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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.

One of the first “Industry Truths” I was taught about Renaissance Festivals was this:

There are 3 types of people who travel and work Renaissance Festivals.

  1. People who have a business that works at Renaissance Festivals. (This includes artists who lean toward costume elements, or pewter figurines, or astrolabes; and service providers who have created a business that works within the theme, as well as Entertainers.)
  2. People who live here for the traveling lifestyle, but could work elsewhere if they wanted. They land side-jobs or “week-work” whenever possible. (This includes good managers, henna artists, Renaissance carpenters, facepainters … many of these people are building their own businesses “on the side”, or are apprenticing to a craft or crafts business. Some entertainers are in this group.)
  3. People who can’t keep it together to work more than 2 days per week.

These different groups are all engaged in completely different competitions. Many think they are trying to “level up”. Whether or not they are actually working toward that is debatable. Each track is different. Each competition has different requirements, different goals, and different rewards.

Rotterdam Marathon, photo by Qsimple

I’m a person of the first sort at this point in my career … we own several businesses at multiple permanent Renaissance Festivals. The race I am running is a start-up race. I need to be the next person with a new idea or a new product, and present it to Festival Management in hopes that they agree upon my gamble, and let me in to their event. If they already have saturation in a particular segment of their market, and I really want to do their show, I need to come up with a new product line, or develop a new service that works in their venue. I only have competitors if I am copying ideas. My race is to find and present something the Management hasn’t seen yet, in a way that fits it into their theme. An example would be a pedi-cab business. Thematically it is a challenge, but human-powered rickshaws work, or I could import bamboo bicycles.  I have to come across to Management as a professional, with the funding to back my idea and do a top-notch job. When Henna body art first started trending, I called a festival where I had an existing business; to ask if they had already contracted with someone for the service. I was told that I was the third person that week to call on the subject, but that they were very much looking forward to my presentation. I’m pretty sure I landed that concession simply by being the most professional person who applied.

Training for this race includes attending trade shows and art festivals whenever possible. Food items are quite regional, but some ideas travel well. I also attend business events, and take classes whenever I can. You never know where the next great idea might come from. (I take photos of menus almost everywhere I go.)

I started out in the industry as a person of the second sort, and I’ve always surrounded myself with people of the first and second categories on this list. Truthfully, I just work so many hours during the few calendar months of my work season … I don’t have time to see anyone who isn’t coming to work. If I’ve got time to hang-out, I’m more likely to field a brainstorming session amongst my peers. Many of us only cross schedules for 2 months of the year. This means clever co-conspirators can flesh-out ideas, with the easy non-compete agreement that they will apply to separate shows. Sometimes regions of the country are fleshed out early in a discussion if the idea seems hot enough.

But the race that people in the second category run *does* have competitors. Because these people are paying their bills (and possibly working to build their own businesses) with the funds from an on-circuit employer, they are pitching their skill-set and their reputation against folks who want that same good job.  Their employer has chosen which shows to invest in, so they don’t have complete control of their own yearly schedule, although truly, some don’t care as long as they get to travel. Some folks mix up who they work for at different times of year, in order to choose their schedule themselves.

The smartest people in this race are in school. They are either apprenticing to a craft, or learning the finer points of a business while managing it for someone else and getting paid. It’s how I learned the most important elements of festival food management (and my deep abiding love of MS Excel). I’m currently honing my inventory manager to be able to buy me out in 15 years or so since I don’t have any heirs. I know some artists in the same situation. They have built successful businesses and it’s a shame to close them just because they’ve aged-out of the ability to do the work, so they’ve taken on paid sales help who are also apprentices.

Training for this race involves fine-tuning your skill-set to make yourself too appealing to pass up. The folks I think of first are my head baker (who is amazingly talented), and my friend Heather who has a retail design and management background. She is always employed, while also launching her own multiple businesses.  When The Husband and I were still building shops for the majority of our income, I learned 4 different building codes, and became proficient (enough) with a CAD program to draw for permits in the several different states where we built. There is plenty of work for people who want to work.

Which brings us to the third group of people … I don’t really know very much about this group. I like my work too much to be avoiding it.

The race in which the third group of people are involved (discounting the real possibility of mental illness), is a race against complacence and a victim mentality. Their strongest competitors are themselves and the other crabs in the bucket. We all like to surround ourselves with people who think like we do. It is human nature. But sitting around, talking about why the world doesn’t work for you only brings into being a world that doesn’t work for you.  “There’s no week-work available” is an irresponsible person’s translation for “I lost my chance at week-work to a more reliable worker.” It is relatively inexpensive to live “on circuit”, depending on your comfort level. Consequently, folks who can only keep it together to work a couple of days a week can be “on circuit”. Unfortunately for some, this gives them more time to represent the industry to the local townspeople. This can be embarrassing at best, and detrimental to the festival’s reputation at worst.

The fact that there are professional business people working at Renaissance Festivals appears to be a well-kept secret.

Every industry has rules. The trick is in knowing how to get what you want while meeting the rules. Venues with a historical theme have tons of several restrictions that help create the environment that fools the public into the fantasy that they are visiting a 16th century village. I won’t get into the finer points on costume rules and building design here, but I will talk about one control that shows up in both those departments. Color restrictions.

There are real reasons for having color restrictions in a historical venue. The technology wasn’t yet invented that could create a hot pink piece of fabric, or a vibrantly purple stucco wall. At least, there was no “affordable” technology that did so. Renaissance Festival costume rules almost universally prevent anyone other than royal characters wearing purple. Apparently in the 16th century, the only source for a purple dye was found in a type of muscle shell found in the Mediterranean Sea, and you needed a lot of them. All of the colors used during the Renaissance Period were from natural sources. Vegetable dyes faded fairly quickly, so the palette of the working class was soft and earthy. I’m not a professional costumer, although I have good friends that are. The end of the color issue that I know better is the one where color restrictions are applied to buildings.

Much like a mall lease contract, contracts for the vendors at a Renaissance Festival or Faire require they do their own “build-out”. They build, or pay to have built, the shops that they will be vending from at that particular festival. Designs have to be approved by the Vendor Coordinator, and perhaps the Site Director and General Manager as well. Each show is an independently owned company with only a few exceptions in the industry, so they’ll each have their own set of hoops for one to jump through. In the best cases, the proposed building design also has to meet with the approval of a Building Inspector.

Because buildings are each designed by an individual, with rare consideration of their neighbors’ designs, the color rules protect us all from garishness. If the color choices were not controlled, each vendor’s desire to be more readily seen than their competitors would quickly spiral upward into a visual cacophony. It happens sometimes even with the color safeguards in place. I myself am guilty of renaming a color when making my building design proposal to management, because it sounded far too purple otherwise.  (Smart building coordinators require paint chips with the proposal.) Fortunately, Park Management has final design control, and can easily tell a vendor to repaint if the color choice was a bad one. In most cases management is considerate to time restraints and may even let someone get a season’s use with the bad color before having to change it for the following season.

I designed and built shops for vendor clients for many years. (Actually, I designed, my husband built, and I painted and trimmed the buildings.) In conversations with my clients, I’d coach them on how to be creative within the color restrictions. I was not telling them how to bend the rule; I like the rules. But, I found that the best explanation was to tell them to “Put some dirt into the color that they most like, and it will probably qualify as an acceptable color.” It was a simplification, but one that communicated well. This is because, while vegetable dyes were used in fabrics, almost all colors used in the building trades came from mineral sources. So I’d ask a client for 3 colors, help them make choices that worked well together, and then if one of those colors was something that would have been more difficult, it became the smallest of the accent colors. In other words, no dark green walls, but perhaps some dark green trim.

It isn’t that any of this is rocket science. But the builder has to care about the illusion that she is helping to create. Renaissance Faire builders are amongst the luckiest designer/builders in the country. They get to design whimsical structures that actually come to fruition. More often than not, they are building inside a private park, and they rarely, if ever, have to build the same thing twice. Caring about the “whys” of the color rules just makes them better at their jobs.

 

Mid-construction, Jaime’s Coffee Shoppe at the New York Renaissance Faire. The bottom floor finished out with the same warm beige stucco you see on the dormer.

Just because it makes me happy …

One of my favorite photos from the fall show:

We call him Vandal.

 

Vandal works for me during the Texas Renaissance Festival. I snapped this photo one morning while he was ‘bumping’ the mixer, in order to incorporate all of the flour for the Cinnamon Squealers without making a huge mess. I had been trying for weeks to get a photo of these tattoos, but he always seemed to be wearing gloves.

It was obviously cold that morning, because in this photo he’s wearing pajama pants under his customary cargo shorts and chef jacket.

 

The Cinnamon Roll Situation

RhonniRocks —  January 7, 2013 — 3 Comments

This past fall, at my biggest show, I made a menu mistake. We were able to salvage it and turn it into a giant win, but not before customer feedback stirred us to action.

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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.

Crazy Sexy Life is one of my favorite blogs, for too many reasons to list just now.

Today’s article is great: 5 Lessons for the Aspiring Entrepreneur