Festivals & Events Are Back in Business
There are many reasons to throw a party. And whether it's a full-blown festival with multiple entertainment stages or a simple concert in the park with a couple of food trucks, there are lots of cities and communities working to get back on the party train after a couple years of uncertainty and, well, no parties. And while many of us are ecstatic to once again gather with others to celebrate and mingle, the planners of these events are busy negotiating how best to get back in the saddle and present fun, safe and efficient gatherings.
Food is often the centerpiece of an event. And while there are enormous gatherings like the Taste of Chicago, these days many communities are staging their own "Taste of" events. And then there are gatherings celebrating a specific culinary item, oftentimes particular to that location. Eugene, Ore., hosts Truffle Fest, while Hershey, Pa., celebrates Choctoberfest and Waikiki, Hawaii, throws Spam Jam. There's the North Carolina Pickle Fest, Maine Lobster Fest and Georgia Peach Fest. Wisconsin celebrates Cheese Curd Fest, New Orleans has Beignet Fest and it's National Buffalo Wings Fest in Buffalo.
Burgoo is a traditional pioneer stew made from meat and vegetables, and in North Utica, Ill., it's a reason to throw a bash. Amanda Carter is the museum director for the LaSalle County Historical Society, which plans the Burgoo Festival as a major annual fundraising event. But why burgoo? "…Our local history has much in the way of how the people of LaSalle County survived during prairie times," offered Carter.
In its 53rd year, the two-day October event has grown into one of Central Illinois' largest fall festivals, with an annual attendance of 50,000 to 70,000 visitors.
"Saturday we have 200 craft and market vendors set up on our museum property, and the local fire department hosts their classic car show throughout the downtown streets," said Carter. "There are also live blacksmithing demonstrations all weekend at our museum's blacksmith shop. Sunday we add an additional 200 vendors to the streets and have live bluegrass music."
And burgoo. On Saturday morning, volunteers start chopping several varieties of vegetables, and at
7 p.m. the wood fires are lit under six kettles, including Big Bertha, each holding 75 to 100 gallons. A handful of volunteers stays until 7 a.m. Sunday, constantly stirring the stew. "We start service about 8 a.m. and continue until we're sold out. This usually happens as early as noon, but some years we were there until 3 to 4."
Carter said they have a great working relationship with the Village of North Utica and the police and fire departments. "The village does most of the security for our event; they bring in county officers as well to help with traffic and security. We have emergency plans in place for many different scenarios, and have a meeting with all involved prior to the event to go over staging, which includes parking areas, shutting down streets and sign placement, etc., and after the event as well."
According to Carter, they'd never be able to stage the festival without volunteers. "We have volunteers that help with the planning aspects of the festival all year long. We also bring in 50 to 60 volunteers during the festival to help with anything from veggie cutting, vendor setup, food sales, 50/50 sales and parking."
And what about funding? "Our sponsors typically help with much of the upfront cost of the event. We also do a 50/50 drawing, which really adds to what we make during the event. Grants are another way to get funding; there are many event grants out there that can offset expenses."
Another common festival theme is to celebrate and share a community's heritage and culture. Just some of the many ethnic events in Chicago, for instance, include the Southside Irish Parade, Puerto Rican Festival, Chinatown Summer Fair, African/Caribbean International Festival of Life, Fiesta del Sol, Midsommar Fest, Greek Fest, Oktoberfest and Taste of Polonia, celebrating Polish heritage.
In the 1940s, Geneva, Ill.—a Chicago suburb—started a town festival that soon evolved into Swedish Days, celebrating the towns' Swedish heritage. It's now an annual six-day event in June, and according to Laura Rush, communications director for the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, which plans the event, keeping the Swedish in Swedish Days is always a consideration. "Many of our merchants still tie in with the Swedish theme; decorate their windows, offer something Swedish in their stores, etc. We have an area called Swedish Vast that offers Swedish vendors, entertainment and food." She said this year they featured an ABBA cover band and the band Jaerv, visiting from Sweden on a North American tour.
In fact, Rush said that music is a huge festival draw, and even their mainstage events are free. And while they rely on sponsors for various aspects of the festival, it's especially helpful with entertainment. "This assists us in being able to have larger, more expensive musical acts. Some we get on our own—we've seen them elsewhere or they've submitted info to us—and some we work with a concert promoter to help us."
She said that since many people want to sing and dance to music they know, original music acts haven't been as successful, but they do mix genres—country, rock, current popular music, etc. "Additionally, if they have a following, that's very helpful for drawing large crowds if the band is active on social media."
Rush said they have a great working relationship with the city, and without the partnership, they couldn't pull off the festival. "They assist with electricity, water, garbage, putting up banners, street closures, police and fire safety and so much more."
She pointed out that while not the "pretty" stuff, considerations like port-a-potties and garbage are critical. "Before each festival key players meet with us and we go through everything, to make sure we're all good. We were on autopilot for so many years, and then COVID hit and it was like starting over."
Other Swedish Days events include a carnival, craft beer tent, Kid's Day activities, nonprofit food booths and a 5-K run. But the big capper for the fest is the parade on Sunday, typically drawing around 45,000 spectators pre-COVID.
"We have a database that we send applications to. Entrants have to pay a small fee to participate, and we ask that they present their organization or business in a fun way. In other words, don't slap a poster board on your car and drive it in the parade!"
They also bring in some "bigger" paid entries, for example tumbling troupes or drum-and-bugle and dance groups from Chicago. "These organizations use parades all over as fundraisers." But she added that cost is a challenge, and without a parade sponsor there's only so much money to use for those aforementioned units. "Weather is also a challenge; if it's threatening, we need to make a call on whether to have the parade or not."
One way to make your festival memorable is to build it around a completely unique idea or theme, like the Wisconsin Cow Chip Festival, Eeyore's Birthday Party in Austin, Texas, the National Hollerin' Contest in Spivey's Corner, N.C., or the Duck Tape Festival in Avon, Ohio.
And then there's Frozen Dead Guy Days (FDGD) in Nederland, Colo. In 1989, Bredo Morstoel died in his native Norway, eventually ending up in Colorado, where his daughter and grandson lived. Advocates for cryonics, they'd planned to open their own facility, but both were deported. Grandpa Bredo stayed behind in a shed in the hills above Nederland, where he's still tended to by community members—packed in dry ice and kept at -60 degrees Fahrenheit.
FDGD was started in 2002 by the Nederland Chamber of Commerce to generate revenue, but now FDGD LLC organizes the event with a small staff, according to co-owner Amanda MacDonald. "Nederland works with us on the permitting process that includes the liquor licensing, event space rental, police, parking, traffic and security requirements. There are fees associated with the application, and (we) pay for all the contracted services."
This includes hiring an outside security company and paying for additional policing from Boulder County sheriffs and rangers. The annual three-day event takes place in March, historically the slowest time of year for local businesses, said MacDonald, and after a two-year COVID hiatus, they drew more than 20,000 attendees this year.
It's wise for festival organizers to keep residents informed regarding event details, to cultivate a good rapport with community members. FDGD sends an open letter to residents and businesses of Nederland to clarify details and offer residents barricade passes. Additionally, signage and parking attendants are utilized to keep festival traffic out of residential areas, and each address has two entry wristbands available for use throughout the weekend. "Many residents do attend and some get out of Dodge; it can definitely be overwhelming to some and embraced fully by others," said MacDonald.
She added that the fest utilizes many local services and hires local people, and it's one of the busiest weekends for many local businesses. "The festival has also been a strong marketing campaign for the town, bringing tourists from all over the country and the world year-round."
FDGD features food and craft vendors, local beer and spirits and lots of unique activities including frozen turkey bowling, costumed polar plunge, frozen T-shirt contests, ice carving competition, brain freeze contest, frozen fix-a-flat contest, frozen dead poet slam, the Newly Dead Game and snowy human foosball. But the signature event is the Coffin Races, where teams of six pallbearers and one corpse race through a course of obstacles, mud, snow and drills. "It's so fun to watch with the incredibly witty and creative team themes, the often hilarious carnage as well as serious competition at times," said MacDonald. "The idea behind the creation of events is Frostifarian participation; anyone can join in and be part of the energy, adding to the overall event vibes."
MacDonald said that music is a huge part of the fest, with more than 30 bands in three themed super-tents, open to all patrons with a wristband. The fest opens with the popular Blue Ball, which fell on a full moon this year, "so we had a lunar theme and all ticket holders received an acre on the moon from Lunar Land. We pride ourselves on our world-class lineup and varied display of genres."
VIP passes are available, with perks including all music events, bottomless beverage cup, VIP parking and event viewing, swag bag, participation in certain events, and access to VIP potty and party bus. "We've been growing the program since 2012, and it's garnered quite the following." Ads in the FDGD guide and sponsorships also offset costs.
Holidays are another reason for fests and parties, including 4th of July celebrations, St. Patrick's Day, Earth Day and Christmas. In Sycamore, Ill., it's all about pumpkins at the 60-year old Sycamore Pumpkin Festival, held the week before Halloween, kicking off on Wednesday with the opening ceremony and cake-cutting and ending with a huge 90-minute parade on Sunday. The courthouse lawn—featuring more than 1,000 decorated pumpkins—is the center of activities, and free pumpkins are available the Saturday before the fest. There's also a carnival, entertainment, arts and craft shows, a house walk, pie eating contest, fun fair and race.
There are food and souvenir booths, but only schools, churches and other nonprofits can participate, according to Jerome Perez, vice president of the Pumpkin Festival Committee. He explained that the Lions Club started the fest, and over time other nonprofits asked if they could participate, "so the Pumpkin Festival Committee was formed with the idea to encourage nonprofit groups in DeKalb County to participate and raise money to support their causes in the community." The committee is made up of volunteers who serve a three-year term.
Perez said the city and park district also help with setup and provide support, and each has a representative on the committee to help coordinate events, road closures and security as well as police, fire and EMT support. The committee also features representatives from the nonprofits who work on planning and logistics year round. "Each event is typically run by a participating not-for-profit, and they are responsible to staff it. The only exception is the cake-cutting and parade, which are run by the Pumpkin Festival Committee."
Aside from events, other duties include brochures; publicity; vendors/permits/health department; port-a-potties/trash; property/banners/information booth; social media; historian; parade/bands; carnival/kiddie carnival; website; and entertainment.
Parade day is busiest, typically drawing around 20,000, and Perez said that many visitors come from adjacent communities and the Chicago area in general. And while they do feature some entrants like the Shriners, it's mostly a community affair, including bands from local middle schools, high schools and Northern Illinois University. And with 100 to 125 entries, parade pacing is a big undertaking. "The biggest challenge is logistics on parade day and getting the right mix of groups in the parade, so bands and musical groups are not placed next to each other. Election years can also be a challenge due to the number of politicians that want to participate since the parade is (close to) the election."
Aside from festivals, communities are getting back to and experimenting with all kinds of events, from weekly summertime concerts to street dances and craft beer tastings. Back in Geneva, aside from Swedish Days, there's the annual Arts Fair, Festival of the Vine and Christmas Walk/Holiday House Tour, all drawing many thousands of visitors. But, according to Rush, the Chamber also coordinates smaller events including January Restaurant Week, Coffee Cup Crawl and the Bridal Stroll in February, April City-Wide Garage Sale, November Cocoa Crawl and summer Thursday Night Classic Car Shows.
"We rely on sponsorships to help offset the costs," said Rush. "This year we were fortunate to receive state/federal festival grant money to assist us. We don't use membership money to pay for any festivals or events. Advertising is expensive, as is tents, workers, entertainment, house tour decorators, etc."
But the payoff for businesses is apparent. "We know that sales taxes increase during festival times. Our three lodging establishments see uptick, many being booked solid. We talk with restaurants and merchants afterward and receive feedback from them. People will come for the festival, but they will stay, shop, eat, drink and discover Geneva to hopefully return again and again."
Of course, reaching these out-of-towners in the first place is a task itself, and Rush said they work to connect in many arenas: print, digital, radio, TV, social media. "Our media partners cover many demographics and regions, so we believe we do a good job of spreading the word. The goal is to bring locals and non-locals."
She said each event has a different "flavor," which is taken into consideration. "Swedish Days is very family-oriented, whereas the Geneva Arts Fair is more couples. While some of the advertising may overlap, we would choose some different avenues for each. At Christmas we rely on cable stations that are geared toward holiday programming because we know our demographic is watching those movies/shows."
When it comes to staging a successful event, Carter's tip is to have a good working relationship with your local municipality, including police, fire, EMS and the governmental body. "Not only are they able to provide resources for your event, they may even offer funding, access to grants or advertising avenues that can be used to promote your event." Perez added that "You need some really dedicated volunteers willing to put in a lot of hours and involve as many people and groups as possible. It will spread the work and make pulling off a great event easier."
Party on. RM