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Feature Article - October 2016

Your Best Fest Yet

Trends and Strategies for Fun Events and Festivals

By Chris Gelbach


As park districts and communities seek to attract and satisfy both new and more dedicated patrons, festivals and events offer the potential to achieve all of these goals. But significant thought and planning is necessary to determine both what the event is trying to achieve and how it can be done successfully.

"Most communities want to have events out there, and that's great, but I don't think they stop enough at the front end to say, 'OK, what are we trying to accomplish with our event?'" said Steve Schmader, president and CEO of the International Festivals & Events Association (IFEA).

According to Schmader, this could include goals such as to create something that rounds out a dead area in the calendar. It could be to fill a need for a specific type of event, such as an arts event. Or to reach a certain audience not currently being adequately served, such as younger children.

It can also involve finding a way to adapt great ideas from elsewhere and transform them to fit your needs. "You want to look at new ideas and steal your ideas as best you can," Schmader said. "We're a very sharing industry. If you take my idea and use it in another city somewhere, I'm complimented as opposed to offended. But you have to make sure that the ideas you are looking at will translate to your own community."

In terms of big-picture considerations, Schmader advises recreation managers to make sure that the event fits the target audience and that you have the budget to pull it off with quality. Great things can be accomplished without a huge budget if you're willing to knock on doors to gain support and participation from various volunteers, organizations and businesses in the community. "You can pull off a whole lot for very little sometimes if you're out there doing that," Schmader said. Having someone on your staff who understands sponsorships is a big part of this opportunity.

Food and Beverage Considerations

When planning a food and beverage program, you have plenty of options. For local flair, you can reach out to local restaurants with an interest in event participation. Local food trucks are another option that offer both pros and cons.

"Food trucks are a fun, neat thing, and they can add some fun ambience," Schmader said. "But they typically cannot serve the kinds of numbers that a regular vendor booth can." For this reason, it's important to have those conversations up front and put a plan in place for what they'll do if they run out of food.

Likewise, a miscalculation relating to attendance can create additional food, beverage, restroom, seating, parking and other issues that can derail your event and the enjoyment of attendees. It's always going to be a guessing game to some extent, and a situation affected tremendously by uncontrollable variables such as weather.

Networking through organizations such as the IFEA and the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) can give you some valuable guidance in this area. "There's a good bit of guessing, but if you base your estimates on other professional peers who've held similar types of events, you'll at least have the information to make some educated guesses," Schmader said.

When it comes to concessions, another option can be to buy your own equipment and do it yourself. Chris Petroff, senior sales manager for a leading provider of concession equipment, argues that eliminating the middleman can provide substantial benefits.

"It really comes down to this. If you truly just don't have the manpower, you're pretty much forced to hire these outside companies to come in," Petroff said. "But whenever you do that, you're giving up way too big a share of your profits. And the profit margins on most of these items are 70 to 80 percent."

Operating your own concessions can also be a way to offer more value to price-conscious patrons. Petroff noted the example of locations set up in low-income neighborhoods that offer snow cones. The total food cost to make a snow cone, including the ice, the cone, the syrup and straw, is less than 20 cents. "Even if you sell it for $1, you're still making 80 cents profit on every one that you sell," Petroff said. "So you can keep the prices reasonable and still make a lot of money. Whereas an outside vendor is going to sell it for $2.50 or $3, and that can take it out of the reach of a lot of the audience."

Conversely, a higher-income audience can offer the potential for huge margins on food offerings that are known hits with targeted crowds. Petroff noted the example of antique car shows. "That's a kettle corn crowd," he said. "For those types of events, if you're not selling kettle corn, you're missing the boat. Those customers will easily pay $5 to $7 for a big bag of kettle corn that costs you $1 to make. It's an incredible profit, the customers like it, and in one event like that, you can make more than enough to pay for your equipment."

When it comes to festival foods, Petroff is seeing customers interested in novel twists to traditional festival fare. Examples include things like red velvet funnel cakes; gourmet popcorn enhanced with spicy Cajun and jalapeno flavors; cotton candy in novel flavors such as white chocolate, chocolate cherry and bacon; cinnamon frosted almonds; and hot-weather hits such as Hawaiian shaved ice and lemonade shakeups.

In terms of machinery, Petroff is seeing more parks and communities opt for gas-fired equipment that allows concessionaires to do everything from pop kettle corn to fried foods without the need for electricity or a generator. "It gives people the ability to literally go anywhere and be able to make some of these concepts," Petroff said.

For festival food and beverage sales, Schmader is seeing more events shift from tokens and tickets as a way to get rid of cash-handling. Instead, he's seeing a move to electronic pay options, from RFID wristbands to preloaded cards. These offer the ability for patrons to put money on the cards on an ATM-like machine so volunteers don't have to handle money at all. According to Schmader, the cards can often be set up like gift cards so that patrons can use them anywhere afterward if all the money isn't used at the fest—eliminating the "pocketful of unused tickets" problem many event-goers leave the festival grounds with.

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