Camp.  We had a tiered sponsorship program put together, there was plenty of community buzz, so now all we had to do was get people to sign on the dotted line.  Which we did.  The community meeting was a big success and we raised a little more than the $100,000.00.  A small miracle for our small town.

We excitedly called our Idol Camp contact to share the great news.  We left a message and we waited…and waited…and waited.  We called some more and got no response.  After a couple of weeks we finally heard that oops, the sub-contractor had over-committed and everything we had discussed cost much more than $100,000.00.  More money was needed.  You can only imagine how our community felt.

Fast forward to May.  We were still negotiating at this point, but now the economy was showing its very first signs that something might be going wrong, signups for Idol Camp were very slow, but there was still hope.  Wow – I had been invited to the Idol Finale where Ryan Seacrest was going to announce that Idol Camp was to be at Lake Arrowhead.  Now that was encouraging.  A past Idol finalist went on Ryan’s LA radio show and was supposed to discuss Idol Camp, however, after one brief mention, the conversation went another direction.  The number of camp sessions was probably going to be cut, but still we would have plenty of Idol finalists to do concerts at Lake Arrowhead.  However, we did not have a contract from either the subcontractor or American Idol and we were about six weeks away from the first camp session.

So in the end, here is what did and didn’t happen

From a community standpoint:

  • We ended up hosting 5 past Idol finalists who were wonderful – a couple of them even went the extra mile and sang at the local junior high and high school and also sang at special VIP events.  Huge thanks to Jon Peter Lewis, Vonzell Solomon, Chris Sligh, Lakisha Jones and Haley Scarnato who all came and performed and became part of our community for a few days.
  • We received plenty of media mentions in Southern California, we were not involved in social media then so I wonder now how that might have helped what was going on at Lake Arrowhead – I can only imagine….
  • Our small town stepped up big time to support the Idol finalists as well as this program, but it turned out to be nowhere close to what we thought it was going to be.
  • Our original $100,000.00 investment ended up being somewhere around $40,000.00 (and when we looked at the ROI, overall it was money well spent).

From a marketing standpoint:

  • There was no mention of Idol Camp during the finale of American Idol (but at least I was in the audience, was able to take my son and we saw a great show).  Can you imagine what that mention would have been worth to our community?
  • As the marketing director I was advised by Freemantle Media, the parent company of American Idol, that they had to review and sign off on any media releases that I might send out.  That is standard and I had no problem with that whatsoever.  BUT, they also told me that if I did not hear back from their people within 5 days of submitting a release, that I should consider it dead and I was not to send it out.  Of all the releases I sent to them – I never heard one word back from anyone at Freemantle Media.  Ever.  We were such a small fish in their world-wide ocean I think we were filed away never to be thought of again.  We sent out our releases, no one ever acknowledged that releases were out and about and we never received any help in getting media placed.  We were really left to our own devices.
  • Lake Arrowhead had recognition as the “Official Home of Idol Camp” for about 6 months.  We played it to the hilt, but when I think back to that initial meeting in January, it was vastly different than what we originally dreamt up.
  • I’ve worked with large entities many times before, but American Idol and Freemantle Media is beyond large.  It was a marketing experience I will never forget.
  • I’ve been asked many times if we would do it again.  Well, due to the economy, in 2009 there was not another Idol Camp so we did not have to cross that bridge.  Our community helped make it happen, it would be up to our community if they wanted to do something on that large of a scale again.

Now two years later does anyone outside of our small town remember that Lake Arrowhead was home to Idol Camp?  Most likely not.  But, American Idol brought our community together, we were able to “Dream Big” and make it happen (to the best of our ability) and we can all talk about our connection to American Idol (the big American Idol Marketing Adventure and the wild ride we had with it) – which is something most small towns are not able to do.  And yes… I am still a huge fan of American Idol.

Are you looking for small business marketing tips?  I post a few tips each week (usually one per work day) on the Just a Small Town Girl Facebook page – hope you will visit and drop a note on the wall!  Please feel free to download my ebook The Small Town Marketing Handbook which discusses how social media allows each of us to be part of our own “small town” regardless of where we live.