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Guest Column - July/August 2002

Music to Your Ears

Creating and marketing a festival

By C. Roger Moss, East Hartford Parks and Recreation Department


No festival is a simple undertaking. Like any special event, it requires an incredible amount of organization and time, detailed planning, many moving pieces, and of course, a dedicated staff to put it all together.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ROGER MOSS
Scenes from the 2001 Podunk Bluegrass Festival held in East Hartford, Conn.

But with the right attitude and masterminding, it is possible to create a successful event that draws locals and tourists alike to become a real crowd-pleaser.

Case study: Podunk Bluegrass Festival

If your facility is pondering the thought of starting its own festival, it might help to study our story of the Podunk Bluegrass Festival held annually in East Hartford, Conn., on the last weekend in July. The festival is structured to highlight the Hockanum River basin and the Hockanum River Linear Park. The festival also highlights the Podunk Native American culture that thrived along the Hockanum River in East Hartford.

Besides national Bluegrass acts, the festival also features camping, children's programs, field picking, songwriters and musician's workshops, and arts and crafts. Targeting families with children, we anticipate this year that there will be 2,500 to 4,000 advanced tickets sold and 10,000 to 15,000 attendees at the three-day event.

Podunk's history

The Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival began in the summer of 1996 in cooperation with the mayor's office, the South End Residents and Merchants Association, and the East Hartford Fine Arts Commission.

Originally, the first few Podunk Festivals were an excellent way to highlight our newly developed Town Green while creating a forum through which indigenous, traditional American music—namely Bluegrass—could be presented to an audience who would not, otherwise, have had the opportunity to experience this exciting genre.

Through the years, we have featured many of Bluegrass music's most prestigious performers, including pioneers such as: Dr. Ralph Stanley, Max Weisman and the multi-Grammy award winner John Hartford. The Podunk Music Festival has featured seasoned, popular acts as well as local talent.

In our third season, we outgrew the East Hartford Town Green and moved the entire two-day event to Martin Park. This proved to be an excellent venue for the festival and was well received by all who attended. Podunk 2001 was our most widely attended music festival and featured Grammy Award Winner Emmylou Harris.

Where to start?

Now that you know a little bit about our evolution, hopefully the following information will help in planning a festival of your own.

First of all, figure out the obvious: What is your festival showcasing and celebrating? Do your homework.

Depending on the type of musical festival you plan, you can get a great deal of information from a national organization. For example, information on Bluegrass can be found through IBMA, International Bluegrass Music Association. Research is key; build your resources.

Sponsorship

It will probably take a combination of private, business and municipal donations—it depends how much your town is willing and able to support the event financially.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ROGER MOSS

A marketing study done for our town stated that this event needs more support by the town because this type of event was a perfect way to promote the town to others and improve its image.

As part of sponsorship, a major newspaper gave us $2,500 worth of advertising if we spent $5,000. This was more than half of our advertising budget.

When you go looking for sponsors, keep in mind the time frame that companies make decisions. You may be asking at the wrong time of year.

Demographics of your potential attendees can be found through those related national organizations. For example, IBMA sent me a full report on demographics of Bluegrass, which told me that apparently 37 percent of Bluegrass fans eat at Subway—this now becomes a potential sponsor.

How your festival is named can add value to your event. Think bigger, think regional rather than just local: We tell our sponsors about the "Greater Hartford" venue not just the "East Hartford" Venue.

How many areas will you be using? More than one site gives added value due to additional exposure. Make the names of the areas appealing to many. For example, we had called our kids' activity area the "Children's Village," but we changed the name to the "Family Music Stage." This way it would attract more people to the area not just children.

Ideally having a paper as a sponsor is great. However, if this doesn't work, can you trade ad space for tickets, VIP passes, or meet and greet the performers as a way to get ad space for free? Buy an ad in a Weekend Guide and see if they will do a preview article with a picture at no charge. Larger newspapers will cost more to advertise.

You will need to do a certain amount of local press to get good coverage—both before and after the event. Usually a local weekly paper will print everything you send them, while a larger paper may take more persuading.

Marketing your event

You need good people to make sure things run smoothly. One way to assure this is to hire a marketing person. You must be aware of all the costs that you will be billed for such as mileage, photography, copying, postage, overnight deliveries and meals. These items can add up very quickly.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ROGER MOSS

Send out an RFP (Request for Proposal) for a marketing company to handle your publicity if you are not going to do this in-house. Using interns wasn't an option for us because we felt that they don't have the contacts in the press. It is important to know who to call to get a story in and how to get wider paper and television coverage.

Plan on spending a large amount for marketing. It is safe to say you should budget about 10 percent of your overall budget for marketing. Marketing is expensive, and you need to determine where you will get the most exposure for your dollar. For example, a three-line ad in the New York Times Weekend Guide was $148, for a one-day run on the Friday before the event.

Make your staff and volunteers visible

Develop a level of staff shirts. We use a polo shirt for people who attend all the weekly meetings—these people can make an executive decision. We have a few additional polo shirts for any dignitaries and our stage announcers. There is a second color T-shirt for head workers of the entire festival, but ones who aren't authorized to make major decisions on their own. Then there's a third color T-shirt for all other volunteers.

Develop a volunteer application. This application can include areas such as:

Ticket Sales
Stage Hands
Drivers
Festival Office
Program Sales
Information Booth
Finance/Accounting
Merchandise Sales
Operations—Setup and Breakdown
Volunteer Check-In

Treat your volunteers well since you couldn't run the show without them. In exchange for volunteering, give these folks the chances to meet performers, a free food ticket or a free admission to another day.

Festival details you won't want to forget

Don't overlook these key elements.

PHOTO COURTESY OF LARRY BILANSKY
More performers at the 2001 Podunk Bluegrass Festival
  • Bracelets In a large park how will you know who has paid to enter? We give a bracelet to everyone who pays admission. You want them as brightly colored as possible for easy visibility.
  • Support services meeting Make sure to set up a meeting with health, fire marshal, police and fire departments prior to your event. We schedule this meeting about a month out to go over any changes and to have a chance to discuss areas of concern from last year's event. At this meeting, you will confirm police and emergency services for the festival. Also, when will vendors need be set for inspections from the health department?
  • Portable restrooms Does your department have a contract with a company for portable restrooms? Try to build into your current bid specifications of these types of events for a better cost of delivery and setup. We include the following in our RFP:

    "During the course of the year, there are other events (i.e. Bluegrass Festival, 15 units) where we may be responsible for obtaining additional units for one to three days. Include cost per unit for these delivered, set-up and removed."

    Find out upfront any additional service charge for an extra cleaning due to heavy usage or special events during the year. Have the bid include cost per unit for extra cleaning.

    Finally, make sure you have enough units, spread them out throughout your festival, and don't forget about having handicapped-accessible units.

  • Trash cans The more there are, the more likely they will be used.
  • Hospitality tent Place in a high-visibility area, well maintained and manned, roped and fenced off. You will need to include chairs, tables, and flowers on the tables. Make it a special area by "Invitation Only." Call it the "Sponsors Tent" or "VIP Tent" so people know it is not for the public.
  • Directional signs How easy is it to get to the festival? Put up signs on highway exits and major roads, coming from all directions. Check and make sure they are out for the entire festival.
  • Entrances, parking area or gates If they are in the sun, do you have cover for staff sitting there for hours? Do you have drinks for them? Food? Breaks?
  • Security Large sums of money and no police is a chance for problems. Also, at the entrances, you will want to have information program books, cash boxes, maps, flashlights, trash cans and walkie-talkies or phones for emergencies.
  • Press release on park closing Send a letter to groups who use the park (baseball leagues, etc.) and be sure to reserve the facility on the department calendar so no one can book parties or outings.

    If you are closing an area that is normally staffed by your department (such as a pool), make sure they know they don't have to work that weekend. We have always closed the pool due to the fact that it is open at no charge to residents because they might say, "As a taxpayer if it's open I can come in without paying for the festival."

  • Press kits The number depends on your area; we send out 50 press kits. The more pictures you can get from performers, the less you have to have made. Newspapers often prefer color slides.

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVE GRIFFIN
    More performers at the 2001 Podunk Bluegrass Festival
  • Performer CD area Do you have an area for performers to sell their wares? They like to have a tent where they can sell copies of their CDs. Make sure you request a copy for your files. You can request a percentage of their sales as a trade off for setting up a space. Most performers will send you their most recent CD for promotional purposes. Send it to local college stations to have them become familiar with the performers and play their songs.
  • Vendors Too many vendors makes everyone unhappy. And don't tell them attendance numbers that aren't there. Same as with sponsors. If you say 10,000 will be there, they need to see 10,000. Invite vendors back at a reduced rate or even for free if it doesn't work the first year. They may not take you up on it but at least you offered. You can also offer a discount to returning vendors for getting their payment in early.
  • State sales tax You must send a list of your vendors and their state sales tax numbers to the state. Make sure you have all vendors understand this before arriving. This will also eliminate any fly-by-night vendors who can cause problems for you.
  • Campgrounds Do you have a location that you can allow camping? This doesn't mean water hook-ups and sewage lines; you need to let your attendees know this is "camping in the rough." However are there added amenities you can give such as use of a shower house, bathrooms and electricity?
  • Festival ground transportation We have found that golf carts are needed to move entertainers and equipment, collect money from gates and parking, help the local-access TV crew videotaping the event, garbage collection, and shuttling water and food to volunteers and staff.

Hopefully some of these points will help in making what is sure to be a great event even better. Each year we learn a little more and hope to eventually have our festival be an annual destination for 15,000 to 25,000 people.

C. Roger Moss, CPRP, is director of East Hartford Parks and Recreation Department. He can be reached at rmoss@ci.east-hartford.ct.us.

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