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Profitability Through Play

Al Craig —  April 18, 2013 — 5 Comments

 

The cast of Rawhide.

The other night I was channel surfing and paused briefly on ‘Rawhide’, an old black & white weekly western series.  Wishbone was servin’ up the grub.  Rowdy, Scarlet, Mister Favor, the whole gang was sitting around the campfire, eating beans off of metal plates and soaking up the sunset.  I was there with them, out on the ol’ lone prairie enjoying the various shades of gray of the setting sun when I saw a boom mike hanging over Mister Favor’s head.

   Gone was the sunset, gone were the drovers eating their beans, gone was the story line—all I could see was that boom mike.  It didn’t fit; it stuck out like sneakers on Shakespeare.  It was such a small thing, but it had a such a huge effect—it turned Rowdy Yates into Clint Eastwood, Gil Favor into Eric Flemming, and the ol’ lone prairie into a back lot at CBS…it destroyed the illusion, and instantly brought me back from the wide open spaces to the closed confines of my living room.

 For those of you who are new to the business, a themed festival is theater.   It is not a theater in the traditional sense, but it is a theater, just the same.  It is a 3-D, or ‘Interactive Theater’.  In traditional theater the audience sits in a fixed position passively observing the action which also occurs in a fixed position (The stage or screen).  The two are separated by what is known as “the fourth wall” an invisible, mutually agreed upon plane that will not be penetrated by either side.

  Early experimental theater groups tried removing the fourth wall by having actors enter from the audience, or by delivering lines from the audience, who still sat in a fixed position and passively observed. 

Interactive theater, which is at the cutting edge of experimental theater, invites the audience onto the stage, invites them to participate, and entices them to play like children; to touch, talk, move and explore the stage with their own creativity and rediscover the child within themselves. Think of your own childhood.  If you ever had tea time with teddy bears, or made the winning basket for the NBA championship in your own back yard, you were involved in creative play. 

 If you’ve ever seen a patron with a beer in one hand, a turkey leg in the other, wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, a  Blake Shelton T- shirt, and a just purchased Jester’s hat hollering “HUZZAH!” instead of “HOT DAMN!” then, you have seen the effects of playfulness as well.  At a themed festival the entire site is the stage, and all of those who work within its boundaries are the cast.

 

 “Yeah, Yeah, so what does this have to do with me?, I’m trying to make a living here”  OK, fair enough question….I’ll answer it with another question—If you give a child $10 and turn him loose in a toy store for the day, how much money will he return with?  How about $20?  How about $50 or $100?  A child will always return with empty pockets—and so will an adult if they are wholly involved in creative play.  The economic restraints and controls that we as adults place upon ourselves lose much of their strength when we are focused upon play.  If you are not familiar with this concept, I would be happy to explain it over a few hands of poker at a casino of your choosing.

 Now, back to the back lot at CBS…. as bad as that boom mike was, imagine instead that the drovers are sitting around the campfire, watching the sunset over the herd, eating beans with white plastic sporks off of Styrofoam plates, and drinking out of paper cups that say  “Pepsi”.

 When a Patron stands in front of a Renaissance Booth, manned by a person in costume in their minds they are looking at the stage.  If you have styro cups and plates, if you are eating with a spork, you have destroyed the illusion that you and every other business owner has spent thousands of dollars to create and the public has paid the price of an admission to experience. If the person in costume is eating out of a Styrofoam container it has the same effect as putting truck tires on Charlton Heston’s chariot in the big race scene in ‘Ben-Hur’.  “Yeah, sure Al, but why, after spending all that money, why would they put truck tires on a chariot?”

My point exactly….

 Maintaining the illusion is vital.  Not only is it the ‘Prime Directive”, if you will, of theater, It is also the essential ingredient that nurtures the necessary trust needed for adults to allow themselves to enter into creative play. And the mindset of creative play, as we earlier observed, makes a person more than willing to spend money they wouldn’t normally be more than willing to spend in pursuit of the pleasure of playful creation…..

  The illusion is not created for the cast; it is created for the audience.  It is also created, in part, by the audience through their ability to skillfully suspend their disbelief.

 Suspension of disbelief (another arcane theatrical term) occurs when one lays aside their analytical mind so they might be entertained.  For example, if I was watching Rawhide, and did not suspend my disbelief my internal dialogue would sound something like this “Everything is black white and gray, grass is green in the real world, I see the fire, but I don’t smell the smoke, how can it be dark already, it was noon five minutes ago, where is that music coming from, is there an orchestra in the chuck wagon?” etc. 

 We are all adept at suspending our disbelief.  We can turn it off at the first sign of a commercial, make a sandwich, go to the bathroom, be back in the lazy-boy and turn it back on before the last commercial ends. To you, the flush toilets and Faire food containers are an anachronism; to the patron it’s a trip to the bathroom and kitchen during a commercial.

 Let’s assume for a second that it’s OK to eat out of Styrofoam, it’s such a small thing, it really shouldn’t make that much difference (except to those craftspeople who sell eating & drinking utensils).  How about jewelry, that’s small stuff, why not let everybody start wearing Wal-mart jewelry? That’s no big deal (except to those people who sell jewelry).  And what about costumes, you can find stuff in stores that could pass for costumes.  Same with foot wear, not a big deal (except to costumers and cobblers).

  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all the craftspeople and all the entertainers are outfitted with items that cannot be purchased at the show.   Will sales go up or down?  Will a patron purchase a velvet period hat if the participants are wearing baseball hats? Will a patron buy a pair of hand-crafted footwear if the participants are wearing tennis shoes? 

 When a patron feels safe enough to play, they will first try to look the part. By in large, they pattern themselves after the participants…it’s the only reference point they have.  Even though it might be quick, clean, and easy to eat out of Styrofoam, every time you do so you are inadvertently telling patrons that it’s OK to do so and still be part of ‘the act’.    Is it any wonder that a potter can’t sell a dinner set when his friends around him are eating out of air-injected petro-chemical bowls and shoveling food into their mouths with a schizophrenic utensil made from the rotting flesh of dinosaurs?!?  

 You want sales to go up?  Maintain the illusion.  Put your product on as many participants and in as many shops as you possibly can.  Trade, discount, or  barter. 

 Every participant that has your product is a walking advertisement to every paying playing patron that doesn’t and, if they see it on another playful soul, they will seek you out and, with a smile on their face, give you their money so that they might play….and you might prosper.

 

 So…..is it worth the time, effort, and expense to outfit yourself with appropriate utensils and costumes.  Is it worth the extra washing of dishes and transferring of food from styro/cardboard containers?  How about discounts to participants to get your item out there?  Does any of this make sense??  If so, great!  Feel free to share a story in the comments.  If not, even better!!  Let me know in a comment below what a lackey of the Corporate Overlords needs to hear to make your life simpler.  

 

Some of the worst Customer Service failures occur when a worker isn’t able to recognize who their customer is. In a well-run commercial kitchen, each station has a different customer. Yes, the Guest is everyone’s customer, but in order for that Guest to have an optimum experience, the entire team has to function at its best, and there is a trick for that, a hack or cheat if you will.

The trick is this. Distinguish the face of your customer. While I’ve already stated that the Guest is everyone’s customer; that is in the abstract. The concrete is the face you see over and over as you do your job. When it’s done right, the Sous Chef’s customer is the Line Cook, the Line Cook’s customer is the Expediter, the Expediter’s customer is the Server, the Server’s customer is the Guest, and the Kitchen Manager’s customer is the staff.

It would seem that a Kitchen Manager would be serving the Guest. But the best way for her to do that is to serve her team so that they will function at *their* best.

I am the Kitchen Manager in my own bakery. It happens to be open for only 2 months of the year, inside the largest Renaissance Festival in America. We serve food that we’ve made from scratch to thousands of people a day, for eight consecutive weekends each fall season. I have a staff of about 20 people, and I am approached regularly by people that want to join the team. It’s not that I offer bigger compensation packages or fringe benefits (although our crew T-shirts *are* pretty cool). But I am clear that my job is to make all of their jobs easier, while getting the best product possible out the door to the Guest. I ask my crew for input often, and they know I listen to them. By listening to my immediate customer, I create a better product and experience for my abstract customer.

Bevan’s promo photo for my bakery “Queen’s Pantry” at the Texas Renaissance Festival

How does this translate for folks who are not running a high-volume kitchen? Are you running (or wanting to run) a high-volume anything? Learn to recognize the face of your immediate customer and serve them to your best ability. If you are managing an operation of any sort, help your subordinates understand who their immediate customer is, and ask them to list how they can best serve that person. We all work best when we see the face of who we are serving, but it doesn’t have to be an abstraction. 

The best management teams use this model. Festival Management is traditionally broken down into Food Program Coordinators, Crafts Coordinators, Wedding Coordinators, Entertainment Directors, etc. All of these people have the park Guest as their abstract and ultimate customer, but their titles explain who their immediate customers actually are. In venues where there are not as many staff members as there are titles, that staff has to be able to shift their customer focus as often as they change departments in order to be effective. If they make the assumption that they are only serving the end customer, the members of the team will not be served in a way that allows them to do their best in regards to the final product being presented to that Guest, and the overall quality of the event deteriorates.

There is another very important key to this process. Do not make any of your business associate’s jobs more difficult. Do not “make work” for another department simply because their immediate customer is different from your own. Some of the volunteers at the Music Festival where you vend might have inadvertently done something annoying, but the Hospitality Program that feeds and otherwise cares for the Talent and the grounds at the show cannot function without them. It is easier to gently inform them of the way things work than to snap at them. You will wish they were in your neighborhood when the garbage cans start filling up around your space.

Denigrating the immediate customers of your associates makes work for your associates. They have to work to overcome the implication that they don’t matter to your overall team. It takes a lot of different departments to make a festival work well. It is essential to keep all of the players in these departments satisfied with their situations, and the easiest way to do that is to treat them like they matter. Optimum Customer Service really is the goal of this process in finding the face of your immediate customer. It can in no way eliminate your responsibilities to the entire team. Trying to limit your obligations to only your immediate customer and the abstract customer or Guest is shortsighted and ultimately foolish; as the end product delivered to the Guest deteriorates with the weakening of the team. Customer Service has to be a consideration at all stages and in all departments of the operation if the event  (or product / service being sold) is to succeed.

We very much intend to stay as jargon-free as possible on this site. If you’ve back-linked to this page, it means we couldn’t avoid the use of a word that has come to have a particular meaning in our industry. We fully expect this page to evolve. Hopefully it will never be very long.

 

360s Shops that are not in a booth line. They are visible to the audience from all sides, and consequently do not have a “backstage”
Backstage  Any space where park or festival guests are not allowed. Simply getting out of the line of view of guests does not count. All character actors must remain in character, unless backstage.
Boondocking A Recreational Vehicle or RV term for camping somewhere without utilities, also known as “Primitive Camping”
Busking Performing for voluntary donations, usually in the street.
Garb  Specific to the Renaissance Festival industry, work clothes, considered costume to festival guests, but required of all workers within sight of faire patrons. Rules about costume help shape the guest’s experience of another time.
Grab shack  A food shop or restaurant with no public seating, a snack bar; applies to most if not all food at festivals.
Hat pass A time during or after a performance when gratuities are collected by the performer (or a designee)
Hawker A person who vocally advertises performances, goods, or services to be seen or purchased. May or may not handle money.
On the Road  Refers to living and working a series of shows or festivals. The term is used throughout the outdoor festival industry. (see On-Circuit)
On-circuit  Refers to living and working a series of shows or festivals. The term is used throughout the outdoor festival industry. (see On the Road)
Primitive Camping Camping somewhere without utilities, sometimes referred to as “Boondocking”
School Night Any evening before a day when the event will be open.
Stick Joint  a tent with poles used as a shop. The term comes from circuses and carnivals, but is used to discern between trailers and tents in the food vendor realm of all festivals, and is sometimes used to refer to folks that haven’t made an investment, yet vend in permanent parks.  (See Temporaries)
Temps or Temporaries In a permanent venue, these terms refer to shops that can be carried away by their owners at the end of the event.
Week-work Used primarily at events that are open on weekends only, this refers to the jobs that happen in-between weekends. Kitchen prep, art production, and construction are 3 good examples.

 

 

 

How to Grow a Festival, Part Two

Rhonni —  February 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

In part one of this conversation, I mentioned that because a festival is an experience, it is the responsibility of the participants at a festival to help create real growth. But what about those shows where the participants are doing everything they can, but the Festival Management drops the ball?

It happens. Someone doesn’t order enough port-o-lets or ATM machines. The parking crew is oblivious to a guest leaving their headlights on and no one is available at the end of their visit to jump the car to get the guest home. Someone forgets to trim the weeds under the benches in front of a stage, or the trash cans overflow. These are basic customer service mistakes, and if they are not addressed, the show cannot grow.

Whovians are everywhere.

 

Maybe the number of port-o-lets and ATMs was “just enough” to still allow guests a pleasant visit. Then the Artists and the Entertainers provided such an amazing experience that the guest experiencing it decides she is definitely coming back. But is she going to bring more people with them if she thinks larger numbers of visitors will impact her own experience? No. She is going to keep it a secret.

It will be her secret club. She may attend every weekend possible, and she may enjoy herself immensely, but she will not work to help grow the venue. Show management has to demonstrate they are able to not only deal with their current numbers of guests with exemplary customer service; but convince everyone that they can show the same professionalism to more visitors when they arrive. The event has to look like it is ready for more.

The statement “These customers don’t mind lines” might work when management is justifying their small number of ATM machines, but a guest willing to stand in a line 20 people deep, may very well *not* be willing to stand in a line 40 people deep. Remember that “Word of Mouth” campaign we said was essential for festival growth? It. Is. Not. Happening.

So now the PR team has more of a challenge in getting their job done. They have to bring out new people (who don’t mind standing in line for an ATM) to make up for attrition; yet they have to accomplish this without the aid of a Word of Mouth campaign. You see, some of the people that came last year did *not* have a great time. The port-o-lets were too dirty, or their car battery was dead, or this festival simply wasn’t a good fit for their personality. The PR guy is working his tail off to keep the boat afloat, while someone in parking or grounds crew is drilling holes in the hull.

As I said, sometimes the Artists and Entertainers are doing a fabulous job, and it is Festival Management standing in the way of festival growth. Unfortunately apathy can be contagious, and the very people who are holding a festival afloat can succumb to the illness. Sometimes, in an act of self-preservation, the most energetic participants will leave that festival for another in the same time slot, leaving the apathetic to sink or swim.

Best case scenario for a show like this is steady attendance. This is only achievable with a hardworking Public Relations team and a collection of enthusiastic participants, who are either happy with their festival at its current size, or praying that someone in Management wakes up soon.

How to Grow a Festival (part one)

Rhonni —  February 14, 2013 — 1 Comment

What is it that makes festivals work? We like to throw the responsibility onto the Promotions and Marketing Departments, but a festival is an experience. Real growth in a festival is the responsibility of everyone involved.

86th Annual Feast of San Gennaro

A couple of business truisms should be considered here:

1. It is easier to sell to existing customers. However … if they don’t have a stellar experience at the festival, they are not coming back.

2. Word of Mouth is your most powerful line of advertisement. Again … the quality of the experience is what folks will be talking about, so a failure in creating an enchanting festival experience for an individual is a failure at enlisting that person’s network into her Word of Mouth campaign. Worse, if she has a negative experience, her entire network might hear about it.

So everyone at the festival is accountable. This is not just an issue of how well the garbage crew maintains the cleanliness of the park. If an artist is unhappy with his fee structure or the balance of the craft mix, he may not be as jovial to a customer who is “just looking right now” as he passes through that shop. If an entertainer thinks his responsibilities to the audience end with his hat pass, audience members may be soured to the rest of their day.

Maid Marion takes a moment to dish with a guest.

Yes, Promotions and Marketing hold the weight of the responsibility in getting new customers to the venue, but everyone else has to make them want to come back. Every festival has its own personality, and some of those new visitors might not be “feeling it” at your event. Maybe they’ll try a Bluegrass Festival next time rather than your Roots Music Event; but they won’t know until they come and experience the venue themselves whether or not it is a good time. There is an opportunity here to close that sale, and give the customer a grand enough experience that he comes back ready be entertained, to buy art and services, and perhaps buy more than one meal in their festival day. If the festival is a rich enough experience, then the new visitor might overlook the parts of the event that don’t work for him, in order to get to the parts that are more his style.

By the same token, participants might find that what they offer for sale works better with some audiences than with others. Shopping for the right event for your product is part of the program for being successful at outdoor events. The ability to make alterations in product lines to match the style and personality of a local clientele is a hallmark of the most successful merchants in the festival and event business.

At every step, every participant is either building or shrinking the future of the festival. As a participant, when you choose to shrink a festival; you are wasting everyone’s time, most especially your own.

There is some discussion in the industry about whether or not it is beneficial to have building inspectors involved when trying to mimic a 400 year old village. We are designing retail spaces that look like they belong in an English village in the 1600s. Levels and plumb-lines can make a structure look a bit “too crisp”.

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Queen’s Pantry, my fall gig

RhonniRocks —  January 27, 2011 — 1 Comment

… the manic highs of a high-volume restaurant mean that I can get paid for my adrenaline addiction, rather than scheduling my next river rafting or skiing adventure. Besides … it’s only 8 weeks in October and November.

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Dropping a Wedding Cake

RhonniRocks —  January 21, 2011 — Leave a comment

No matter how slow-motion the event seems … there is never quite enough time to keep it from happening. A turned ankle … and one of us was going down while holding a 12” wedding cake that folks were going to be cutting into in 15 minutes.

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Menuspotting is the search for the next great festival food item … many festivals must be attended, and many yummy things must be tasted … it’s all part of the job.

Higher-end festivals protect unique food offerings, so the goal is to discover or create the next Turkey Leg or Funnel Cake. Well, my goal is to connect with more like-minded gourmands and get them to come see me at festivals where I produce & sell delicious and healthy items … but it’s a good sound-bite to say we’re out to discover the next Turkey Leg. Inspirations are captured in non-festival situations as well. Somebody has to be the first person to try and sell it on the street.

As Audre Lorde said, “There are no new ideas, just new ways of making them felt.” We take inspiration from foods and flavors, and find ways to make them work in our industry. Picasso said “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” meaning real art is in taking an idea and making it your own. This is what we are trying to do as we bend food inspirations to fit our specific niche.

Our niche is well-defined.

A) Items must be easily eaten with one utensil or less.

B) Items should have a high perceived value, as time windows for sales are short, and it takes the same amount of time to make a $7 sale as it does to make a $2 sale.

C) Items that share easily are appreciated.

D) Items must have 5 or less ingredients or steps, (OR key parts of the process can be prepped during the week).

E) Items must be pretty, have a catchy name, and

F) Items Must. Be. Yummy.

What is catching your eye on current menus? What do you hope to someday see at festivals everywhere? What is the item that you think might be the next Turkey Leg or Funnel Cake at your State Fair? Inquiring minds want to know.