Feature Article - January 2006
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Festival Fundamentals

Six habits of highly effective special events

By Stacy St. Clair

Pick your team wisely

There's no escaping it. Hosting a successful event means hard work—even for people who have been doing it for years.

The Herndon Festival in Herndon, Va., has been a summer staple in Northern Virginia for 26 years. The city's recreation department, however, refuses to put the event on autopilot.

Organizers work practically year-round on the festival, which attracts roughly 85,000 people annually. When most people are putting away their summer wardrobe, coordinators are scouting musical acts, planning 10K runs and soliciting vendors.

Which brings us to our first habit of highly effective festivals: You must assemble the right team.

"You have to find people who are willing to put in the time," says Cindy Roeder, the city's manager of recreation services.

The festival, which is held the first weekend after Memorial Day, receives rave reviews each year for being organized, entertaining and family-friendly. Roeder credits her organizing committees for maintaining the event's high standards for more than a quarter-century.

"Our executive committee and its consistency [is the key]," Roeder says. "We have two members who have been part of the committee from the very beginning. Most of the other members have been part of the committee for a long time as well."

The Herndon Festival features a 10K race, a 2K race for dogs, a carnival, a children's hands-on art fair, two fireworks shows and a business expo. The biggest attraction, however, is its musical acts.

The entertainment committee begins searching for bands as early as September, nearly nine months before the festival. They consider the musical acts—which perform on one of three stages—a top priority because the festival-goers look forward to first-rate shows.

It's another example, Roeder says, of how important the organizing team is. Festivals succeed when the behind-the-scenes players understand the community's expectations.

"We have tried to stay true to exactly what our festival is—a celebration of our community and our town," Roeder says. "We have stayed true to our mission statement and kept this a family event."

As the entertainment crew nails down the musical lineup, the planning committee reaches out to community organizations. They work with the chamber of commerce, police, public works department and other civic agencies to ensure the event runs as smoothly as possible.

"You need buy-in and commitment from all the local players," Roeder says. "You need total cooperation. The groups that you need to work with vary, of course, from town to town."

When the four-day festival ends, the committee understands its work has just begun. The event undergoes a thorough evaluation, which normally ends up being a 20-page document. Organizers make it a point to solicit input from as many sources as possible.

"Part of our festival's success is because we are a very detailed-oriented group," Roeder says. "You need to listen to everyone—you need to get a lot of feedback from everyone, most importantly, attendees."