Revel with a cause
Garlic put Gilroy on the map. “It used to be that if I said I was from Gilroy, I would have to explain that it was a little town 80 miles south of San Francisco,” says lifelong resident Richard Nicholls. “Now, when I say I’m from Gilroy, people say, ‘Oh, yeah. The garlic festival.'”
In the 21 years of its existence, the Gilroy Garlic Festival has accomplished what nothing else could: It has given the city of nearly 40,000 an identity. And that may be more important even than the $250,000 the festival pulls in during a good year.
The International Festival and Events Association (IFEA) in Port Angeles, Wash., estimates that there are some 32,000 city festivals held every year, roughly 88 festivals every day. That number does not include the thousands of fairs that are the county versions of city festivals.
City festivals have been around almost as long as the cities themselves. Early festivals were primarily celebrations of religion or watershed events such as the annual harvest. (Harvest festivals have largely given way to festivals celebrating specific fruits and vegetables, but religion-based events, like Mardi Gras, still command a healthy chunk of the festival calendar.)
Today’s festivals are much more wide-ranging than their ancestors. The most common — and generally the highest drawing — festivals are those devoted to arts, music and films. Hundreds of cities host film festivals, and arts and music festivals like Charleston, S.C.’s Spoleto and New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival, bring in millions of dollars.
Flowers, food and birds also dominate the festival calendar. City festivals celebrate swans (Albemarle, N.C.), storks (Vicksburg, Md.), cranes (Gautier, Miss.), raptors (Louisville, Ky.), songbirds (Titusville, Ga.), shorebirds (Cordova, Alaska), bluebirds (Wills Point, Texas) and even a small endangered songbird known as Kirtland’s Warbler (Roscommon, Mich.).
They invite visitors to taste Greek food (Little Rock, Ark.), garlic (Gilroy), onions (Vidalia, Ga.), shrimp (Fernandina Beach, Fla.), enchiladas (Las Cruces, N.M.), crawfish (Breaux Bridge, La.), pinto beans (Moriarty, N.M.), lobster (Redondo Beach, Calif.), crab (West Point, Va.), pork (Emporia, Va.), hamburgers (Seymour, Wis.) and asparagus (Stockton, Calif.) They urge visitors to enjoy the beauty of lilacs (Rochester, N.Y.), jonquils (Smyrna, Ga.), sunflowers (Mountainair, N.M.), roses (Portland, Ore.), and dogwoods and azaleas (Charleston, Mo.). They celebrate winter (St. Paul, Minn.), spring (Ireland, W.Va.), summer (Ann Arbor, Mich.) and fall (Mountain Home, Ark.).
Shrimp and onions
Communities are the springboards from whence festivals come, and most festivals relate in some cultural or historic way to their locations. In Fernandina Beach, for instance, the 36-year-old Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival was an outgrowth of the fact that the city bills itself as the “birthplace of the shrimping industry.”
Ironically, the shrimp aspects of the festival have faded — the event no longer includes shrimp boat races but still features the annual blessing of the fleet — as festival organizers have turned their attention to fine arts. Called one of the country’s top 100 arts and crafts events by Sunshine Artist, a Winter Park, Fla.-based magazine devoted to arts and crafts, the Shrimp Festival has morphed into a $3 million-a-year arts extravaganza.
Seymour, Wis., did not have anything as flashy as a fleet of shrimp boats when residents began talking about ways to promote their little town. However, it once had a famous resident: Charlie Nagreen, a 19th century meatball-maker generally acknowledged as the father of the hamburger. Thus was born Burger Fest, a one-day celebration of the nation’s favorite sandwich.
Seymour, also the site of the Hamburger Hall of Fame, makes roughly $10,000 profit on Burger Fest, which features interactive events like the 1989 cooking and eating of the world’s largest hamburger. (At 5,250 lbs., the burger, now listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, provided lunch for 13,000 Burger Fest visitors. The grill on which it was cooked resides, of course, in the Hamburger Hall of Fame.)
Burger Fest is a true collaborative effort between Seymour and Outagamie County. The county’s fairgrounds hosted the event for the first nine of its 12 years, says Vivian Treml, a member of the Burger Fest board of directors. It was moved into downtown Seymour with an eye toward boosting downtown business.
Like Seymour with Charlie Nagreen, Vidalia, Ga., has one main claim to fame — onions. Known worldwide for their sweetness, the onions prompted the establishment of the Vidalia Onion Festival, now in its 23rd year. As with the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, cooking is the centerpiece of the festival, which attracts 60,000 visitors annually.
Like most festivals, those in Fernandina Beach, Seymour and Vidalia tie events to specific aspects of the community. Festivals that celebrate culture and heritage are less common — though just as interesting and profitable.
Lafayette, La., for example, has capitalized on its unique French heritage with the Festival International de Louisiane, a six-day event that showcases international folk music, Creole storytelling and art. The New York Times called it “the best unknown folk music festival in the United States.”
With 160,000 anticipated visitors, the festival is billed as the “largest Francophone festival in the country.” It generates almost $90,000 a year in taxes for Lafayette, which provides a quarter of the festival’s nearly half-million dollar budget.
Additionally, the Festival International points up the importance of planning. “The first one was held in the summer,” says Valerie Roy, communication and promotion coordinator for the festival. “Louisiana is not the place to be in the summer. The next year, it was switched to spring.”
For Lafayette, it was Cajuns; for Santa Clarita, Calif., cowboys were the festival ticket. The three-day Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival is the centerpiece of the city’s tourism efforts and represents an attempt to capitalize on its western heritage. Highlights of the three-day festival include the Great Poetry Tall Tales Train Trip on the Fillmore & Western Railroad, trail rides and performances by cowboy musicians.
Capitalizing on the unique
>From hamburgers to cowboys, festivals allow cities and counties to >capitalize on what they think makes them unique. Obviously, there is no >single right way to do a festival. “It makes very little difference if >festivals are about fine art, Mardi Gras, sports, whatever,” says Bruce >Storey, executive director of the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver. >”They are about how we live our lives. Thematically, it’s all very >distinctive. When a community produces a celebration, it’s going to >articulate itself. Contrast that with the concept of the Renaissance >Festival — it’s the same thing from location to location. Indigenous >community festivals are expressions of a particular community.”
Storey emphasizes that the biggest mistake a community can make in establishing a festival is “not expressing the people that comprise the city.” He dislikes what he calls “cookie-cutter efforts,” which he says are doomed to fail. “You don’t create the Rose Parade in another town,” he notes.
“The most important thing is to decide what you want your festival to be,” agrees Bill Gartner, director of the Festival Management Program at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. “Is it for community residents? Is it a celebration of community pride? Is it supposed to attract tourists and produce revenue? Once you’ve decided that, you can go in a lot of different directions.”
Gartner prefers festivals that promote interactivity. He points to St. Paul’s Winter Carnival, which features a spectacular ice sculpture competition and a treasure hunt during which residents look for a medallion hidden in a public area. Additionally, Gartner says, it pays to be different. “You can’t just begin to offer something and expect a lot of people to come,” he says. “The festivals of the past, where you’d have a band or a magician, just don’t cut it anymore. You need something to engage the visitors. You have to be unique.”
The worker bees
Successful festivals also must have community support. The best festivals are run like — and treated like — businesses. They will have an executive director and a paid staff, a board of directors and specific committees governin g everything from public safety to decorations to media relations.
But even the best-run businesses fail without the worker bees, and, for festivals, those worker bees are the volunteers. “Volunteers are the backbone of most events and can literally be the difference between a successful and non-successful event,” writes Boise River Festival Director Steven Schmader in “Event Operations,” a manual published by IFEA. He identifies three types of volunteers necessary for festival success: 1. key position volunteers, including committee chairs and event coordinators; 2. committee/event volunteers, who are recruited by the key position volunteers and comprise the teams that coordinate the details of each committee or event; and 3. general event volunteers, including the people who sell soft drinks, pick up trash and host information stations.
Although recruiting and retaining volunteers can be one of the biggest chores for festival organizers, it is not a problem in Gilroy. There, roughly 10 percent of the city’s population volunteers for the Gilroy Garlic Festival. That is because, under the festival’s Volunteer Equity Program, volunteers can make money for the charities they represent. “We take the total number of dollars made on the festival and divide that by the total number of volunteer hours,” says Richard Nicholls, the festival’s executive director. “Then that figure is multiplied by the number of hours each individual volunteer has worked, and the money is distributed to the organization the volunteer represents. Last year, we doled out somewhere between $230,000 and $250,000.” Gilroy estimates that last year’s festival benefited from 35,000 volunteer hours.
The Garlic Festival also taps the community for its committee chairs, who serve two-year terms and are responsible for recruiting and training volunteers. “That works well in two ways,” Nicholls says. “First, by changing management teams every two years, you are continually bringing new faces and new enthusiasm into the organization. Second, say I’m in a local school parents’ club. While I have control of a committee for two years, you’d better believe I’ll get other parents to work for me because their hours result in dollars going back to the parents’ club.”
Keeping the city happy
No matter how many people volunteer for a festival, it cannot be successful if relations between festival organizers and the host city are strained. Because most festivals rely on their host cities to provide not only space for the event, but maintenance staff and local law enforcement help as well, they cannot afford to annoy local elected officials.
IFEA emphasizes the importance of creating partnerships between festival organizers and local government officials, noting that “the enthusiastic participation of the city’s management and support personnel is absolutely mandatory for a successful event.” According to the organization, constant communication is the only way to ensure that support.
“Much of our success is due to the fact that we enjoy a wonderful relationship with our city government,” says Sandy Price, former chairperson of the Shrimp Festival in Fernandina Beach. “We pay budgeted amounts for police, fire/rescue and public works, and the city supports us in every way it can.”
“The cities have the basic services — engineering, fire and health departments, public safety,” says IFEA Vice President Scott Nagel. “It doesn’t make sense to ignore those resources.”
“City officials are uniquely able to gather the right leadership for these kinds of things,” says Bruce Storey, executive director of the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver. “If the mayor and city councilpersons lend their support by asking people to take leadership roles, things will work better. They can do great good by loaning their names to activities. In our case, our mayor [Wellington Webb] helps us each year by hosting the mayor’s preview celebration.”
Finding the funding
Most cities also provide funding for festivals — yet another reason to make sure city officials stay involved. But relying on public money is a dicey proposition, so most festival organizers spend a significant amount of time searching for funds from corporations, local busineses and grant sources.
Corporate sponsorships — from the small local radio station to AT&T — are a hot ticket. “We couldn’t do it without our sponsors — not anymore,” Price says. The downside of corporate sponsorships is that they tend to make festivals too “commercial,” according to Price. Consequently, organizers often must walk a fine line and be well-versed in the art of diplomacy when dealing with potential sponsors.
Local businesses usually are more than willing to chip in with money or donations of goods and/or services. That is especially important for smaller festivals, like Moriarty, N.M.’s Pinto Bean Fiesta, which draws 3,000 people annually. “The local businesses here are very supportive,” says Susie McComb, a Moriarty city employee who serves as a spokesperson for the festival. “Between them and the city, we end up making enough money to fund a couple of scholarships every year.”
Grants from government and private sources also are available to festival organizers. In Chattanooga, Tenn., the Lyndhurst Foundation, a local philanthropic group, provided a significant amount of the money necessary to stage the city’s Riverbend Festival. “The city was in distress,” says foundation president Jack Murrah. “We saw the festival as a way to bring it back — a way to bring hope and joy to the community.”
In a number of states, counties also hand out tourism grants that are funded by local bed taxes. The problem with those grants, however, is that festivals often cannot prove that they are tourism draws. The IFEA publication, “Money-making Ideas for Your Event,” suggests using independent research firms to “establish credible demographics, visitor patterns and economic impact figures,” but it cautions that hotels and tourism officials often demand more direct tracking techniques. The publication also points to merchandising, selling VIP seating for parades, and selling pins and group photographs as money-makers.
Just do it
However, hosting a successful festival need not involve a significant financial outlay. Many cities tap their own parks and recreation departments to handle festival legwork, according to IFEA’s Nagel. “A lot of times, parks folks have people who are experienced in working with festivals,” he says. “And if they don’t, there’s so much expertise available out there that there should never be a reason to start from scratch.”
Local governments also need not worry about finding the perfect space in which to hold their festivals. “Every city is unique,” Nagel says. “Some have giant parks, some have town squares, some have racetracks. Any space can work.”
Cost and space considerations aside, cities and counties stand to see benefits both tangible (hotel and restaurant revenue) and intangible (the fostering of a sense of community) from hosting their own festivals. The biggest error, Nagel says, would be assuming that it cannot be done.
“It’s a huge mistake to think that festivals are not an important part of the idea of community,” he says. “I always find it ironic that everyone wants to go to Such-and-Such Festival, but they don’t always see the importance of supporting their own. People need to see festivals as a chance to show off their own community.”