Benjamin Ayres Talks Romance University’s First Year and Bringing Hallmark to the Fans
Now that we’re into November, the holiday TV movie season is kicking off in earnest, and Hallmark is the champion of counting down the days and celebrating all things Christmas. It’s in that spirit that several of the Hallmark peeps, in part freed up by the tandem strikes, are making themselves available in myriad ways over the next couple of months. This morning, I chatted with Benjamin Ayres, the chairman of Romance University (RU), about the four – count ‘em, FOUR – events he’s involved with and/or hosting between now and the end of the year.
We’re also closing in on the first year of RU, and Ayres is most proud of the community that’s been born out of that endeavor, which began as a way to raise money via some cool swag. To date, the RU community has donated over $20,000 dollars by purchasing hoodies, t-shirts, hats, mugs, and more. And Ayres just unveiled the 2023 holiday collection of hoodies, PJs, and beanies, which you can check out here.
“I think what I thought I was going to be doing was sell some hoodies and just some fun merch. But what I realized was I built an incredible community that is so heartwarming to me, and the messages that I get and the hope it seems to instill in the community and the alumni and the friendships that have spawned because of them,” he shares.
“Yes, we raised money and we’ve been helping charities, but on a whole other level, the fact that it’s been able to build these communities and these friendships within it and then just to see people wearing this fun clothing … it just puts a big smile on my face and really warms my heart and I just have so much love and respect for everybody within the community.”
“It’s just sort of becoming its own thing. It’s this malleable piece of clay that’s constantly being restructured and formed in beautiful ways. It’s just kind of me and everybody having fun. And I think that’s what’s been wonderful about it.”
That same community separately also just donated $5,400 toward this weekend’s 6th Annual Dance Party to End ALZ in Nashville, Founded by Kimberly Williams-Paisley, this year’s event will be hosted by Ashley Williams and Nikki DeLoach. Sunday night, an assortment of Hallmark’s talent will be on the dance floor, performing on stage, and milling through the crowd. Two of the RU fundraisers won the raffle for floor seats, where they’ll sit at a table with Ayres and other talent.
“I love the community so much that we can focus on this thing and then raise all this money. [Alzheimers and dementia] obviously touched a lot of people, because there were many people who donated who weren’t even gonna go to Nashville, but just wanted to help the cause, which was really nice,” he says.
“I’m just gonna go hang out, dance, and meet fans. If I’m lucky, I’ll print some buttons before I go, but I’m just gonna be there, really supporting the cause and Nikki and Ashley and this party. My focus for this weekend is to make sure everybody has a good time. There are a lot of people, a lot of alumni, coming. There’s an obvious crossover with the Hallmark universe. I’m happy to go down and get a weekend away. I’ve never been to Nashville.”
At the end of November, Ayres is hosting the first physical pop-up shop of Romance University swag in Toronto’s Distillery district. While it will be available throughout the holidays, there’s an open house the evening of November 30th that’s free admission, but donations are welcome, and there will be exclusive items available only in the store.
“I never would’ve thought when we started selling some hoodies a year ago, that I would actually be at a store. Last spring when I launched the jackets, I was staying with Drew Scott of the Property Brothers at his place in LA and he said, ‘You gotta get your stuff into a store.’” I didn’t know how I would even get it into a brick-and-mortar store,” he recalls.
“There is a stylist, Char [Charlotte Jenkins], who flies from Toronto once a month, sometimes twice a month, to Los Angeles and brings all of the clothes for their shows. She’s been doing it for years. And as we’re talking, she’s said, ‘Why don’t you bring it into my store? It’s Gotstyle in the Distillery District of Toronto,’ which is in the middle of the biggest winter festival. This Christmas market is Hallmark on steroids. And I said that would be incredible.”
“So I’ve had the year to sort of understand the appetite and then come up with designs and new hoodies that I wanted and the colors and the event. And now I’ve got products that’ll be specific to the store and it’s gonna be in the store for weeks. And this event will be by donations. You’ll walk in and all of the money that we make that night will be going to two of the women’s shelters that I work with here in Toronto.”
“I’ve got Laura Vandervoort coming out. She and I just did our movie together. Brittany Bristow will be coming out and, Roddy Colmer will be singing with Jesse Alexander, his girlfriend. They’re gonna do some originals. And really it’s just a celebration of the brand, a launch of the brand and just hanging out.”
“It’s not a convention. There’ll be music playing. It’s just gonna be in a store. The intention was really to raise awareness and bring more awareness to the brand within Canada and Toronto, specifically. Hallmark Channel is on board and it’s a collaboration with them and Gotstyle and the Distillery District and Romance University.”
“I’ve got just the holiday stuff, so I’m keeping it pretty limited. I’m working with this incredible woman, her name is Schenley Jansma and she’s with Nineteen Marketing here in Toronto. She’s sourced some really good products that will be specific to this store … like white beanies with pom poms and nice black mittens, buffalo plaid blankets, just for this popup.”
On December 2nd, Ayres heads to Vancouver for the Hallmark Fan Experience, a first-of-its-kind set visit to Martini Film Studios, where Hallmark films several of its projects, for what he describes as going inside an actual snow globe. A mini-con of sorts, not affiliated with RU, the event will welcome fans for a half-day of set tours and panels with Hallmark talent like Vancouver locals Kimberley Sustad, Paul Campbell, Victor Webster, Peter and Julia Benson, Antonio Cupo, and Ali Liebert.
“This is wholly separate from RU. Gemma Martini owns Martini Studios in Vancouver, which is where a lot of films and TV series get made. And she reached out to me and said, ‘I love what you’re doing.’ Do you think there’s something we could do to collaborate in a way and, and build out a Christmas market essentially on the back lot and allow people to come to it,'” he shares.
“And now we’ve brought Hallmark on board and the market event that will be ongoing for the month of December, people can come check it out, kind of walk around it. It’s essentially Universal Studios meets Disneyland meets Hallmark on steroids. I wanted to launch it with a day of a bunch of the actors that I could bring out. So they’re all my personal friends. I’m gonna do a panel, it’s gonna be a very special day. We’re gonna do a VIP pack. I think there’s only three tickets left for the VIP, but I’m gonna actually film scenes with people who have bought those tickets.”
“Hallmark has given us access to clips of movies so you can see where a movie was shot, and watch the movie and then see the set, the angles that it was shot on, hear about how that works. Romance University will have a storefront display behind frosted glass and then just a QR code so you can buy online.”
“Everybody who comes is getting one of the green beanies. Hallmark has bought 350 of them and everybody who comes will get one in their swag bag. This is gonna be the first of many events we want to throw at this location. It’s such a unique opportunity to allow people to not only hear about how we make the movies, but hear about them in the locations where we make them and let them walk around. [In the vein of RU], it’s a real way to learn and an entertaining way to educate, on site of how the movies are made and really get to hear from us and walk around and get a feel for it.”
The weekend of December 8th, Ayres is back in the US for the New Jersey Christmas Con, where RU began. If there’s any swag leftover from the Toronto event, he’ll bring it down for the Con. “I wanna make it easier for people to buy some RU stuff from the booth, and I’ve just figured out how to get a point of sale system so people can use their credit cards,” he explains.
Click through the links above for more info on each event, and follow RU and Ayres on IG, where he hopes to pop in with a live stream as time permits and opportunities arise to share the events with fans around the world.
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Ayres/Romance University.
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