How to plan a successful open house in 10 weeks

Date Published: 
March, 2005
Original Author: 
Todd Van Beck
A S Turner and Sons, Decatur, Georgia
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, March 2005

An informal open house provides an excellent opportunity to reach out
to the community. By implementing a thoughtful program, you build credibility for your funeral home, cemetery or crematorium; educate the public; and, at the same time, help allay people's concerns about death and dying.

An open house can be held in conjunction with an opening, renovation or milestone celebration of your business or one of its principals. As a community relations tool, this special event "welcomes everyone" and raises public awareness of your funeral home, cemetery or crematorium.

Since this may be many of your guests' first experience with death education, it's important that the open house be handled in a sensitive way. Ideally, the clergy in your community should be invited to participate. They can be reassuring to guests as well as informative. All staff members should fully participate.

An open house can follow many formats. It might combine speaker(s) with an audiovisual presentation and/or a tour with information packets available for general distribution.

Whatever the specific details, planning should begin 10 weeks in advance. Use the planning timeline below as a guideline.

Week #1
Decide on the best weekend. Choose a convenient weekend that will ensure maximum participation. Avoid holiday weekends and focus on a two-day open house, held on both Saturday and Sunday, to generate the most impact. Keep the hours the same on both days, for example 1-5 p.m. or noon-6 p.m. Also pick an alternate weekend date, in case a need related to your business arises.

Consider scheduling special activities each day, such as a program and tour, and advertise these. Perhaps one of the days could be for the general public, and the other day for a specific audience.

Week #2
Determine the guest list. The sky's the limit in preparing the potential guest list, drawn from families and friends, clergy, healthcare professionals, local media, community leaders and members of services affiliated with your funeral home, cemetery or crematorium. (See the checklist below for more ideas.) In addition, your ads and flyers will attract the public, if designed carefully.

If your open house is being held to show off a new or renovated addition, consider inviting the contractors and architects.

As for prominent members of the community, handwrite their invitations personally on your business stationery. These may include political, civic and business professionals.

Remember to keep a comprehensive list with the names and addresses of all invited guests. This is particularly important for follow-up after the event.

Developing a guest list
Think about these groups of people to invite:
•    Veterans of Foreign Wars; the American Legion; the Royal Canadian Legion and auxiliaries of each of these groups
•    Ancillary military organizations
•    Friends/family you've served
•    Clergy, church staffs
•    Mayor and city council
•    Health care professionals including physicians, psychologists, social workers, nurses, hospital and retirement/long-term care administrators and staffs, medical examiner/coroner
•    Local principals of schools and their faculties, especially history teachers
•    Newspaper editors, reporters, obituary staff
•    Florists, printers, funeral home suppliers, cemetery boards, cemetery sextons, cemeterians
•    Other funeral directors, death educators
•    Bankers and accountants

Plan a tour of your facility or cemetery. How you plan the flow of traffic can make or break the success of your tour.

First, analyze your facility from the inside out. Indoors, you may have to temporarily rearrange or even remove furniture to create a streamlined path through your building.

Examine the outdoor parking situation. Do you need to rent additional parking spaces? Make sure your company cars are washed. waxed and polished.

Give your funeral home, cemetery office or crematorium that extra shine. As you would do to prepare for a party in your own home, take the extra time to make your place of business shine. You should always be meticulous about keeping it clean, but now is the time to undertake a thorough inspection.

Arrange for any special cleaning required of carpeting, draperies or upholstered furniture. Replace bad light bulbs, dust, make obvious repairs—touch up the paint if need be. You want your facilities to look their best, and it's the attention to small details that will payoff in the end.

Also make sure the exterior of your building is in tiptop condition. Pay attention to landscaping, lighting and condition of the building. If your open house involves dedicating a new building or area that has been recently completed. make sure the contractor has cleaned up. Also, remember to ensure accessibility for the handicapped.

Week #3
Assess expectations. Learn more about your guests and what they expect. Will this be the first time most of them are exposed to death education? Do your best to tailor the elements of the open house to the group's needs and interests.

Order invitations and thank-you notes. Your stationery reflects your professional image. Your printed invitations should be just right, so it's important to work with a printer you can trust. Select your invitations, such as panel cards. with thoughtful attention to paper quality and color. If you have a logo. consider using it. The wording on the invitation should be brief. Make sure you include:
•    the name and address of your funeral home, cemetery or crematorium,
•    the event,
•    date,
•    time and
•    any RSVP information.
(See the sample invitation below.)

Address the envelopes by hand with an attractive script. Simple, dignified thank you notes can match the invitation as to format and typeface, paper and color. Send one to each open house guest. (See the sample thank-you letter below.)

Develop visual aids and handouts. A professional slide or videotape presentation during your open house is a creative way to convey information. This visual medium is a diversion for the audience and can lend an interesting perspective, but it takes careful advance preparation. The presenter must thoroughly familiarize him/herself with the script, slides or video. It is also important to set aside ample time for questions immediately following the presentation.

People love to take handouts and reprints home for later reference, so prepare information packets to give out. Professional folders can hold a funeral home, cemetery or crematorium brochure (which often includes the history and services), a calendar of any future seminars or support groups, plus additional pamphlets on topics such as retirement, preplanning, the value of a funeral and memorialization, embalming and other topics.


On behalf of the staff of the Vanderbilt Funeral Home, Cemetery & Crematorium thank you for attending our recent Open House. Your participation helped make the event a success.

Please call on us at any time if we can help answer questions you may have.

Rick Vanderbilt Vanderbilt Funeral Home, Cemetery & Crematorium


The staff of the Vanderbilt Funeral Home,
Cemetery & Crematorium
requests the pleasure of your company

at its Open House

commemorating the home's Tenth Anniversary
April 23-24, 2005, noon - 6 p.m.
Vanderbilt Funeral Home, Cemetery & Crematorium
146 Oak Street, Feathersville

Guest Speaker; Janet Storm
"The Value of the Funeral & Memorialization" 2 p.m. each day
RSVP (513) 721-9879

Week #4
Schedule the first staff meeting. Take this opportunity to discuss the details of the open house openly with your staff. Talk to them about the reasons for the event and what you hope to achieve. Make them aware of their individual value as part of the team. (See the proposed staff assignment chart below.)

Emphasize these points with your staff:
• Dress, conduct and language used during the open house should be the same as for a funeral or any visit by the public.
• Introductions are important, so meet as many guests as possible. (Staff should wear nametags.)
• Discuss the possible questions guests may ask. Practice clear, short answers.
• Talk about the role of funeral service representatives. Decide which casket, vault and embalming fluid sales reps to include on the guest list they can provide support and answer specialized questions.

Week #5
Invite the clergy. The clergy will add a lot to your open house, so invite them as far in advance as possible. You may want some members of the clergy to participate as speakers or activity leaders. Let those who agree know that they will be asked to attend one organizational meeting about a month before the event.

Arrange security. It is important to provide for adequate security. Hiring off-duty police or security guards will relieve you of extra worry. They are skilled in directing traffic, giving directions and offering assistance to elderly or handicapped guests as they arrive.

Instruct them to come an hour before the open house starts and continue on duty until one hour after it ends.
Spread the word through well planned ads. Working closely with the media to promote your event is vital to getting the word out about your open house. Consider the media the link that joins your message with your targeted audience.

First, you must clarify your targeted audience and then clarify your message by writing it down. Keeping your budget in mind, choose the appropriate medium; in this case, print advertising in your local newspaper.

Newspaper advertising: Newspapers are a good choice because they can quickly influence large markets on a daily or weekly basis. In addition. they offer special-interest sections that help focus your message, and a variety of ad sizes and formats to accommodate budgets.

Request the media kit from your local newspaper. It will describe ad sizes, rates, deadlines and other information. Select the local newspaper(s) with the greatest readership of men and women aged 55 or older. Your newspaper advertising representative will know the latest demographic figures. Establish and maintain a good relationship with this representative.

When writing the ad, make sure it includes the time, date, funeral home, cemetery or crematorium address and phone number. Emphasize the words "open house" to catch the readers' attention. List licensed personnel, if applicable. Mention and briefly describe your speaker, if you are having one, along with his/her topic. As with your invitations, try to keep the message simple and direct.

If you are celebrating a new or renovated facility, include "before" and "after" photos to highlight your progress. Some papers will take the new photo for you. and may also take photos the day of the event.

I recommend a "camera ready" ad, which means that artwork and written copy can be printed as submitted. If you can't find a freelance writer/designer to undertake this project, your newspaper will handle it for an additional charge. Run the ad within the metro/local news section or on the obituary page.

If the budget permits, run the ad for three consecutive weeks before the open house and on the day of the event. If this is too expensive, place the ad one week before and on the day of the open house.

Announcements, fliers and news releases:
• Make copies of your ad in the form of fliers, and ask community service groups to distribute them at meetings or insert them in their newsletters.
• Ask the participating clergy and others to announce the event to their congregations and at meetings. Also ask them to post the flier, if possible, and place an ad in local church bulletins.
• Send the flier to local retirement communities for posting.
• Prepare a professional news release for the local media. (See sample press release below.)  Limit the information to the key facts, answering the six basic journalistic questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. Be sure to list a contact person with day and evening phone numbers. If the open house is celebrating a new or renovated building, enclose a black-and-white photo.

Mail your release to editors at least two weeks in advance. Cover all daily and suburban papers and special interest papers for older adults.

Double-space your news release for greater legibility.

Vanderbilt Funeral Home, Cemetery & Crematorium
46 Oak Street
Feathersville, OH 45205


April 4, 2005

Contact: Ralph Bonham 829-0695
After 5 p.m., 829-1078

For Immediate Release


Feathersville, OH — In honor of its upcoming 10th Anniversary at the end of this month, the Vanderbilt Funeral Home, Cemetery & Crematorium will present a free open house and program, noon-6 p.m., April 23-24, at its location at 146 Oak Street.

"With this open house, we want to acknowledge and thank the members of the community for their support and loyalty over the last decade," says Rick Vanderbilt, President of Vanderbilt Funeral Home, Cemetery & Crematorium. "As we begin the next ten years, we continue to explore new ways to provide service, education and support."

During the open house weekend, Vanderbilt Funeral Home staff members will conduct escorted tours of the funeral home, cemetery and crematorium and answer questions about the funeral and cemetery profession. A speaker will talk on "The Value of the Funeral"/"The Value of Memorialization" at 2 p.m. each day.

Vanderbilt Funeral Home, Cemetery & Crematorium originally opened its doors at 256 Locust Street in Newtonsville, OH, moving to its present location on Oak Street ten years ago. President Rick Vanderbilt is a licensed funeral director and experienced grief counselor.


Week #6
Hold an organizational meeting. Meeting with the participating clergy one month in advance of the open house is an excellent idea. They will want to learn the details of the event firsthand and have a chance to ask questions. Review the guest list and agenda, the roles they are expected to take and the roles of the funeral home, cemetery or crematorium staff. Distribute information packets with promotional fliers for them to take back to their houses of worship.

Mail invitations and track responses. Now is the time to actually mail invitations. As responses come in, keep a running guest count. Familiarize every staff member with the invitation list, particularly the prominent figures, as they respond.

Order premiums. To add to your guests' satisfaction, offer small favors as tokens of goodwill. Imprint them with the name, address, phone number and logo of your funeral home, cemetery or crematorium. Make sure you order enough to cover the number of expected guests.

Premium ideas include: calendars, magnets for refrigerators, pens or pencils, pencil cups, drink holders, mugs, key chains, appointment books or golf balls and tees.

Week #7
Schedule a second staff meeting. At this follow-up meeting, remind your staff of the importance of guest relations. Emphasize that they should welcome each guest warmly, shaking hands and directing them to activities and refreshments. Tell them to be on the lookout for anyone with serious questions. Again, role-play the kinds of questions that may arise. Advise them of the guest questionnaire (see sample questions below), and designate a staff member to be in charge of distribution and collection.

Possible questions for your evaluation form
Some simple yes/no questions:
•    Was the open house informative?
•    Were all your questions answered?
•    Did you feel comfortable throughout the tour?
•    Did the video add to the presentation?
•    Do you feel more likely to call the funeral home, cemetery or crematorium staff in the future if you have questions?

Prepare a guest questionnaire. Written evaluations from the guests can provide invaluable information to improve special events in the future. The forms must be short and to-the-point. Print enough for everyone on your professional stationery.

Include ample space for comments and suggestions. Some people won't mind providing their names and addresses, which can later be added to your mailing list. Others will prefer to remain anonymous. This information can also help you mail thank-you notes promptly.

Also this week:
• Remember to touch base with the clergy by phone at this time. to see if they have any questions.
• Run your ad for the first time.

Week #8
Select a door prize. A drawing for a door prize can increase your guests' interest and enjoyment. A color TV, purchased from a local merchant, is recommended. This will really get people talking.

Make sure you print up entry forms to include the guest's name, address and phone number. This information can be added to your mailing list later.

Plan refreshments. If your state allows food to be served in a funeral home, cemetery or crematorium, you might consider light refreshments such as soft drinks, coffee, tea, cookies or small pastries.

Mail news releases. Mail the releases at this time to specific editors at the selected newspapers, to church and civic groups' newsletters and to people you know will post them. Make sure all the media receive them, including public service and assignment editors at radio and television stations.

Also this week:
Make sure the premiums have arrived. If they have not, immediately check with your supplier.
• Run your ad for the second time.

Week # 9
Meet with your staff a final time. Discuss any last minute changes and review the guest list. Let them know you will be asking them to critique the open house.

Also, remind them to tell guests that they can leave the tour portion of the event, should they feel apprehensive, and rejoin it later if they wish.

Order flowers. Fresh flowers always add beauty and elegance to the atmosphere. Consider arrangements for the registration table, arrangement office, chapel/visitation area or refreshment table.

Set up a registration table. The day before the open house, set up a small registration table at the entrance, with a book for guests' names, addresses and phone numbers. Assign a staff person to oversee the "sign-in" process.

Also this week: Your ad should run again.

Week #10: The day of the open house
Run a large ad in the daily newspaper. This will catch the eye of people looking for something to do at the spur of the moment, and remind others that "today's the day."

Cultivate a positive attitude. The day you've worked so hard for has finally arrived. Make a duplicate guest list so you and others in charge can refer to it during the event, and keep the agenda of the day's activities handy. It's your job to supervise everything and see that all is on track. Most of all, attend to your guests' needs.

Week # 10: Follow-up
Assess evaluations. It is important to take the time to review these carefully. Meet with your staff to invite their candid remarks about the open house; how they viewed the planning process and the actual day. Don't overlook this valuable opportunity.

Send thank-you notes. Take the time to write a thank-you note to each guest and helpful friend attending and working at the event. This is a thoughtful action that will add to the positive image you've already generated.

Also remember to thank your own staff members in writing.

Initiate a direct mail campaign. To piggyback off the success of your open house, consider developing and sending out a direct mail piece.

You may already have a comprehensive brochure about your funeral home, cemetery or crematorium that's ready to go. You might also consider sending a two-page newsletter that promotes a future seminar or provides other useful information.

Promote future speaking engagements. At an appropriate interval, or in the thank-you note, let it be known that you're available to speak to community groups.

Ask your guests to recommend you to others if they like. This is one way to continue your awareness-building program.