Feature Article - October 2016
Find a printable version here

Your Best Fest Yet

Trends and Strategies for Fun Events and Festivals

By Chris Gelbach


Working With Outside Event Organizers

For the park districts opting to work with outside event producers instead of producing events themselves, appropriately highlighting and preserving the park environment remains a top priority.

The Chicago Park District, which hosts major music festivals such as Pitchfork, Lollapalooza and Riot Fest, typically charges a rental fee for these events, often also including agreements to take revenue as a dollar amount per ticket sold or a percentage share of the event's gross profit. According to Dana Zilinski, director of revenue for the Chicago Park District, additional revenue opportunities often come through parking fees and concessions either directly produced by the park or by those in a park vendor program.

With a thorough commitment to proper risk management, the Chicago Park District also collects insurance documentation and a refundable security deposit, and requires event organizers to meet with public safety officials to develop comprehensive security, emergency and medical plans. A plan for park preservation is also integral.

"A best practice is to get together with the organizer and park landscape staff for pre- and post-event walk-throughs," said Zilinski. "At these site visits, we take photographs, video and mark a map to document and agree upon current conditions of the park. The same group meets after the event to inspect the grounds and facilities once again to identify damages for which the organizer is responsible."

A variety of additional tactics are also employed to use the events as opportunities to enhance the parks and their operations. At Chicago's Douglas Park, Riot Fest organizers invested in park drainage improvements that helped lessen the potential for damage as a result of the event. "This work also helped park users year-round now that the fields drain properly and fewer soccer games need to be cancelled due to field conditions," Zilinski said.

Chicago events also often support fundraising efforts of the Park Advisory Council by offering the council booth space at the festival. Neighborhood job fairs are often sometimes held in advance of large fests, and volunteer steward groups often work with event producers to install temporary fencing that protects nearby nature areas.

At the IFEA, which partners with the National Recreation and Park Association on an Event Management School, Schmader is also seeing more park districts send managers to the school as part of an effort to dip their toes into producing their own events.

"We have a lot of parks management people who have been assigned now to produce events, instead of just renting their venues to people. And perhaps they don't have that background—it's a different approach for them," Schmader said.

In the program, parks managers gain expertise in creating a business plan, budget and various programs for a successful event, in addition to the various elements that go into creating a quality experience. These include considerations such as:

  • Quality and creativity
  • Signage and decorations
  • Transportation and parking
  • Music and ambience
  • Information and services
  • Customer service
  • Photo stops and character opportunities
  • Participant events
  • Unexpected "moments"

In terms of nationwide trends as park districts try to maximize their festival opportunities, Schmader is seeing an overload of fun runs in towns large and small. Craft beer fests are also exploding, and seem to be successful in a variety of environments.

While anyone can learn from the operational practices of other successful events such as these, coming up with the creative personal touches that make a festival unique takes a bit more creativity. Participant events are one example, with notable standouts including the scarecrow contest at Scarecrow Fest in St. Charles, Ill.; the World Championship Grape Stomp at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair; and the sand sculpture contest at Texas SandFest in Port Aransas, Texas.

"Harder than anything you do operationally is trying to figure out exactly what it is that you're trying to create—and then how you are going to pull that off with the quality that it needs," Schmader said. When you do, through creativity, planning and community involvement, your fest can pay dividends in helping to create loyal park supporters—whether the fest itself makes a profit or not.