Your Best Fest Yet

Trends and Strategies for Fun Events and Festivals

By Chris Gelbach

As park districts and communities seek to attract and satisfy both new and more dedicated patrons, festivals and events offer the potential to achieve all of these goals. But significant thought and planning is necessary to determine both what the event is trying to achieve and how it can be done successfully.

"Most communities want to have events out there, and that's great, but I don't think they stop enough at the front end to say, 'OK, what are we trying to accomplish with our event?'" said Steve Schmader, president and CEO of the International Festivals & Events Association (IFEA).

According to Schmader, this could include goals such as to create something that rounds out a dead area in the calendar. It could be to fill a need for a specific type of event, such as an arts event. Or to reach a certain audience not currently being adequately served, such as younger children.

It can also involve finding a way to adapt great ideas from elsewhere and transform them to fit your needs. "You want to look at new ideas and steal your ideas as best you can," Schmader said. "We're a very sharing industry. If you take my idea and use it in another city somewhere, I'm complimented as opposed to offended. But you have to make sure that the ideas you are looking at will translate to your own community."

In terms of big-picture considerations, Schmader advises recreation managers to make sure that the event fits the target audience and that you have the budget to pull it off with quality. Great things can be accomplished without a huge budget if you're willing to knock on doors to gain support and participation from various volunteers, organizations and businesses in the community. "You can pull off a whole lot for very little sometimes if you're out there doing that," Schmader said. Having someone on your staff who understands sponsorships is a big part of this opportunity.

Food and Beverage Considerations

When planning a food and beverage program, you have plenty of options. For local flair, you can reach out to local restaurants with an interest in event participation. Local food trucks are another option that offer both pros and cons.

"Food trucks are a fun, neat thing, and they can add some fun ambience," Schmader said. "But they typically cannot serve the kinds of numbers that a regular vendor booth can." For this reason, it's important to have those conversations up front and put a plan in place for what they'll do if they run out of food.

Likewise, a miscalculation relating to attendance can create additional food, beverage, restroom, seating, parking and other issues that can derail your event and the enjoyment of attendees. It's always going to be a guessing game to some extent, and a situation affected tremendously by uncontrollable variables such as weather.

Networking through organizations such as the IFEA and the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) can give you some valuable guidance in this area. "There's a good bit of guessing, but if you base your estimates on other professional peers who've held similar types of events, you'll at least have the information to make some educated guesses," Schmader said.

When it comes to concessions, another option can be to buy your own equipment and do it yourself. Chris Petroff, senior sales manager for a leading provider of concession equipment, argues that eliminating the middleman can provide substantial benefits.

"It really comes down to this. If you truly just don't have the manpower, you're pretty much forced to hire these outside companies to come in," Petroff said. "But whenever you do that, you're giving up way too big a share of your profits. And the profit margins on most of these items are 70 to 80 percent."

Operating your own concessions can also be a way to offer more value to price-conscious patrons. Petroff noted the example of locations set up in low-income neighborhoods that offer snow cones. The total food cost to make a snow cone, including the ice, the cone, the syrup and straw, is less than 20 cents. "Even if you sell it for $1, you're still making 80 cents profit on every one that you sell," Petroff said. "So you can keep the prices reasonable and still make a lot of money. Whereas an outside vendor is going to sell it for $2.50 or $3, and that can take it out of the reach of a lot of the audience."

Conversely, a higher-income audience can offer the potential for huge margins on food offerings that are known hits with targeted crowds. Petroff noted the example of antique car shows. "That's a kettle corn crowd," he said. "For those types of events, if you're not selling kettle corn, you're missing the boat. Those customers will easily pay $5 to $7 for a big bag of kettle corn that costs you $1 to make. It's an incredible profit, the customers like it, and in one event like that, you can make more than enough to pay for your equipment."

When it comes to festival foods, Petroff is seeing customers interested in novel twists to traditional festival fare. Examples include things like red velvet funnel cakes; gourmet popcorn enhanced with spicy Cajun and jalapeno flavors; cotton candy in novel flavors such as white chocolate, chocolate cherry and bacon; cinnamon frosted almonds; and hot-weather hits such as Hawaiian shaved ice and lemonade shakeups.

In terms of machinery, Petroff is seeing more parks and communities opt for gas-fired equipment that allows concessionaires to do everything from pop kettle corn to fried foods without the need for electricity or a generator. "It gives people the ability to literally go anywhere and be able to make some of these concepts," Petroff said.

For festival food and beverage sales, Schmader is seeing more events shift from tokens and tickets as a way to get rid of cash-handling. Instead, he's seeing a move to electronic pay options, from RFID wristbands to preloaded cards. These offer the ability for patrons to put money on the cards on an ATM-like machine so volunteers don't have to handle money at all. According to Schmader, the cards can often be set up like gift cards so that patrons can use them anywhere afterward if all the money isn't used at the fest—eliminating the "pocketful of unused tickets" problem many event-goers leave the festival grounds with.

Setting the Stage

Festivals and events give park districts and communities an opportunity to highlight their recreational offerings, while doing it in a way that creates the feeling of a special occasion. "If you've got an entryway into the park that isn't there the rest of the time, it makes it feel like something special," Schmader said.

Bought strategically, things like decorations and signage can also be something you build upon year by year, creating an increasingly impressive package that grows over time. The same can be said of staging, since park districts can gradually build up their portable staging equipment to allow for versatility, ease of relocation and integrated technology that can be used for multiple events.

"Seasoned parks and recreation managers usually know that a situation can change at the last minute and there won't be enough time to get new accommodating items from a certain vendor," said Jody Bailey, strategic account director for a leading provider of portable staging equipment. "Hence, they often have enough variety on hand for different or changing occasions: different stage decks, different-height legs, alternate power and light sources, and versatile vendors that can be rearranged in minutes."

Upping the Fun Factor

In the realm of creating thrilling attractions for short-term events, park districts and communities also have more purchase and rental options at the ready than ever before.

According to Bill Carlson, director of sales and marketing for a leading providing of climbing, zip line and free fall products, options are now available that offer a more economical way of providing these thrills at a reasonable price.

One such alternative is a system that can add climbing holds onto an existing tree, making it portable to different events and less expensive than a mobile climbing wall of comparable height. "Instead of purchasing a climbing wall for a park, you can clip it onto a tree that's already in the park," Carlson said. "It's really safe for the tree—it doesn't damage it in any way and it gives that thrill and fun of climbing without having to make a major investment."

Carlson estimates that purchasing a vertical section of 8 to 10 feet with some basic fall protection could cost as little as $300, while a taller experience of 20 to 40 feet accompanied by an auto belay would run more like $3,000. He noted that the product is already in use at the Richmond Zoo and the Brevard Zoo, with both facilities moving the attraction around to different zoo areas. "The real advantage of it is that it's so modular and you can have a really exciting experience without that massive of an investment for rental fees," Carlson said.

While a park should have an arborist examine the health of the tree before the product is used, he said that little other preliminary setup is necessary. The same cannot be said of things like free-fall devices, which require more engineering and mounting know-how.

When it comes to rental products, one distributor Carlson's company works with that is a leader in the field offers a variety of thrill-seeking options for events, including mobile rock climbing walls, mobile zip lines, bungee trampolines, and even climbing towers that can accommodate up to 25 people at once without the need for harnesses.

Carlson noted that throughput can also be pretty high for products like the free-fall devices, which can accommodate a new jumper roughly every 90 seconds. Likewise, setting a time limit of 5 or 10 minutes per person on a climbing attraction can help maximize throughput.

"For free fall activities, I've seen charges of anywhere from $5 to $20," Carlson said. "When you look at the cost involved with the actual devices and everything [when buying the equipment], in a busy show you could make up the cost in a weekend."

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.



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