The Main Event
Pulling It Off Without a Hitch
By Kelli Anderson
The Central Iowa Fair held annually in Marshalltown, Iowa, for the past 103 years is experiencing a comeback. In the past five years the fair has seen a significant climb in attendance with 2008 expected to be their biggest and most successful yet.
But it doesn't always take 103 years to turn heads or turn a profit. The Albuquerque International Balloon Festival in Albuquerque, N.M., the largest event of its kind in the world, boasts participation from more than 30 countries and attendance of over 1 million people during its weeklong celebration. A poster-child as a Festival How-To, it traces its humble beginnings to a shopping mall parking lot in 1972, a handful of balloon enthusiasts and a mayor who thought the city could lend a hand to do something more.
From the humble fair to the glitz of an international festival, communities around the country are implementing new and creative ways to fund special events to bring in the public and their dollars. When special events are done well, the result is a win-win for the local economy and the heightened sense of community shared by those who participate.
For communities like Marshalltown, taking an existing event and improving it is a good place to start. Many communities already have events that celebrate their heritage or a story from history that only need some creative thinking to go from the ho-hum of the status quo to something that begins to grow and take on new life for the community.
However, other communities, like Albuquerque, may decide that they possess the potential for something new and unique. They are Exhibit A: proof that when given the proper nudge, events can balloon to unimaginable heights—or at least get a few substantial feet off the ground.
In either case, steering these ideas toward success takes concrete vision, planning and hard work, but the end result is worth it. Whether it's creating revenue to fund existing needs, generating economic growth for existing businesses or enhancing the sense of pride and ownership within the community, successfully run festivals and special events offer compelling reasons to take a new look at an old idea.
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."
Successful special events and festivals also understand the importance of valuing the community and respecting existing businesses. In San Luis Obispo, for example, local businesses are happy to shut down their streets on Thursdays for the farmer's market because they know that the market brings thousands of potential customers to their doors and that market vendors have been specially selected so that they do not compete with town businesses.
"Everyone has to have ownership of the market," Cotta explained. "You've got to get buy-in from the community. We close off the streets, so it simply wouldn't work without supportive clients."
Having a good relationship with the community and its businesses may seem like common sense, but when the focus for an event lacks a big picture and thinks only of short-term gain, it often sacrifices community relationships. For long-held events used to a nonprofit mentality singing the "that's-the-way-we've-always-done-it" mantra, apathy about change or improvement is often characterized by poor communication between community players.
"Quite frankly, it's a business, and it has to be run as a business. Sadly, the day of the handshake is gone—it's a thing of the past," Grabenbauer said. "I was brought in to bring city and agricultural venues together. I brought a new twist to marketing, advertising and entertainment to bring people in."
Grabenbauer's first order of business was for the fair board to join the chamber of commerce to increase each group's awareness of the other. Furthermore, recognizing his own limitations as a self-described "city boy" tackling the time-honored agricultural traditions of 4-H, Grabenbauer sought the help of those in the know from the Iowa State Extension to enhance his own communication and understanding.
For the Mount Mitchell Crafts Fair held for the past 52 years in Burnsville, N.C., forming good working relationships is essential to the success of the growing event.
"I think having a good relationship with all the partners in town makes it work," said Ashley Grindstaff, executive director of the Burnsville Chamber of Commerce. "That's key, especially for cooperation from the county and the town."
All partners in an event learning to play nice, however, is only part of the equation. What really draws the sponsors, the crowds and, hopefully, the revenue to do it all again next year is also a matter of quality.
Geneva knew it wanted to have at least one special event each quarter of the year. Seven years ago they decided to create a fine art fair.
"The art show developed, but we knew numbers weren't important. Quality was," Gaines said. "In our second year were rated as the most promising art show in the country. Now we're at capacity."
Being selective has meant attracting the best of the best, which translates into serious buyers and serious sellers. In quality versus quantity, quality is a clear winner.
With a similar predetermined vision to strive for quality, the farmer's market vendors of San Luis Obispo are carefully selected so that only the best and most unique are accepted. It is no surprise, then, that achieving the distinction as a vendor at the market is tantamount to industry success.
According to Cotta, however, maintaining quality is not only knowing what you want, but knowing what you don't want. "We aren't a crafts fair or a flea market," Cotta said. "We are mindful of our perception. We have really neat businesses come out. It's a win-win to get these products exposed to the general public."
Being distinctive helps too. According to IFEA, niche events began in the '90s and are still a determining factor in whether or not an event will draw the crowds. Looking around and seeing what others in nearby communities are doing—or not doing—is one way to know if you are on the right track.
For the Genesee County Parks and Recreation Commission in Flint, Mich., the living history museum, which ran a narrow-gauge train—already a unique feature in the area—gave them an idea.
"We visited other sites and decided a Day Out With Thomas would be great," said Hilda McShane, park marketing specialist with the commission. "It's now the largest Day Out With Thomas event in the nation."
According to McShane, a large part of their event's success can also be attributed to knowing what people want.
"We know because we survey constantly," she explained. "It's a big thing—I can't say enough. Parks just don't do enough nationwide. It's as easy as taking ZIP codes to look into census information. From the data we can determine the demographic."
Knowing the ages of those who attend and their economic status and cultural background are good predictors of what events will most likely appeal to those in the surrounding areas.
Furthermore, asking questions on surveys like what people would like to see more of, or asking how an event can do better, provides the feedback needed to keep an event moving in the right direction. Surveying before, during and after provides different but useful information.
McShane also uses software to do queries that break down demographics to learn more useful information like how certain groups find out about them or where these groups are looking for entertainment ideas.
"It's not about being a nonprofit anymore," McShane explained. "You really have to work at it."
However, knowing whether or not you have a bona fide success on your hands takes time. "In our experience it takes between three to five years for an event to grow and to decide if it's worth it," Gaines said. "You have to assess it. Some do go by the wayside. It's a constant juggling act."
Developing one successful event can also lead to the creation of another. In the case of the Thomas event, organizers noticed that with lots of young children, the event was also attended by lots and lots of tired mothers.
"What's grand is that we can take advantage of the masses of people drawn to one event to create other events," McShane said. "This year we had Ladies Night Out. We promoted it at the Thomas event and posted signs in the restrooms. We got lots of response."
Promoting upcoming events at current ones can be as simple as posting signs, but also can go much further.
"You can do this with any event," McShane suggested. "If 200 people are at an event, start promoting another. Collect their e-mails, attach news ads and radio ads and e-mail blast it."
Such a targeted advertising and marketing approach has proved very successful—the Thomas event alone has brought $1.6 million.
Perhaps more significantly, these events are bringing in people who were previously unfamiliar with what the Flint area parks and recreation agency has to offer. "People who have never been to Flint are amazed at the park system," McShane said. "It's bringing money to the whole county."
What also makes for a great event is great entertainment. Whether it's clogging at a county fair or a nighttime parade of 80-foot specialty-shape balloons glowing in the night sky, making sure there's something for everyone—and knowing what that something should be—is important.
"There's something magical about balloons," said Kathy Leyendecker, media relations director for the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival. "It's clean, fun, and interactive—all the elements for a great event. It's like a giant tailgate party, but extra-special in that it is interactive. You don't stand behind and watch—you walk amongst the balloons. People even help!"
With more than a million visitors to the weeklong ballooning event, entertainment obviously centers on the balloons, but also includes car shows, chainsaw sawing contests, air shows, fireworks and arts and crafts. It's an all-around family affair.
Also ensuring that there's something for everyone, the city of Geneva provides for its family-oriented visitors with lots of variety, but recognizes that some of their festivals cater to one group more than another.
"Festival of the Vine is more adult," Gaines said. "All our festivals have something for everyone, but at the Vine we focus on wine tasting and food. It's a favorite because we feature Geneva restaurants—it's a year younger than the Taste of Chicago. We offer carriage rides and have a trolley ride. It has a nice fall feeling to it."
Professional equipment also makes a world of difference. When the Central Iowa Fair began using a newly purchased mobile sound stage, quality acts were more eager to participate, while crowds were impressed with what they saw.
"It's been unbelievable. The band shell is flat awesome." Grabenbauer said. "People call me to use it. It shows professionalism in what we're trying to do."
But not all attractions will be hot. Even some that used to be a surefire thing may eventually lose their sizzle. Being willing to change what doesn't work and adding new ideas that do will keep interest alive and well from year to year. One source of new ideas is simply to look around and see what is getting attention at other venues or to tap into the resource information provided by festival groups like IFEA.
"Do your homework and ask what is it that will bring people. We take a look at other communities, and our staff is very creative, too," Cotta said. "We look at how the community and the world are changing. Take a look and see what makes sense."
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