Eat, Drink & Be Merry
Making a Great Event
By Dave Ramont
From big cities to small towns, it seems like every neighborhood or community these days puts on their own festival, which might feature carnivals, live entertainment, parades, arts and crafts, and, often the most popular attraction, food. There's the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, Calif., and Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Ind. Mattoon, Ill., hosts an annual Bagel Festival and Pullman, Wash., presents the National Lentil Festival. Residents in Lexington, N.C., flock to Barbeque Fest, while seafood reigns at the National Shrimp Festival in Gulf Shores, Ala.
Some of these events draw tens of thousands of visitors, while others just look to attract those who may live in and around a certain neighborhood. But they all have one thing in common: To be successful, a lot of foresight and planning goes into the event. From licenses and fees to concessions and sanitation, many factors demand attention in order to avoid problems during the event itself.
While festivals and other events are great ways to bring communities together, they're also potential moneymakers for organizations and municipalities. Food and beverage sales are a big revenue generator, as is selling booth space used for offering crafts or other items. A percentage of sales might also be required from merchants, with typically 10 percent to 20 percent going back to event organizers. Souvenir sales are common, with organizers selling such things as caps, T-shirts and plastic cups. If there are enclosed grounds around the event, an entrance fee might be charged. Five or 10K races tied to an event are popular, with participants paying a modest entry fee. Corporate sponsorship is also a great way to offset costs, and some organizers seek donations of materials, supplies and services in exchange for advertisement.
On the flip side, there are, of course, many costs that must be considered when budgeting for these events. These might include sanitation facilities and garbage removal; traffic control and security; staging, sound and lighting. Since organizers face potential claims from patrons, vendors, entertainers and contractors, Special Events Insurance is highly recommended.
While local government institutions like park districts or chambers of commerce often present events in their towns, in larger markets the various festivals are often presented by private entities that get permission from the municipality and secure their own permits, licenses and insurance.
Austin, Texas, hosts many festivals throughout the year, though the city itself is involved with very few of them in terms of planning and executing. William Manno is the special events program manager in Austin and the administrative manager for the Austin Center for Events (ACE), part of the City Manager's Office. He said that the only event that is actually put on by the city is Austin's New Years' event. "I manage the overall coordination and activities. However, we do hire an event production company to put it all together."
He added that there are about a dozen events that are officially co-sponsored by the city. "For example, Trail of Lights, South by Southwest (music and media festival), July Fourth, etc. By being city co-sponsored, certain fees and costs are waived."
Manno explained that private entities organize the majority of events that take place. "We do not book entertainment or vendors; the event organizers do. ACE is comprised of special event staff from 13 different city departments, and we partner with state agencies and Capitol Metro (mass transit) as needed. We review applications for special events and work with the organizers to ensure they have all the required permits and that the event is held in a safe manner."
He said that while planning for bad weather is primarily on the organizer, they do assist in identifying possible shelter locations. "One of our biggest challenges is trying to find an available date for new events, especially those that request a street closure. We have around 140 street closure events each year and we try and balance fun festivals with maintaining mobility."
Traffic flow, security and safety are certainly big concerns, and local police, fire and EMS are all part of ACE, according to Manno. "ACE meets with scheduled event organizers to review their plans and let them know what is permissible and appropriate."
He added that these days, security is even more crucial. "Events with anticipated attendance of less than 5,000 are recommended to have Austin P.D. bomb dogs screen the area, and events with more than 5,000 expected are required to have this. This is an additional cost to the event organizer."
While festival attendees may have varying interests, the one common denominator seems to be food and beverages, and a wide variety of offerings can help guarantee successful food sales. The Department of Health has many requirements pertaining to the storing, preparing and serving of food, and organizers and concessionaires should become thoroughly familiar with these regulations. These include wastewater disposal, hand-washing facilities, permissible tableware and requirements concerning the construction of concession stands. Many organizers consult with the county sanitary department during planning stages.
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.
"The Partnership markets hyper-locally," Sawicki said. "We are really here to drive economic activity and bring local people into downtown St. Charles to shop, dine and engage."
Putting on events is one way to achieve this goal, and the DSCP oversees the St. Patrick's Parade, Jazz Weekend, Holiday Homecoming/Electric Christmas Parade and more. But their signature event is the Fine Art Show, featuring local and national artists, taking place over Memorial Day weekend. According to Sawicki, the show has created a brand for itself, with people attending from all over the Chicagoland area. "We bring about 30,000 people to downtown throughout the weekend. All of the artists are juried by the committee, which is all local volunteers, and we have around 100 artists each year. We do not have outside food vendors at this event, as we encourage people to try out local restaurants and stay and enjoy all that our downtown has to offer."
Sawicki explained that whenever they host an event, they have an "event review" meeting. "This meeting includes the city, fire, police, public works and finance. We also partner with the history museum, the park district, the chamber, CVB, River Corridor, Arts Council and more. We also have representation of those groups on our board of directors to encourage collaboration and not have overlap with planning."
She also said they have full emergency plans and procedures for each event. "We always try to stay ahead of any issue and plan for the worst so that we aren't surprised if anything goes wrong. It's a lengthy and tedious process, but very necessary when it comes to safety."
In 1945, Fruita, Colo., resident Lloyd Olsen set out to ready a rooster for dinner, but after losing his head, the bird continued to stalk around, pecking for food. He went on to live 18 more months, being fed with an eye dropper and gaining five pounds. The famous bird embarked on a national tour, with onlookers paying 25 cents for a view. And now, the chicken's spirit is celebrated every June at the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival.
Tom Casal, recreation superintendent for Fruita Parks and Rec, said that people from all over visit the festival, including Florida, Michigan and Canada, plus lots of folks from the Denver area. "The festival works because we bring in quite a lot of people who stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants."
Casal said he starts readying for the event about eight months out. "I start talking with potential sponsors. When January hits, that's when we really start going, however. So about six months out for the actual planning part."
From big cities to small towns, it seems like every neighborhood or community these days puts on their own festival, which might feature carnivals, live entertainment, parades, arts and crafts, and, often the most popular attraction, food. They all have one thing in common: To be successful, a lot of foresight and planning goes into the event.
The fest features a 5K run, disc golf tourney, live music, artisan booths, car show, poultry show, chicken poop bingo and a wings-and-Peep-eating contest. Casal said they clean out the local Wal-Mart of Peeps the day after Easter. "The kids love them and it is fun to watch them participate in the contest. It's geared toward kids, but this year we had a successful Adult Division."
He said they stick with the popular events, explaining that they had riding lawnmower races for a time but they got stale, and the popular sand volleyball tourney, with the sand placed in the street, faced problems with wind. "We did try a three-on-three basketball tournament and cornhole tournaments but it's tough with a limited staff to bring on new events."
Casal said that like any other Fruita event, a special event application gets filled out and turned in to the Parks and Rec department. "We review it to make sure it's complete and send it out to public works, parks, police and fire to review. In addition, the event organizer will have a pre-event meeting with us. We use private security during our event, but we also have a uniformed officer. Public works provides our traffic control plan and setup for road closures."
Fruita has seven full-time park staffers, who all have many responsibilities beyond the festival, so Casal said they rely heavily on others to make the event work. "We work with the Rotary Club to take care of the alcohol permit and sales. The Lions Club does a pancake breakfast, and the Poultry Club takes care of the poultry show. Without these outside groups, it would be impossible to pull this festival off."
In fact, it is strongly suggested that event organizers utilize the time and talents of volunteers. Besides the work they do, they also represent a cross-section of the community and help make the event a civic celebration. Casal said they're fortunate to have a local group called RSVP who provides volunteers, staffing entrances and providing information to festival-goers. Wagner said that among other duties, their volunteers also assist with information and conduct surveys of attendees.
Sawicki said they have more than 200 volunteers each year and couldn't do any event without their help, since their office only has four staff members. "We're lucky that our current volunteers are our best and most effective recruits. Our committees have a lot of fun accomplishing a goal and putting together a successful event, and the community wants to be a part of that."
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