What did it take to get an audience with Pope Francis during his visit to our nation’s capital in September? Must you bear the title of President of the United States? Senator? Representative?
Turns out, it was more than just the members of Congress who earned a coveted admit; members of the student body of The Catholic University of America (CUA) did, as well. During Pope Francis’ historic visit to Washington, D.C., September 23 and 24, the University — founded by the bishops under a charter issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1887 — welcomed the Holy Father, who celebrated Mass with the school community. One of only three U.S. universities to have hosted the Pope on his tour, CUA is the only school to have done so more than once: Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.
The Barnes & Noble at The Catholic University of America bookstore team readied for the eagerly anticipated visit. With thousands of Catholic faithful expected to visit the campus, laying the groundwork — from coordinating with the administration to surveying community needs — was all about assuring a truly extraordinary experience.
“We first heard rumblings of a papal visit last year, but those rumors never solidified until the late spring/early summer,” said Bookstore Manager Jonathan Howard. “But even in advance of the confirmation, the teams at the bookstore and Catholic University started brainstorming opportunities to create a truly memorable event.”
Once the date was verified, the team began working their timeline back from the event to create deadlines for a momentous Papal visit, directly on the heels of fall Rush. “Probably the most challenging aspect was that we planned a majority of our components on raw, unknown and untested numbers and expectations,” Howard explained. “It’s not one of those events you can compare to anything else. This isn’t a visiting award-winning author or even a rock star. It’s the Pope — and this is The Catholic University of America.”
The first step was to order merchandise early — including commemorative t-shirts and magnets, as well as additional DC-themed products, to be available when students arrived back on campus in August. “We didn’t want to bring in too much Pope Francis-specific merchandise, as we had a limited selling window on these items, but we knew we couldn’t meet all of the customers’ needs with just one t-shirt design in two colors and a couple magnets and small gifts,” Howard stated.
Two pop-up stores — one within the security perimeter and one outside it — were established to service students on site. “We worked with the home office to make sure that every item rung in at an even dollar amount so we could handle a possible 60,000 people who were planning to attend,” Howard recalled.
While the back-to-school timing presented a challenge, it also created an opportunity. “The traffic was already built in, so we were able to sell about 200 commemorative tees the first two weeks of classes,” Howard recalled. The Barnes & Noble College home office worked closely with the bookstore team to develop a multi-channel marketing plan that included a fully custom web page, email blasts, social media posts as well as a strong presence on the bookstore app. “This allowed us to reach a wider audience with our products and create a great deal of buzz about the event.”
One example of such broad outreach was a six-part papal book discussion, featuring works such as Catholics in Washington by Christina Cox and The Pope & The CEO by Andreas Widmer. “The lecture series, which took place throughout the month of September, had both faculty and local authors who spoke about their works and how they related to the Pope’s visit,” explained bookstore Operations Manager Morgan Schatzman. “It was a great way to share the university’s message, help people prepare, and generate excitement.”
The day also created off-the-charts convenience and café sales. “We sold hundreds of sandwiches, what felt like thousands of cookies and cupcakes, and about three gazillion cups of coffee,” Howard announced. “Sales that day for the café and convenience totaled an impressive number that our very young café had not seen before.”
For an engagement with the world’s Catholic spiritual leader, even the contingency plans required contingency plans. “You can plan for almost every single outcome, and inevitably, the unplanned happens,” Howard noted.
At 5:45 a.m., when the bookstore lights were first turned on to begin floor setup, nearly 50 FBI field agents crowded the café doors. Many of the officers had been working all night or were about to start a marathon day shift, but the store wasn’t scheduled to open for another 45 minutes. “Instead of turning them away, staff was gathered to make the officers made-to-order drinks,” Howard recalled. “We opened the café and kept it opened until 10 p.m. that night!”
A craving for coffee wasn’t the only thirst the bookstore could quench. With an hour or two still to go before the Mass, people were still standing in line to clear security — some had already been standing for hours — and the early fall heat was causing some to feel light-headed or sick.
“With thousands of people waiting in line right outside our store, it was our duty to make sure that they were okay,” Howard said. “We grabbed all the water pitchers and sleeves of water cups from the café, and we took to the streets to ‘water’ the people waiting in line. Other street vendors were charging for water, but as a representative of the University and the Barnes & Noble College brand, we served our community. Today, our community was a bit larger, but we still had an obligation to serve them!”
As an alumna of Catholic University, the Pope’s visit was especially meaningful for Schatzman, who received communion during the day. “As an alumna, it was great to see the current students because I could relate to what they were feeling. But it also was wonderful to see so many alumni return for this event.”
Overall, the store finished with tremendous sales on the day of the papal visit. But there were also elements that were equally as important. “Most importantly, we needed to ensure that each and every customer — whether in the store, within the perimeter or in one of the many overflow locations — had a positive, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Howard said. “After all, it’s not every day you get to see the Pope.”