by Silent Doug
A letterbox "gathering" is any planned event where letterboxers meet. It can be held in a restaurant or pub, where conversation and stamp exchanges are the key attraction, or it can be an outdoors event complete with letterbox hunts and a potluck meal. The day's events can be structured with a schedule of activities, or completely unstructured -- it's up to the event planner.
Before your gathering:
CHOOSE A GATHERING PLACE
A "typical" gathering is held outdoors in a location with lots of letterboxes within walking distance of the event's epicenter. The boxes can either be permanent or those planted just for the day by the organizers or other volunteers.
The gathering should have a central meeting place, such as a group of picnic tables or a pavilion. This is where people can hang out in between their quests, trade personal stamps, stamp the event stamp, eat, participate in presentations, and share stories, etc. Many parks allow pavilions to be reserved for groups, and it's okay to ask for donations from attendees if there's a cost involved.
ANNOUNCE THE EVENT
You'll want to let people know about your event as far in advance as possible. Some ways to publicize your event are through posts to the LbNA and regional letterboxing lists and by personal invitations to any local letterboxers you know. Because some letterboxers don't subscribe to the email lists, you might also consider temporarily adding a flyer or index card with event details to your own local boxes so that anyone who finds them can write down the details (leaving the card for the next finder). You can also submit the details for your gathering to people who maintain letterboxing event listings on their personal letterboxing sites (add a link to your own submission page here).
In your announcement, be sure to include important details about the event location, such as:
* If bathrooms available
* If the location and facilities are accessible to the disabled
* If dogs are allowed
* If there's a fee for parking or to enter the park
If the location has a web site with all the pertinent information, providing a link to that site might be enough. You'll also want to provide maps and directions to the event.
In case of inclement weather, will the event go on as planned, or is there a rain date for the gathering? Make sure to have plans to let people know if the event will not go on as scheduled, particularly for those who may be travelling from a distance. Some organizers will email their cell phone number privately before the event to those who have RSVP'd in case someone gets lost on the way or has last-minute questions.
ASK FOR RSVPs
You should provide a means for attendees to RSVP in advance so that everyone knows how much food to bring for potluck, how many copies of clue sheets to provide and to ensure that the location will accommodate the entire group. As you receive RSVPs, you may want to ask attendees if they have any special letterboxing related skills, such as stamp carving or bookbinding, that they'd be willing to share through either an informal demonstration or a formal class.
CREATE AN EVENT STAMP
One key element of any gathering is the event stamp. This is a special stamp created just for the gathering, which attendees can stamp into their journals and record in their PFXE count. Organizers should avoid event box proliferation during the gathering, though. Letterboxing "purists" believe that there should be only one "official" event letterbox, and perhaps one or two of the very special travelling event boxes (like K-Martha or the LbNA California event stamp), but resist having a table full of other stamps and hitchhikers.
Special notes for indoor gatherings:
If an outdoor gathering isn't possible or desired, you can often find space for an indoor gathering in a restaurant meeting or banquet room. Centering an indoor event around food can often help people who may have never met before feel a little more at ease. If you meet at a restaurant, be sure to let attendees know the approximate cost of food on the menu. If you meet in another sort of space, a community center or library, for example, be sure to know the facility's policy on food and clean-up if you're considering a potluck. Indoor gatherings are perfect for in-depth activities such as stamp carving and bookbinding classes.
During the gathering:
You'll want to arrive to the event location at least an hour before the start time, especially if you're not able to reserve picnic tables or meeting space in advance. Mark the location with signs, balloons, streamers or other items to help attendees find the gathering. Remember, many of the attendees will not have met before, so don't make them wander around from pavilion to pavilion in order to find the gathering.
Depending on the number of attendees you're expecting, designate one table (or at least one end of it) as the place for people to check in, pick up schedules and clue sheets, and grab a name tag. Set up another table where attendees can exchange personal stamps and stamp the event stamp and book and whatever other special stamps might be available. In no case should hitchhikers be laid out on a table for anyone to stamp into.
You might set up and hide a separate hitchhiker hostel for people to trade hitchhikers, but make sure people know how it works -- they have to leave a hitchhiker before they take one. It's okay for hitchhikers to be transferred from person to person, but a hostel is a much better way of facilitating these transfers. A large plastic container works well as a hostel; it doesn't need to be completely waterproof if it's only going to be hidden for the day.
Other tables can be devoted to food and whatever demonstrations are planned. Don't forget to bring paper plates, napkins, plastic utensils, cups and maybe even disposable tablecloths for the food tables. Large trash bags are also essential, even if the location allows you to leave garbage behind. If attendees are traveling from far away, they may prefer to bring these types of non-perishable items as their contribution to the potluck. If you rely on someone else to bring these essentials, though, be sure to confirm the day before that they're coming!
Definitely consider providing name tags for attendees. This makes it easy for people to put faces to trail names, especially when people also put their personal stamp image on the tag along with their name. When people arrive, you might ask them to sign in and confirm their email address (to facilitate sharing of post-gathering photos, for instance) or stamp in to a special log book or poster for the gathering. These can be nice mementos for you to enjoy long after the gathering.
Some gathering organizers prepare clue handouts in a packet for each attendee, along with an agenda for the day. You might email this to everyone a couple of days before, but it's always good to have some extras on hand. If there are special boxes available only on that day, some extra clue sheets should be available.
If there are organized events to be held during the event, print out copies of the schedule. Even if you don't have a hard and fast schedule, be sure to let everyone know what time the photos will be taken so attendees will know to be at a particular place at a certain time. Schedule it towards the end of the day since many folks won't arrive at the very start of the gathering.
As the organizer of the event, you may have already found all the hidden letterboxes in the area and won't need to go out searching during the gathering. If not, though, it's a good idea to recruit a few volunteers to take turns securing the location while others are out on the trails. If the event is held in a park, consider giving everyone a garbage bag and ask them fill it up with trail trash as they hike. This will make parks officials happy. Consider giving a prize for the person who brings back the most garbage.
Activities can include demonstrations or mini-workshops on topics such as stamp carving, bookbinding, compass reading, orienteering or using a GPS unit. Workshops shouldn't last more than 45 minutes to an hour, and if you hold more than one, you might want to schedule the potluck between them. Workshop presenters may require that attendees sign up in advance so they bring enough materials with them. If you're not the presenter, be sure you know what their needs are so you can pass on the details to attendees.
A potentially fun idea is to provide prizes in various categories, such as to the letterboxer who travelled furthest to attend the event, the letterboxer with the highest PFX count, the newest letterboxer, the letterboxer who's been at it the longest, etc. A colorful printed decal is nice since it can be placed in the winner's journal.
SpringChick in Michigan asked some notable letterboxers from around the country to make special letterboxes that she then hid at the site of the Great Lakes Gathering in 2003. Afterwards, she mailed them back to the creators who could plant them in their own areas. This was a great way to see some nice carvings from "famous" letterboxers.
Another idea that might be fun is to hold a 50/50 raffle (at, say, $1 a ticket, with half the proceeds going to the winner and the other half going to defray costs of the site location or to be given to some appropriate environmental group or other worthy cause), or just hold a drawing for prizes (such as letterboxing supplies and other goodies).
After the Gathering:
Be sure to ask for help cleaning up after the gathering - hauling trash, putting picnic tables back in place, whatever - especially if the location has specific cleaning requirements. You don't want to get stuck doing all the hard work by yourself after everyone is gone.
After the dust has settled, it’s a nice idea to write up a report on the gathering and post it to the LbNA discussion group. This will provide a record of the event for future generations and some of your ideas might inspire future event organizers.
If you or other attendees take pictures, you may want to post them online in the LbNA Yahoo Groups photo section or on someone's personal site. Letterboxes often enjoy putting faces to trail names, so even (or especially!) those who were unable to attend will probably be interested in taking a peek.
Successful gatherings can be organized with five or fifty-five letterboxers in attendance. In planning, remember that meeting and making friends with a common interest in letterboxing is the underlying aim, so use your imagination to come with fun ways to make the event something that attendees will remember. Also remember that no matter how carefully you plan or how detailed your schedule for the day, things will probably get chaotic as new people arrive and start in with the frenzy of stamp exchanges. Be willing to give up your expectations for the gathering if things don't go as planned. Be spontaneous, go with the flow, and above all, have fun!
For more help in planning a gathering, see the AtlasQuest Events section, where you can list, publicize and plan your letterboxing gathering.