People looking up as sky during the Solar Eclipse Watch Party at Lake Walk.
Based on the number of free BRYANTX viewing glasses given out at the Solar Eclipse Watch Party at Lake Walk, the event brought in more than 1,000 visitors. (Courtney Sacco/Texas A&M AgriLife)

While visitors from the local community, throughout Texas and beyond came to the Solar Eclipse Watch Party at Lake Walk in Bryan on April 8 to see a once-in-a-lifetime natural occurrence, what they didn’t see was the astronomical amount of planning, coordination and outreach in preparation of this unique event.

To help make the watch party a success, a cadre of students from the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Hospitality, Hotel Management and Tourism provided their knowledge, skills and efforts in a collaboration with Lake Walk and client-partner Destination Bryan, which oversaw the event.     

“Students from our event management and operations course in the fall of 2023 planned the event, and students from our event management capstone course this spring implemented it,” said Donna Lee Sullins, Ed.D., instructional assistant professor in the department who coordinated student involvement in the event. “All students from both courses participated in the event.”

Hands-on event planning for solar eclipse

Two female students hand out protective solar eclipse viewing glasses to a woman in a red shirt.
Students from the Department of Hospitality, Hotel Management and Tourism hand out protective eclipse viewing glasses to visitors at the Solar Eclipse Watch Party that took place April 8 at Lake Walk in Bryan. (Courtney Sacco/Texas A&M AgriLife)

Sullins said Destination Bryan was an amazing partner for the department and the students, as it gave them autonomy in decision-making while also providing strong guidance on the goals they wanted to achieve with the event.

Five students were dedicated to work on the event as a team, with 19 student volunteers directly assisting with various aspects of event implementation.

Sullins said the experience helped students learn how to solve problems in the moment and how to be prepared. While Sullins’ coursework assignments include students being involved in hands-on event management for a variety of university, community and larger events, each event presents its own unique set of challenges and concerns. 

“The students got experience learning how to become professional problem-solvers by working as part of a hands-on event that gave them real-life challenges, such as having a vendor cancel or dealing with a miscommunication over parking,” she said. “They got the opportunity to think, plan and be ready for almost anything.

About the event                                                                                 

The solar eclipse watch party took place from noon to 3 p.m. April 8. The event featured giveaways, music, games and activities presented by local businesses and organizations.

People wearing solar eclipse glasses looking up at the sky.
Attendees not only got a once-in-a-lifetime experience in viewing the total eclipse, they were also treated to free snow cones, viewing glasses, activites and entertainment. (Courtney Sacco/Texas A&M AgriLife)

The first 500 attendees were given free snow cones and the first 1,200 attendees received free BRYANTX eclipse viewing glasses. Live music was provided by DJ Travis with Downtown Event Services. Activities included face-painting, a table decorating contest and eclipse-related instruction from volunteer educators with local television station KBTX, the Texas A&M Urban and Community Forestry Program of Texas A&M Forest Service, and Children’s Museum of the Brazos Valley. The Salvation Army set up a food truck and provided free water to attendees.

KBTX news anchor, Karla Castillo, and meteorologist, Max Crawford, covered the event for the station, which also provided periodic livestreamed looks at the event for their viewing audience.

Student involvement in the solar eclipse event

“We were assigned as the team to help bring the event to life,” said Avery Cole, a junior studying recreation, park and tourism sciences and having certificates in youth development and professional event management.

Cole, who will graduate in December, served as team lead for students. Other core team members served as coordinators for event volunteers, operations and logistics, risk management and finance, and marketing.

“While other teams in the class sometimes work on repeat events, this was the first time we had ever been involved in hosting this type of event,” she said. “Total eclipses are rare, so it was exciting that we had a part in building a completely unique event from the ground up.”

A young lady, Avery Cole, holds eclipse glasses as she speaks with a visitor
As team lead for the students, Avery Cole, left, provided her expertise on a variety of event management coordination and implementation responsibilities. (Courtney Sacco/Texas A&M AgriLife)

As team lead, Cole was involved in client communication, task and team management, vendor relations, logistics, and other responsibilities. She said she was prepared for the task because a significant amount of event management-related class time had been dedicated to concepts applicable to real-life events, including marketing, risk management, budgeting and contracts.

The event, she said, provided an opportunity to apply those concepts.

“Our class lectures and discussions gave me a baseline to use during this class-client event project,” she said. “I used this knowledge to implement the event and put skills like time management, teamwork and communications to work. It has been a great opportunity to develop my leadership skills and take my classroom education into the real world of event planning.”

Cole said executing the event plans offered a set of unique challenges. One of these was that, while Bryan experienced 98.4% coverage for the total solar eclipse, other locations within a few hours provided better opportunities to view the total eclipse.

“Some businesses and organizations we reached out to for participation were already going to another viewing location to take advantage of opportunities there,” she said. “We also had to carefully monitor the weather on the days leading up to the event as cloudy, overcast or rainy skies could diminish or even lead to canceling the event, and we couldn’t just reschedule because the next solar eclipse in the U.S. wouldn’t be for another 20 years,”

Full solar eclipse totality -- a black circle with the sun's corona illuminating the sides
The solar eclipse on April 8 was a total solar eclipse that moved across North America, Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and Earth and completely blocks the sun. (Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife)

Partnering with Destination Bryan 

Caden Jones, Destination Bryan special events coordinator, said the goal was to provide a free event that would appeal to local residents and area visitors. Jones started with Destination Bryan as an intern in January 2023 and is now its special events coordinator.

Jones, who will graduate from Texas A&M in May with a master’s degree in recreation, park and tourism sciences, provided guidance on how the event would be presented.  

Destination Bryan has had a longstanding relationship with the department, collaborating with faculty and students on a variety of events and through its internship program. He also noted that many Destination Bryan employees have graduated from the department, finding long-term opportunities in the tourism industry. 

Jones said Destination Bryan was glad to offer the department’s students the opportunity to participate in this one-of-a-kind event that drew such wide attention to the local community.  

“The students played a huge role in the Solar Eclipse Watch Party at Lake Walk, setting up booths, working with vendors and making arrangements for the entertainment,” he said. “The event was intended to provide an opportunity for our amazing community and visitors to the area to witness this phenomenon as well as to showcase the unique opportunities available in Bryan. This meant the students were also exposed to different ways of viewing the marketing and event processes to reach those goals.”

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