Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Questions Communities Should Ask About Festivals

Not all festivals are of interest to visitors.  But it sure makes sense for communities to focus on festivals that can be a local draw but also be supported in part by visitor centric economic and cultural development.  To work for both residents and visitors, festivals need three main attributes, 1) uniqueness, 2) distinctness and 3) visitor readiness.fullframe_new

The upcoming Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, April 8-11 has always had all three attributes and is a great example.

  • Unique because it was founded in Durham and documentary film festivals are not ubiquitous.
  • Distinct because it has roots in Durham which is also home to the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
  • Visitor-ready because from the beginning organizers worked with DCVB to address the needs of visitors and to appeal them.

Full Frame made it look easy but it isn’t.   A few years ago, there was a movement by a couple of well-meaning individuals to rally funding to pay an out of state company to bring a Jazz festival to Durham.  Although the festival ostensibly “made money” the proposal was for the City to come up with $200,000.

There was nothing wrong with the idea; in fact it was intriguing.

But the enthusiasts behind the effort had neglected to do any due diligence.  They had not looked at several important aspects e.g.

  1. Durham already had some jazz festivals, one at NCCU and another had just shut down for lack of support.  If the City had $200,000 (and it didn’t) wouldn’t it be better to make one of the existing events with roots here more viable?
  2. Durham had a full slate of festivals throughout the year and if a new one was going to be introduced it needed a time slot that wouldn’t compete for underwriting from sponsors, nor for audience.
  3. Durham festivals are already struggling for sponsors, not because they aren’t worthy but because Durham based entities also try to take care of festivals in cities and towns where commuting employees live.
  4. Durham does not yet comply with State House Finance Committee guidelines and the funds eligible for grants (up to one third) do not currently go to DCVB.
  5. And replicating another festival will mean it is very difficult to give it a unique personality.

There were many other aspects that I won’t go into here.  But you get the drift.  Enthusiasts of all backgrounds including businesses often start with the wrong question. They start with “you know what we need, a such and such festival and who can we get to pay for it?”  Instead they should start with questions like:

  • Do we need more festivals?  Are there calendar openings in the community-wide calendar available from the visitors bureau?
  • Is their enough sponsorship and underwriting available or will the event bring in new sponsorship from outside the area?
  • Will a new one be predatory, create churn or otherwise suck the oxygen away from an existing event?
  • If the community indeed needs a new event, will the one proposed be distinct and leverage place based cultural, natural or heritage assets or will it make Durham just one of many places with the proposed event?
  • What does visitor related research show the community needs?

If evolved with these things in mind, Festivals can be an integral part of a community’s unique sense of place.

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