Festival Fundamentals

Six habits of highly effective special events

By Stacy St. Clair

Pick a town, any town. You're sure to find at least one festival and a 5K or two during the year. They vary in size and scope. And they also vary in quality.

The most successful events pay attention to the little details. They worry as much about portable toilets as they do about sponsorships. They consider their steering committee as important as the headlining band.

We have talked with planners of some of the most lauded community events in the country and asked them to share their secrets of success.

Here then, with a nod to Stephen R. Covey, are six habits of highly effective events:

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."

Make their mouths water

Ice cream, hot dogs and elephant ears. Traditional festival menus rarely change. While many patrons take comfort in these summer staples, successful organizers aren't afraid to shake up the food offerings. They look for vendors that sell unique, if not always diet-friendly, items.

Chase Root Beer, for example, made headlines in the Chicago area several summers ago when it began offering deep-fried Snickers and Milky Way bars at summer festivals. The decadent treat may look like a corndog, but it's really a candy bar dipped in sweet funnel cake batter. It's then topped with powdered sugar or ice cream.

The company, which is based in Elmhurst, Ill., does more than just sell festival food. It makes the process seems like an event. They offer a special kids' booth designed to attract young patrons. With a bubble machine and a magic fountain, the stand entertains children as they order smaller size portions of chicken nuggets, lemonade, popcorn and mini hot dogs.

It also has helped lure patrons with gimmicks such as the world's largest root beer barrel and lemonade sold out of a gigantic orange. If that isn't enough to catch their fancy, the popular Midwestern vendor also offers a taffy apple assembly line, which allows festival goers to chose from a table full of toppings.

"The public wants something different and exciting," says Dick Chase, company president.

Let someone else stand in the spotlight

A festival's success sometimes relies upon the local recreation department's ability to stand in the shadows.

In Naperville, Ill., for example, the Exchange Club sponsors Ribfest, a nationally renowned summer event. Though most residents know the organization's role, few realize the responsibility shouldered by the local park district.

District officials work year-round with organizers to ensure the festival goes smoothly. The effort is so intensive, district employees dedicate about 1,300 hours each year to the event.

"We provide them with as much support as they need," says Michelle LaScola, district program manager.

A point person meets monthly with the steering committee, bringing any concerns, questions or critical information back to the district staff. Parks officials, who provide similar assistance to other festivals during the year, help Ribfest organizers address issues such as security, risk management and logistical operations.

The district staff also serves as an invaluable resource on the venue because officials know the location of every electrical line and irrigation pipe. This prevents problems—for both sides—from occurring during the festival setup.

"We have everything they need to know," LaScola says. "They need to work with us, and we need to work with them. The event is better because both parties are involved."

The Exchange Club, which donates proceeds to drug- and child-abuse prevention, pays the district for some assistance such as park police time. The district, however, provides most of its services at no charge.

"It's a community event, and it helps a good cause," LaScola says. "Why wouldn't we want to help this group?"

The attitude serves the district well. Despite their Herculean efforts, parks officials rarely receive credit or acknowledgement from the public. Most residents believe the Exchange Club, which does an amazing job of running the festival, pulled it all off.

If the district staff resents its underappreciated role, LaScola says no one has given voice to it. Instead, parks officials take silent pride in helping to throw such a well-loved festival in the community.

LaScola understands frustration can arise, but she recommends recreation managers focus on what matters most. In the end, the event is more important than limelight.

"Try to keep a positive attitude and an open mind," she says. "You don't vocalize [feeling underappreciated.] That's part of doing business. At the end of the day, it's for a great cause, and that's what's important."

Isn't That Special

Some of the best festivals and other special events celebrate a town's quirkiness or its claims to fame. Think your community doesn't have any thing special to fête? Consider the things to which these towns pay homage:

The event honors the city's long association with the fruit that eats like a vegetable. In addition to the standard carnival rides and music, this year's festival featured an Iron Chef-style cooking contest and a salsa-making competition. www.tomatofestival.net

The legendary songwriter's hometown gets a kick out its most famous son with a high-spirited annual festival. The event includes an art show, garage band competition, a classic car show and, naturally, plenty of Porter's music. www.coleportersummerfest.org

The NaCl capital of Texas celebrates its salt-mining tradition with an event that features a greased-pig competition, street dance and rodeo. Plenty of breakfasts and lunches sponsored by local businesses—but, remember, no complaining that the food tastes salty. www.grandsaline.com/chamber/salt.html

Organizers take great pride in saying their festival has been popping since 1981. The three-day celebration honors Marion's role as the nation's biggest producer of raw popcorn. www.popcornfestival.com

Each summer the city hosts a baseball tournament in which participants play the game the way the prairie town's settlers did. Among the rules employed: Hurlers pitch underhand, female participants wear dresses, and no one uses a mitt. www.stuhrmuseum.org/baseball.htm

Let the music play

Music makes the people come together.

Madonna says it, and we know she's true blue.

But while the Material Girl isn't hitting the festival circuit just yet, big-name acts help make any community event sing.

The Last Fling—a farewell to summer also thrown each year in Naperville—understands the importance of a musical lineup. For years, organizers have had great success mixing national names and local bands.

The key, organizers say, is doing your homework.

First, you must figure out your budget and what bands you want to go after, says Marie deGroh, who helped secure the popular festival's acts for 10 years.

The Fling has historically tapped rock and country acts because of their broad appeal in the Chicago area. Other genres like bluegrass or classical, while popular among some segments, may not lure the typical suburban crowd.

In 2005, for example, the festival hosted Collective Soul, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Cowboy Mouth and Kansas on the main stage. The acts appealed to festival-goers in their late-20s and early-30s, the organizers' target audience.

"Anything '80s right now seems to do well," deGroh says.

It's also important to remember you're not picking a band to play your personal private party. Many times, festival organizers make the mistake of selecting an act they like, rather than one that will pull in crowds.

DeGroh, for example, often finds that national acts with strong Internet sites are solid candidates. Bands with a Web presence can reach out to fans more easily and help draw patrons who might not otherwise attend the Fling.

"It's not about picking what you like," deGroh says. "It's about picking what the crowd will like. We go after bands we think the people in Naperville want to see."

To aid in her search for the perfect band, deGroh attends other festivals and scouts acts. She sees first-hand what boosts attendance, what turns crowds off and what gets them going.

She also relies upon Pollstar, a concert database on the Internet that she describes as an invaluable tool. DeGroh uses the site to see which bands are in the Midwest around Labor Day, making it easier—and sometimes cheaper—for them to play the Last Fling.

She then gives her wish list to a production company, another important resource for anyone overseeing a festival's entertainment. Such companies help with a multitude of tasks, including negotiating contracts and publicizing the event.

"You want to find a good production company that has its own light and sound equipment," deGroh says. "And you want to build a good relationship with the company."

Some companies also can line up radio stations to promote and co-sponsor the show. Last summer, Fling organizers had a station tied to every big-name act.

This meant the station was pushing the festival in commercials, mentioning its name between songs and generally making it a must-do Labor Day event.

"You have to pick the right station and format," deGroh says. "But, again, that's something the production company can help you with."

The production company also will help negotiate contract riders, the special requests acts make before agreeing to perform. Some stars' demands have been notoriously listed on The Smoking Gun Web site. (One American Idol runner-up, for example, reportedly demands his drinks be served in "thin paper cups" and cannot be served anything with nuts, mushrooms, coffee, mint, chocolate or shellfish in it.)

Aiken has never performed at the Fling, but organizers have hosted a few high-maintenance stars in the past. Most of the demands are addressed before the contract is signed.

Occasionally, however, problems arise on the day of the show. DeGroh—who's not naming any names—says it's best to appease the picky performer rather than put the concert in jeopardy.

"Obviously if they want a private jet to take them to their next show, that's not going to happen," she says. "But if it's something you can take care of quickly by just running to the store—like they want Evian water instead of Dasani—just do it."

Big-name acts, however, often come with big price tags. DeGroh helps defray the cost by tapping local vendors and hotels to provide services.

She often asks festival vendors to provide the artists' meals and solicits hotels for reduced room rates. The businesses almost always agree.

"They like the prestige of having the bands stay at their hotel," deGroh says. "It works out well for everybody."

Potty matters

Nothing makes a festival stink—literally and figuratively—more than unclean, overtaxed restroom facilities.

In fact, it's such an important health issue that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has crafted guidelines on portable restrooms and handwashing stations.

The suggestions are neither federal policy nor do they override local codes. They're a good barometer, however, to see whether you're toilets are meeting your patrons' health needs and expectations.

If those aren't reasons enough, consider this:

Studies show women leave special events early—and take their children with them—rather than use unseemly restrooms. In doing so, they take their money and the event's attendance rates with them.

Even in cases where portable restrooms are well-kept, there may not be enough. If people are waiting in lines, it means they're not enjoying themselves or spending money at your event.

Here are some FEMA tips to remember when using portable toilets at your festival:

  • The restrooms should be well-marked and lit.
  • Service, including pump outs, should be done on a 24-hour schedule.
  • Locate them away from food service and anchor them to prevent tipping.
  • Provide for the safe disposal of needles, syringes and other sharp items.

FEMA also provides information on how to calculate the number of portable toilets necessary. For more information, visit www.fema.gov.

Give them a good reason

Want to make your event special? Then start with a good cause.

Festivals and races nationwide use their event to raise money for and awareness of various causes. Autism, leukemia, blindness, breast cancer and AIDS are among the diseases that have events earmarking proceeds for their research.

Finish Strong, a sports performance facility in West Chicago, Ill., went a different route.

When the facility opened, employees wanted the business to become part of the community. They decided to host a 5K race that would raise money for charity, though they didn't know which one.

"We wanted to be a family facility," says Heidi DeMarco, marketing manager. "We wanted to be a business that was very involved in the community."

The business toyed with donating to a national charity, which could use the funds for research. The staff, however, wanted something more personal, more community-based. They then came up with the idea of helping a local resident, making life easier for a specific person in their area.

"We wanted to see where our money was going, instead of just writing a check to a foundation" DeMarco says.

The staff selected Joel Gomez, a 24-year-old Army sergeant who was paralyzed from the neck down in the Iraq war. Gomez, whose family has been struggling to care for him since his release from the hospital, had been a popular varsity athlete at a nearby high school.

The community had been raising money to help build the soldier a handicap-accessible house and pay for round-the-clock care. Finish Strong decided to join the effort.

In September, it held a 5K run to benefit Gomez. Roughly 80 runners participated, a solid number for a first-time race in the Chicago suburbs.

In addition to the run, the staff organized an impressive raffle and auction to raise money. They asked their sponsors for donations and received an impressive array of items, including sporting equipment signed by pro athletes. American Lacrosse star Kevin Leveille also came to the event to greet people and sign autographs.

In the end, Finish Strong—which received a lot of media coverage for hosting the race—raised $2,500 for Gomez, who plans to use the money to build an elevator in his home. Organizers hope to run another 5K next year to benefit a different local family.

"We think we have a really good thing here," DeMarco says. "We're really just very different. We want to be a part of the community."

Get Those Crowds

When Jeff Sandler plans a 5K, there's little doubt as to what the successful race director worries most about.

"Getting huge crowds out," he says, without missing a beat. "That's like asking, 'What's a TV producer concerned with?' Ratings."

Fortunately for Sandler, he has an Aaron Spelling-type touch when it comes to organizing races.

As president of the Valley Stream (New York) Runners Club, he directed his first club event in 1984. A record-breaking 1,200 participants competed in the Four Mile Challenge that year. Roughly 1,900 runners—a whopping 58 percent increase—finished the race in 1985.

Two years later, he began a 5K race that benefited Peninsula Counseling Center in Hewlett, N.Y. That year the race had 1,100 finishers, which is believed to be the largest number ever for a first-time 5K held on Long Island. In 1991, New York sports-talk radio legends Mike Francesa and Chris "Mad Dog" Russo agreed to promote the event and compete in the race.

The response was so great that on the morning of the race, organizers ran out of numbers and had to turn people away. About 2,500 runners finished the course.

Of course, not every area in the United States has a population base like Long Island, but there are some tricks of the trade that can be used to help boost participation and sponsorship money. Sandler shares some of his insider knowledge:


It's helpful to have some kind of promotion hook or gimmick to draw participants. In terms of a race, sometimes the course sells itself if goes through an interesting area such as an upscale neighborhood or along the beach. Particularly challenging courses, like one that goes up Pikes Peak in Colorado, can help draw runners, too.


Giveaways also can help lure entrants. Some races hire professional photographers as they're running the course or crossing the finish line. Usually, a runner has to buy the picture from the photo company, but Sandler has paid for them and mails them to runners for free.

Prizes, however, don't have to be that elaborate. Sandler suggests providing runners with green beer for a St. Patrick's Day race or hot chocolate and New England Clam Chowder after a winter event.

"Try for things that don't break the budget," Sandler says, "and if you can get them from your sponsors, then all the better."


Sandler believes in do something spectacular that runners and sponsors always will remember. For the Four Mile Challenge in 1984, Sandler created a Wheel of Fortune-type game for the raffle drawing. A friend used plywood to fashion a smaller scale of the famous wheel and placed it upright on the stage so spectators could see it. Lucky runners were then called to the platform to give it a spin and win a prize.

Of course, it's just not the Wheel of Fortune without an array of fabulous prizes. Sandler made hundreds of cold calls in order to secure some. The effort paid off; he has given away cash, televisions, bicycles and mopeds.

"You have to try to find things that can excite a sponsor," he says.


An appealing race application plays a huge roll in marketing the race to both runners and sponsors. The same goes for a special-event brochure. The who, what, where and when are important, but it must be sold in an interesting manner. In the left margin of his applications, Sandler would list all the selling points with the word Super: Super Raffle, Super Shirts, Super Awards, Super Course, Super Party, etc.

"You need someone who can write six o' clock news copy," Sandler says.

Of course, having something to sell helps, as Sandler found out in 1984.

"I had a blank sheet of paper worse than any writer's block," Sandler remembered. But once he secured four free airline tickets from Capital Air, "the application wrote itself."

However, Sandler had one rule about his applications that didn't appeal to sponsors right away: All advertising had to be on the back side.

"I used to say to sponsors," he explains, "'Go down to the New York Road Runners Club and pick up every application you can find, and then compare them to ours. We'll blow their doors off.' If it's exciting to read, they'll read it over five to 10 times. They don't read your ad if it's in the garbage pail."


It's really quite simple. Sponsorship money can help keep the entry fee down, and lower entry fees bring out more runners. Therefore, it's important to have personable people on your staff who can sell the race, whether they're calling potential sponsors or handing out applications at other races.

One of Sandler's most successful avenues was getting sponsorship from car dealerships, whom Sandler routinely would ask for several thousand dollars. If the owner balked, Sandler would respond by saying that if one race participant—only one—came out to the dealership and bought a new car, the owner would make money on the deal.

Sandler also would try to convince the dealer to bring some cars down to the race site and park them where the runners could see them and look them over.

"Any sponsor that has stuff to display is good," he says.


The prep work is important, but nothing is more critical than having things run smoothly on race day. Few things make runners more upset than having to wait for results to come out, so be sure the people running the finish line and computing the results are experienced.

Directors also should assign people to jobs they understand and can handle. If, for example, they have difficulty processing people who are drop-in registering, lines can back up and give people waiting less time for their pre-race preparations.

"The difficulty of getting your labor and controlling," Sandler says, "is nothing insignificant."

Make sure your race site is well-organized. As you're planning that 5K or triathlon, ask yourself several logistical questions: Where do participants have to go if they already have registered? And where should they go if they are registering on race day? Where can they pick up their T-shirts and goodie bags? Will there be enough parking, and how far away will it be from the sign-up tables?


There's no escaping the Internet age, so it's essential to have a race Web site, just like you would to promote any other special event. The site can help boost participation numbers by making it easy to register online. Make sure it has all of the essential information, including a course map in case hard-core athletes want to get a feel for it in the days leading up to the race.

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