Feature Article - September 2018
Find a printable version here

Eat, Drink & Be Merry

Making a Great Event

By Dave Ramont


Beverage sales are typically governed by state and local regulations, and besides the Health Department, the Liquor Control Commission also has certain rules to be aware of if alcoholic drinks are to be offered. Permit applications can take weeks to process, so paperwork and fees should be submitted well in advance of the event.

Sometimes organizers handle food and beverage business themselves; other times concessionaires are sought. Things such as available startup funds, number of volunteers needed and foodservice equipment all factor into this decision. Either way, it is advisable for organizers to seek bids. If the promoters are handling food sales themselves, bids are a good way to get the best price on hot dogs, buns, condiments, soft drinks and other food items. If outside vendors are to be used, solicit bids to find the best return, or percent of gross, to the organization. And when writing contracts with vendors, have everything spelled out—financial arrangements, hours of operation, menu and location.

There are many themes that events are built around, aside from food and music. Local history, natural resources, agriculture and industry are all common themes. It could be an ethnic or cultural festival, or be centered on holidays or seasonal events. A theme gives an event an overall focus and can provide a unique identity. Once this is decided upon, it's recommended that organizers write goals or objectives for the project to outline what will be done, who will do it and what results are desired. This strategy should encompass long-term goals and immediate plans, including a realistic budget, and will help keep planners and various committees on the same page. It's also advisable to contact other established event organizations for advice. They've negotiated the rules and regulations and know what the pitfalls are. A catchy name, tied to the theme, can make publicity much easier. It's also a great way to make the event an annual, and more memorable, tradition. Plus, the events promotional materials—signs, banners, etc.—can be used repeatedly.

Sometimes municipalities will have nonprofit groups working within the city government to help boost tourism and sponsor special events. In 1983, the St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) was founded in St. Charles, Ill., to promote the community as a destination for meetings, conventions and leisure getaways. The bureau oversees Scarecrow Fest, the town's signature festival held each October. The hallmark of the fest is the more than 100 handmade and mechanical scarecrows on display, a community-wide contest involving different groups and themes. Visitors vote for their favorites, with winners being announced on the final day.

While festivals and other events are great ways to bring communities together, they're also potential moneymakers for organizations and municipalities.

Attendees can also make their own scarecrow, with stations set up that provide clothes, straw, pantyhose and twine. There's a carnival, petting zoo, vintage auto gallery, giant sandbox and sand sculpture and, of course, many food vendors. Various stages present everything from live regional bands to local gymnastics groups and professional pumpkin carving demonstrations.

DeAnn Wagner is interim executive director of CVB, and she points out that one big draw is the huge arts and craft show. "It's organized by Art of the Heartland, and has between 150 and 170 vendors each year. All of the items in the show are handmade."

Scarecrow Fest now attracts many more people than just locals. Wagner said that through tracking during the fest, they've discovered attendees from 17 states and more than 130 Illinois communities. "Our marketing is varied, including some print, digital and social media encouraging visitors to spend the weekend," she said. Due to the amount of out-of-towners, the Thursday night before the fest is the unofficial locals' night. The carnival opens with discounted prices, and locals take their flashlights to view the scarecrows, which are set up that evening.

Weather is of course a huge challenge for organizers, but Wagner said even bad weather has been overcome. "Last year's estimated attendance was 80,000 with rain. Other years, it was estimated by the police to be over 120,000 for the weekend."

The fest is spread out across the town, which is good for local merchants and restaurants. "It is a logistics challenge with there being so many entry points; however, that is part of what makes it so enjoyable. Attendees get to stroll along the Riverwalk, enjoy the fall colors and enjoy the fest activities," Wagner said.

Wagner also explained how they work with other arms of local government to ensure safety and success. "The city has an events committee with representatives from the police, fire department, public works, park district, Downtown Partnership and others to make sure all the details are covered for the event." And while the CVB oversees the fest, they do hire two event production companies to help with production, entertainment and marketing support.

The Downtown St. Charles Partnership (DSCP) is another nonprofit working within the city, and Jenna Sawicki is the executive director. She explained how Main Street in St. Charles, as in many communities, was once the central hub of commerce and development. But as businesses left for large shopping centers, community preservation took a back seat. So in 1992 the Friends of Downtown St. Charles was formed, which evolved into the current organization, to focus on the preservation and revitalization of the historic downtown. It became part of the Illinois Main Street Program under the office of the Lieutenant Governor.