Deck the city halls: Creating a holiday identity
Savannah, a pretty, mid-sized city on Georgia’s coast is known for many things: lovely Victorian mansions, a deep-water harbor and a thriving riverfront development. But every year in March, all that takes a back seat to the city’s famous St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Now in its 178th year, the city’s celebration features the nation’s second largest St. Patrick’s Day parade (behind New York’s). The celebration, which last year included a five hour parade featuring about 300 entries, has earned the city a national reputation.
Gordon Varnedoe, director of the Savannah-Waterfront Association, which organizes the city’s Riverstreet Festival for the holiday, knows the importance of St. Patrick’s Day to the city’s image. “When I go across the country and tell people I’m from Savannah, they say, ‘Don’t y’all have a big celebration down there every year?’”
The town is known for showing residents and visitors a good time, Varnedoe says. In fact, during one famous show of spirit in 1961, celebrants attempted to dye the Savannah River green. “The environmentalists didn’t get much too excited about that,” he says.
Last year, the holiday drew more than 650,000 people (more than New York’s reported crowd of 250,000). Like Savannah, cities that invest time and resources in a holiday celebration often see a big reward for their efforts, if not in the form of national recognition or booming revenue, then often with an increase in community involvement and pride.
Holiday parades, light shows and festivals are abundant in the United States. “At least 90 percent of U.S. cities have some type of holiday celebration,” says Phillip Endicott, content manager for the cultural page of Festivals.com. “With so many holidays, like Memorial Day and Christmas, I would imagine that there aren’t that many cities without a holiday celebration.” According to Festivals.com, U.S. cities have more festivals and events during Christmas than any other holiday, with the number of Independence Day celebrations close behind.
Make it unique
While Christmas and the Fourth of July dominate the festival calendar, it often makes sense for cities to celebrate less popular holidays. That was the intent of Aurora, Colo., which has hosted a Halloween celebration, Pumpkin Fest, for the past four years. “We did a market study, and there was not anything remotely similar to this,” says Marie Addleman, event coordinator for the city’s Community Events Department. “We felt that we would fill the niche for that holiday.”
With a hay-bale maze, a haunted forest adventure and a pumpkin carving competition, the celebration is a one-of-a-kind event in the greater Denver area. The number of festival visitors has grown each year, and last year, the city drew more than 20,000 people.
Cities also may opt to highlight cultural or environmental elements in their choice of which holiday to celebrate. That is the case in Savannnah. “First of all, we have a large Irish population. Second of all, it is in the spring, when Savannah is absolutely gorgeous,” Varnedoe says. “I think that a lot of people take the opportunity to come from up north where they have been in the snow all winter.”
Paying the piper
After deciding which holiday to highlight, communities need to make sure they have necessary funding to pull off the celebration. Battle Creek, Mich., taps sponsorships and in-kind donations to finance its annual $150,000 holiday light extravaganza, which runs from mid-November through December. The International Festival of Lights includes static and animated light displays, a holiday parade, a hot air balloon competition and other events.
“Basically, if they walk and talk, if they’ve got a couple of bucks and some time on their hands, we either ask for them to volunteer or donate,” says Brenda Conlogue, director of special events for the Battle Creek Chamber of Commerce, of the city’s aggressive recruiting tactics.
The business community also is called upon for funding help. In the past, area manufacturers and businesses, such as Kellogg’s and Kraft Foods, have sponsored the light festival.
To encourage private-sector participation, the Chamber puts together a marketing package that details what the funds are needed for, such as purchasing or rewiring lights. “What it boils down to [for the companies] is that it is a friendly community gesture to make sure that area people are working together to create a proud community,” Conlogue says.
Organizers of the Freedom Festival in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also have found that sponsorships are an effective way to help fund their annual two-week Fourth of July celebration. (The festival is subsidized by the city’s hotel/motel tax.) When selecting sponsors, festival directors look at a variety of elements to determine what will work for the community, as well as for the company, says Nancy Wendler, executive director of Freedom Festival. “I value the sponsorship based on exposure, not on hard costs. I think that they really see the bang for their buck. Plus, it is a great way for them to show their support of the community,” she says.
Organizers of the more famous holiday celebrations have no problem selling the benefits of sponsorship to companies. “[Companies] want the exposure, and they want their name associated with it,” Varnedoe says of Savannah’s celebration. Banners jointly advertise the city’s St. Patrick’s Day events and the sponsors. In addition, sponsors like Guinness and Pepsi are given exclusive contracts to sell their products at the events.
Not every city, however, courts sponsors to finance their celebrations. Bristol, which hosts the longest-running Independence Day parade in Vermont, uses the festival itself to make the necessary money, says Cindy Eaton, secretary for the Bristol Fourth of July Celebration. The 14-member festival organization runs several fund-raising events, including a silent auction and a canoe raffle during the celebration. Auction items are donated by area businesses.
Come one, come all
Whether by word-of-mouth, television or print advertisements, marketing a holiday event is integral to its success. And, since cities use the bulk of their special events budgets on fireworks or decorations, stretching advertising dollars is important.
Directors of Cedar Rapids’ Freedom Festival have found unusual ways to market the community celebration. “We don’t have tons of money, so we try to be creative,” Wendler says. “This year, Coca-Cola is letting us use the back of 10 of their trucks [to advertise the festival.] We are making great big boards for those, and [the trucks] will be on the roads for six weeks. We also have sponsors from the radio, TV and the local paper.”
Battle Creek depends on similar cooperative gestures. “We don’t have a lot of media money to spend right now, so we get a lot of public service announcements,” Conlogue says. “The official TV station in town does a lot of in-kind [work] for us.” The city also has found billboards to be an effective means of advertisement, she says.
A funeral parlor donates its advertising space in the local paper to advertise Bristol’s Fourth of July celebration. “We never pay for our advertising,” Eaton remarks.
Savannah, of course, needs no advertisement. “It pretty much markets itself,” Varnedoe notes. “Our Convention and Visitor’s Bureau sends out press releases, and we announce what the bands are going to be, but, generally speaking, people tend to know about it.”
Employing the masses
Recruiting volunteers from the community is essential to running a holiday celebration. Besides providing free labor, a good volunteer program has the added benefit of bringing residents together during a holiday, Wendler says. Cedar Rapids, in conjunction with a locally based telecommunications company, McLeod USA, has created a successful volunteer program called WWW, or win-win-win, that involves more than 1,000 volunteers each year.
Under the program, groups of 12 residents work three-hour shifts during the festival, and the company donates $250 per shift to a local charity selected by the volunteers. “There is about $20,000 that goes into the community on behalf of volunteers that help us,” Wendler says. “It is a win for the volunteers, certainly for charities, and a win for us because we get really good volunteers; it is good for the sponsor of the program because it is able to take its money and spread it through the community.”
Battle Creek also offers a feel-good atmosphere for its volunteers. “Word spreads that we are having fun — we always have munchies out there, and iced tea, coffee or whatever the weather [dictates] — and we have groups from the city that come out and decorate that area,” Conlogue says. “People come out to work together, and it is one of those fuzzy feelings.”
In addition, the Chamber asks area businesses to encourage employees to get involved with community-oriented projects. “The employees go out and make the community look pretty, then they go back to work and get a recognition ceremony,” Conlogue says. “It is a win-win situation no matter how you look at it.”
It’s worth the effort
Planning a holiday celebration can be a rewarding, yet arduous, process. With more than 65 Independence Day events, including boat races, concerts and fireworks, the Freedom Festival takes two full-time planners a year to coordinate. Likewise, in Savannah, about 700 volunteers form the parade committee and begin planning about 11 months before the next parade.
However, despite the hard work, promoting a holiday is worth the effort, organizers say, because the atmosphere of a city can be changed by holiday decorations. “When you see the lights, you just go ‘whoa’ because this is just a normal town until the grand lighting ceremony when the lights pop on during the parade,” Conlogue says. “It is a breathtaking experience really.”
Most importantly, the holiday atmosphere can unite a community. “I think that it brings people together,” Wendler says. “They are proud of their city and proud of their community because they see all the neat places that the city has to offer year-round. It gives them a reason to stay put during the holiday and bring in their family and friends to have a whole lot of fun.”