Why Small Town Festivals Fail and How to Make Them Succeed

by Joanne Steele on June 13, 2013

I have wondered for years about why some festivals are hugely successful and some are bombs. Why some events succeed for a while and then slowly decline to become unworthy of the volunteer time it takes to put them on..

 National Banana Pudding Festival logoI think I’ve discovered to key to small town festival success.

Lately, I’ve watched some local examples that caused me to look more closely at many events I’ve talked about in past years. Here’s what I discovered:

There has to be an organizing principle for an event that the organizers stay true to no matter what intervenes. Railroad Days needs to be about railroads and trains. Mushroom festivals needs to be about mushrooms. Civil War Days are about everything Civil War. A Balloon Fiesta stars hot air balloons and ballooning.

This seems obvious, but it isn’t. In small towns particularly, where everything is run by volunteers, everyone’s ideas tend to be given equal consideration, whether they fit the theme of the event or not.

So you end up with a mishmash of activities and booths and entertainment with the idea that “there is something for everyone.”

This is Spray and Pray Event Planning. And it is as successful as spray and pray marketing, which is not at all.

Remember, spray and pray marketing is defined as “spraying as much advertising in as many places as you can afford, hoping that people will trip over it at the exactly the point that they are making a buying decision relating to that product or service.”

Spray and pray has never worked very well, and now, with people demanding that their exact needs be met at all times, and inbound marketing being the standard, spray and pray events are declining.

When I say, “Stay true to,” I mean that the title of the event is a promise that attendees will get what they expect. It is not just a name.

How is a festival that stays true to its name differ from a small town event that doesn’t?

Small town events are a dime a dozen – every small town has its celebration that turns out the town. There are booths and bands, a foot race and a parade. Most people in town show up to support the event and a few extra people who happen to be passing by or live in a nearby town come too.

The events that stay true to their names are different because the foundation of their success are people for whom the stated reason for the event is their passion. They’ll come from everywhere. They’d show up in rain, heat, snow, or anything else Mother Nature throws at the event.

Good examples are Civil War events in the United States. Civil War buffs come and stage battles and other Civil War buffs come and watch. And, the rest of the crowd is made up of people who are interested, if the weather is right, they haven’t seen the same thing in the past and there isn’t anything going on somewhere else that they’re more curious about.

Other examples are hot air balloon festivals, birding festivals and bluegrass festivals.

But these aren’t the only great examples. A town nearby has a Mushroom Festival to celebrate the wild mushroom harvest in nearby forests. Gilroy, California has a Garlic Festival.

Each of these lives up to its name. The Mushroom Festival was all about mushrooms and you can get garlic ice cream at the Garlic Fest.

How can a small town create a successful festival?

1. Start with the customer you’d like to attract, not a name.

In some small towns this is easy. Look at the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Celebration in Seneca Falls, NY. Seneca Falls is the town featured in the movie classic, and they take full advantage in their festival. If you love the movie, you will want to attend. Hotel rooms are booked a year in advance and businesses declare the event a big economic success. Attendance, according to organizers, grows every year.

In others, it’s someone coming up with a great idea and the town embracing it. Check out Centerville, TN National Banana Pudding Festival. The customer here is southern cooks, people who pride themselves in their banana pudding recipe. This fest was started in 2009 by some Red Cross volunteers in the area looking for a way to raise money for disaster victims.

What is more southern than Banana Pudding? They hit on a winner, because the fest is all about banana pudding. You eat it, you judge it, you watch a cook-off, you witness cook-offs and related entertainment.

And you get national publicity because it’s unique, fun and the winner is automatically declared the national best! Anyone anywhere who thinks they make the best banana pudding is going to want to go to Centerville to topple last year’s winner, so the festival keeps growing.

Which leads to point number 2…

2. Focus on a topic for your festival that a population of enthusiasts are passionate about.

I love the Centerville, TN idea because it shows that your topic can be anything that people care about.

In Scott Valley, California near where I live, the little town of Etna decided early in 2004 to start a bluegrass festival. This is not easy. Bluegrass festivals are happening in northern California nearly every summer weekend, but it was a good fit for the town, they had a small group of dedicated, tenacious volunteers and plans when forward with several good bands lined up for the first year.

The festival has grown each year – look at the schedule for 2013! Again, it’s everything bluegrass with great bands, plenty of opportunity for visiting and picking, and even workshops. In nine years, they have built a festival that is now one of those, “must go” events for bluegrass lovers.

In the early years when crowds were small, they might have been tempted to water down their purpose and try to attract a few more casual visitors with a rodeo or some other type of entertainment, but they didn’t. They have stuck with their purpose and grown a world-class bluegrass festival.

Passionate followers will be the basis of your success. You can depend on their coming regardless of extenuating circumstances. You can use these enthusiasts to build your casual audience. Scott Valley bluegrass holds picking workshops. The Mccloud Mushroom Fest has prizes for mushroom hunters and mushroom tasting as does the Banana Pudding Festival.

All booths and activities are there to serve the enthusiasts and provide themed entertainment for the more casual attendees, who may be fickle, but will grow your audience. We humans love to be in the company of experts to help us further our curiosities and interests.

Hot air ballon fairs start with balloonists. Rail fairs start with railroad buffs. Banana pudding tests start with good southern cooks.

3. Add activities that further your enthusiast’s skills and interests while entertaining and engaging your casual attendees.

The Winter Wings Festival in Klamath Falls, Oregon, formerly the Bald Eagle Conference is a great example of a fully successful, mature event that has something for everyone.

I remember years ago with attendance at the Bald Eagle Conference was shrinking. Instead of adding unrelated stuff to buck up attendance, the Klamath Basin Audubon Society expanded the event to include more generalized bird watching. The focus is still raptors, but you’ll see that workshops and activities are now about winter birding. They also have lots of activities for entry level birders and children.

They didn’t panic and give up their underlying purpose, they expanded it.

4. Realize that when the schedule is set and the event details are covered, the work is only half done.

Your publicity and marketing is the other half.

I talk endlessly here and at my training website, Take Control of Your Internet Marketing, about knowing and targeting your customer. Festivals and events are no different from small businesses in this regard.

Small town festivals, if they are well planned using the top three points, will attract a niche of participants. That is what makes every one of the successful festivals mentioned a success.

The marketing requires that organizers, usually volunteers, must know where their customer is looking for information. Nowadays, it is most often somewhere online. But knowing where to connect online is essential.

Bluegrass enthusiasts congregate in different places online than Civil War Buffs which is different from southern cooking lovers or old movie collectors. Marketing needs to start where the customer goes, both online and offline.

The Winter Wings Festival is mentioned on every Audubon Society website you can find with a link to their own website. The Banana Fest gets mentioned on the Food Network.

When the Etna folks were getting their bluegrass festival off the ground, they attended every bluegrass festival in northern California with brochures about the Etna festival. And everything pointed to their website even back in 2004.

All these organizers knew their market and worked very hard to connect with their customer base. The result has been ongoing, hugely successful events. Their customer base connected through social media with other interested people helping to grow interest and attendance. Check out the activity on the Banana Pudding Festival Facebook Page.

A well organized, well run festival begins to take on a life and dependable customer base of its own.

I attended a celebration in Mt. Shasta, CA recently to commemorate the opening of a new downtown mini-park funded by hundreds of donations through the Mountain Runners organization. The Mountain Runners hosts the best small town walk/run in the country every July 4th. Thousands of runners, both serious and casual attend, many year after year, because it’s so well run with regular new surprises for everyone. The town of Mt. Shasta more than doubles in size each year during this event and July 4th celebration.

As Mountain Runners will tell you along with the organizers of every one of the events cited here, a seamlessly run, successful event is a huge undertaking from start to finish, and completely worth the effort in our quest to support a successful economic future for small rural communities.







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