Feature Article - March 2008
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The Main Event

Pulling It Off Without a Hitch

By Kelli Anderson

And now a word from our sponsor...

Perhaps no other factor has influenced the growth of festivals and special events in the United States as much as sponsorship. According to industry sources cited by the International Festival and Events Association (IFEA) based in Boise, Idaho, the number of festivals held in the United States went from 182 million in 1982 to 2 billion just five years later as a direct result of corporate sponsorship activity.

This continuing sponsorship trend, in which event planners find ways to marry local, private and corporate businesses to special events, creates much of the funding so many events typically need to be viable and to offer the quality the public demands to ensure they'll come back for more.

"I think sponsorship is a huge part of paying for these events," said Jean Gaines, president of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce in Geneva, Ill. "Business sponsorship allows businesses to get up close and personal with the consumer. It gives them a sense of the community."

From her 30 years of service, Gaines knows of what she speaks. Geneva, a picturesque Midwestern town of Swedish descendents, has combined the traditions celebrating its heritage with business-savvy ideas resulting in special events that continue to grow and even draw national attention.

Recently receiving the spotlight on the Ellen DeGeneres Show for its annual Christmas Walk event, the town is a great example of how quality special events and festivals not only bring in the crowds, but are a great source of free PR. In the same way, the city's annual art show has earned it a national award, while the very popular Swedish Days Festival and Festival of the Vine attended by over a quarter of a million people this past summer continue to attract media attention.

Sponsorship was also one of the notable strategies that helped to breathe new life into the Central Iowa Fair.

"I took an old building on the grounds called an activity building and opened it up to local businesses for an expo," said Denny Grabenbauer, fair manager for the past five years. "We rented out 36 different booths and then sold sponsorship to the building."

But sponsorship didn't end there. Whenever Grabenbauer introduces a new idea, it is often sponsorship that makes it a reality.

"Last year we brought in a big top tent to draw people in from the street and got fans to cool it off. It became the central meeting place. I found a bank willing to pay for it, and it was such a big hit that we want another for next year," Grabenbauer said. "We'll also be bringing in a three-ring circus. The last day will be a kids' day with elephants, and if you want to put a business's name on an elephant, you pay for it."

And apparently, as he had hoped, businesses are willingly signing on.

For the town of San Luis Obispo in California, world-famous for a farmer's market that attracts more than 10,000 people per week, sponsorship has played an important role in funding special events.

"We get sponsors to sponsor our holiday parade and our snow night when snow is dumped on the side street for the kids," said Diana Cotta, event coordinator for Thursday Night promotions with the Downtown Association. "We trade them a respected booth at the farmer's market to drum up their support. It's a win-win, but you have to be creative."