Middle schoolers no longer have the lock on slumber parties. In fact, group sleepovers have become the latest trend at museums and zoos across the state for families and youth groups, as well as with a growing number of nonprofits that are using the familiar concept as the basis for events to build an adult fan base.
Far from the pillow fights and prank-call games of yore, however, today’s all-nighters generate appeal with exclusive access to exciting after-hours experiences.
The opportunity “to do things when you’re not supposed to, I think, was the big draw for us,” says Joel Williams, executive director of PADS Lake County, a nonprofit that fights homelessness. The group held its second SleepOut for Shelter event at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee in June 2017, attracting 150 participants. Being able to ride roller coasters after closing time helped double the number of SleepOut participants and significantly increased funds raised for PADS’ emergency shelter, compared to similar events held elsewhere, Williams adds.
In a similar event, Instagram influencers and professional photographers flocked to a sleepover last summer at the 360 Chicago observation deck at John Hancock Center to benefit My Block, My Hood, My City (M3), an organization that helps teens from underserved areas of Chicago explore their community and expand their horizons.
Getting access to a space that they normally would not get was a huge draw for guests, says 360 Chicago General Manager Nichole Williamson, especially with promises of great photo ops. The 100 attendees snapped photos of the city at sunset and at night (with the background of Navy Pier fireworks) and also the following morning at sunrise. Nearly $8,000 was raised for M3 from the event.
Nighty-Night … or Not
Hosting an adults-only, 12-hour overnight experience does pose some challenges. “We knew operationally we could make it work,” says Williamson, especially since the observation deck has held nighttime lock-ins for youth groups in the past. Still, “it’s a lot different trying to keep adults entertained than it is to have a bunch of 10-year-olds on the floor. I don’t know which one is harder,” she says, laughing.
As such, Williamson and her team arranged for board games, live music, a DJ, a magician and late-night movies, as well as treats from sponsors like Garrett Popcorn Shops, Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria and Revolution Brewing, to keep people engaged.
But some guests (who were prepared with pillows and sleeping bags) weren’t as keen on entertainment running into the wee hours. They wanted the music to shut down sooner, unlike some guests who had no intention of sleeping.
“We did try to accommodate both groups,” says Williamson, noting the addition of quiet and lights-on areas. Next time, she plans to divide the floor earlier with moveable walls to create a quiet corner closer to 11 p.m.
Communicating with guests before the event also helped manage expectations. “It was important they understood that we do not provide showers or any type of cot, bed or blow-up mattress, and that it’s an open floor,” says Williamson. Walgreens did provide guests with overnight toiletry kits containing a toothbrush, toothpaste and earplugs.
With Six Flags providing everything from thrill rides to 24/7 security, SleepOut for Shelter was “the easiest event that we’ve done” in terms of on-site execution, recalls Williams. And while guests had fun, when it came time to settle down, they slept outdoors on benches and the ground—reinforcing the group’s mission to put a face to homelessness. “While it’s nowhere near what an actual experience of homelessness is like, it’s closer than they’ve ever been,” says Williams of the many adults and young people who participated.
Working with a charity again is a key focus for Williamson going forward, too. She says 360 Chicago will plan to host another sleepover in 2018 given the positive response and feedback.
Before You Turn out the Lights
Here are a few more items to consider before inviting guests to a sleepover event.
LISTEN TO YOUR COMMUNITY.
Make sure your sleepover event appeals to your intended audience. The event at 360 Chicago, for example, expanded upon the observation deck’s popular “early opens,” which let an active Instagram and photography community take photos of the city at sunrise.
FIND A SITE THAT MAKES SENSE.
Six Flags Great America has a long-term respective relationship providing funding and marketing support for PADS of Lake County. Look for a venue that fits your organization’s goals and guests’ expectations.
MAKE TICKETS ATTRACTIVE.
360 Chicago worked with partners like Chicago Helicopter Experience to offer VIP ticket packages in addition to general admission and gold packages. More options may entice more attendees.
Safety of your guests is priority No. 1, and should the unthinkable happen, you’ll want extra support on the floor. 360 Chicago General Manager Nichole Williamson hired overnight security as a precaution for attendees.