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Marketing Class Experiences ‘Dining in the Dark’

Students Analyze How Nonprofit Lowell Association for the Blind Promotes Event

Antoinette Purcell tries tuna tartare at Dining in the Dark Photo by Ed Brennen
Sophomore Antoinette Purcell tries the tuna tartare appetizer during the Lowell Association for the Blind's annual Dining in the Dark fundraiser at Moonstones in Chelmsford.

By Ed Brennen

Joey DiPietro carefully poked his fork around his plate, searching for every last bite of roasted short ribs and truffle potato croquettes with bleu cheese fondue.

“This is so good. I want to make sure I eat everything,” said the senior business administration major from Chelmsford, who resisted the temptation to sneak a quick peek from under the blindfold he was wearing.

Peeking is not allowed at “Dining in the Dark,” the Lowell Association for the Blind’s annual fundraiser that lets blindfolded dinner guests experience what it’s like to eat a meal without their sense of sight.

Deb Finch, a lecturer in the Manning School of Business and a member of the LAB’s board of directors, brought 10 students from her Marketing for Nonprofits class to this year’s event, which drew more than 100 people to Moonstones restaurant in Chelmsford.
Video by Ed Brennen
Students in lecturer Deb Finch's Marketing for Nonprofits class experience what it's like to be blind at Dining in the Dark.

“It’s all about experiential, hands-on learning,” said Finch, whose students have participated the past two years. “At first they’re a little timid and nervous, but they quickly become really engaged. It changes their perspective.”

Finch has students write a reflection on the experience, with an analysis of how the event was marketed and recommendations on how the nonprofit can promote future dinners to attract potential donors, volunteers and clients.

In her paper on last year’s event, Michelle Tran ’17 suggested that the LAB increase its social media presence on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat to reach its target audience. 

“Posting pictures online of previous and recent events, checking into places and using hashtags on social is very effective in informing people that this is an annual event,” Tran wrote in her analysis.

Sophomore business administration major Antoinette Purcell had never heard of the event, but said she is “definitely buying a ticket next year.”

“It was an amazing experience,” Purcell said after removing her blindfold following the two-hour dinner. “I feel like going out and telling the world about this.”
A student touches a Braille alphabet card Photo by Ed Brennen
The Lowell Association for the Blind handed out cards with Braille for students to learn during their meal.

Junior Allison Tin considers herself a “visual” eater, so she was hesitant to try the first course of butternut squash soup — especially since diners weren’t told what they were being served.

“I definitely paid more attention to the flavors. I could taste ginger and turmeric,” Tin said before the appetizer of tuna tartare, easily the most tactile-challenging course of the night.

Tin, who has a concentration in marketing, said Finch’s course has been a great way to learn more about the nonprofit world.

“I’ve thought about running an animal shelter someday, and this class has taught me so much about how organizations can promote themselves in the community,” said Tin, a North Andover native who volunteers regularly at the MSPCA.

Besides getting food from their plates to their mouths and not spilling their water glasses, one of the biggest challenges students faced during the dinner was finding their way to the restroom. While LAB board members were on hand to serve as escorts, senior Lindsey Andella didn’t need any help. She has worked as a server at Moonstones for more than three years and was able to navigate her way through the dining room without incident.
Marketing for Nonprofit students pose for a group photo Photo by Ed Brennen
Students are assigned to write a post-meal reflection and marketing analysis for the Lowell Association for the Blind.

“It was really interesting to put yourself in the shoes of someone who can’t see,” said Andella, whose concentrations are in marketing and management. The Tewksbury native said the experience has given her even more empathy for a great aunt who is visually impaired. 

“I’ve seen her eating at family functions and never really thought twice about it,” Andella said. “But after going through this, I will.”

And that’s the goal of the event, according to LAB Executive Director Elizabeth Cannon, who handed out cards with the Braille alphabet for guests to touch during dinner.

“It’s been amazing to have UMass Lowell students come and experience this,” Cannon said as the students contended with their dessert course: a pumpkin spice whoopie pie with a hot chocolate chaser. “They look at the event from a marketing perspective, but I bet they’ll never see a visually impaired person with a cane the same way again.”