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Extension > Community > Community Features > Community festivals—Big benefits, but risks, too

Community festivals—Big benefits, but risks, too

Author: Eliza Grames & Mary Vitcenda
Content Sources: Ingrid Schneider & others
Winter 2012

Festival — Explore Minnesota Tourism

Photo: Explore Minnesota Tourism

What does Minnesota celebrate? Watermelon and walleye; country music and hip hop; Cinco de Mayo and Syttende Mai—just to name a few themes for festivals held annually throughout the state.

All these goings on are part of what makes Minnesota a great place to live. Besides being fun, well-managed festivals and events offer a host of economic and social benefits to communities.

The benefits are similar to those for tourism, in general, according to Ingrid Schneider, Director of the University of Minnesota Tourism Center. "Tourism has the opportunity to bring communities together and instill a sense of community pride and knowledge of their history," she says.

The economic benefits of festivals are easiest to see and most often cited–festivals attract visitors, which stimulates the growth of tourism and other businesses in a town or region.

The social benefits of festivals are less visible, but they are just as important. Building on Schneider's observation, it's fair to say that festivals foster community pride, teach people new things, and strengthen relationships.

But hosting festivals also poses challenges. There are risks and costs related to the effort. A star performer might not show up, or the stage might collapse. Insurance can cover financial risk, but reputational damage is harder to address.

Substitute "festivals" for "tourism," and Schneider nicely frames the challenge to communities: "We need to be very careful about the product we have for Minnesota's tourism and make sure it's sustainable."

Boosting the economy

By definition, festivals attract visitors. And visitors spend money, which boosts the local economy both on and off the festival site. On-site spending includes admission fees, parking fees, food, beverage and souvenir sales—and more. Attendees at the 2011 Irish Fair of Minnesota, for example, spent an average of $50 at the festival site.

But off-site spending related to festivals generates revenue for communities, too. For example, visitors stop at local gas stations, souvenir shops, and restaurants–the list goes on.

Overnight visitors provide another source of off-site revenue to communities that host festivals. For example, overnight visitors to the 2011 Irish Fair spent an average of $170 on lodging and $38 on food and beverages during the time they attended the festival.

Festivals also provide free marketing and advertising for local businesses as visitors talk about their fun experiences when they go back home. If visitors post comments and photos about their experiences on Facebook or other social media, so much the better. The economic benefits of successful festivals ripple throughout a local economy–affecting tourism and non-tourism- related businesses alike.

Fostering community pride

Planning and conducting festivals involves many members of the community, which yields a number of social benefits.

"The best thing about being involved with festivals and events is the opportunity to help build a community, foster a sense of pride within a community, and engage a community," says Chris Romano, a business consultant with Thrivent Financial Services. "Honestly, in my professional career, I've never found something outside a community festival that can do that to the same degree."

Experts agree that hometown pride is a critical factor in the development and improvement of any community. Residents with community pride are more likely to speak positively about their town to others and to volunteer with organizations and activities that support the common good.

Festivals promote community pride by celebrating things that make a town special and evoke good feelings. Those things can be as "big" as ethnic heritage, or as "small" as a piece of pastry. Two examples from Minnesota illustrate the point.

Each year, the community of Lindstrom hosts Karl Oskar Days to celebrate its Swedish heritage. That heritage is on display throughout the year in the form of statues, museums, historic sites, and shops selling Swedish-inspired products and foods. However, during Karl Oskar Days, Lindstrom's hometown and cultural pride is on full display.

The festival features log rolling, live Swedish music, a street dance, parades through the town, and more. The Karl Oskar Days event attracts visitors from as close as nearby St. Paul and as far as Sweden itself.

The town of Montgomery in southern Minnesota also celebrates its heritage, but with a different twist. Independent Contractor Randy Gutzmann is a fan. "I love a celebration that revolves around a Czechoslovakian pastry," he says.

The pastry is kolacky (also spelled kolache), a concoction consisting of sweet bread and different fillings, especially fruit–such as prune, apricot, and poppy seed. The pastries abound during Montgomery's annual Kolacky Days celebration. Like Karl Oskar Days, Kolacky Days draws visitors from near and far.

Teaching new things

Whatever a festival's theme, it's bound to be instructional and visitors are bound to learn from it. Of course, education (including greater awareness and new knowledge) is another social benefit of festivals. But this isn't learning from a book or in a classroom—this is hands-on, experiential learning offered in the fun context of celebration.

Learning is a big byproduct of the annual Lady Slipper Celebration in the northwestern Minnesota community of Blackduck, which lies at the head of the 28-mile long Lady Slipper Scenic Byway. The community launched the celebration, named after the Minnesota state flower, to showcase and promote understanding of the area's natural resources and Native American culture, as well as attract visitors to the byway. (The small community of Kabetogama and Voyageurs National Park in northeastern Minnesota also honor the lady's slipper with an annual Lady Slipper Festival.)

The University of Minnesota Tourism Center measured whether Lady Slipper Celebration sponsors had achieved their educational goals through a visitor profile conducted in 2011. In response to a questionnaire, 87 percent of celebration attendees indicated they had learned new information about lady slippers, while 47 percent said they were more knowledgeable about Native American culture after attending the event.

This educational experience helped visitors connect to the area. According to the Tourism Center study, 83 percent of first-time visitors said they were satisfied with their experience and planned to return to the area.

Strengthening relationships

A third social benefit of festival sponsorship is stronger relationships within a community. Most of the relationship-building occurs in the festival planning phase. This is where the bonds among public and private organizations, government, and neighborhood groups are forged and where connections among elected officials, staff, volunteers and interested residents are made.

Assuming everything else goes well, the payoff to this relationship-building is a successful festival. But the benefits last well beyond the event, as people bring their connections and collective knowledge and skills to improve the community.

Connections are the "glue" that hold communities together; without them, a community stagnates and the quality of life declines. Experts call this glue social capital, so viewed through this lens— festival sponsorship increases the social capital that makes for healthy communities.

Value of training

As noted, hosting a festival is not without risks and costs. While a successful event enhances a community's reputation, a less-than-successful effort (or outright failure) does just the opposite.

In the end, festival management means minimizing damage and maximizing opportunity. To help community leaders achieve this balance, the University of Minnesota Tourism Center offers training in the essentials of festival and event management.

The Festival and Event Management program covers strategic planning, site management, budgeting and financial planning, marketing and sponsorship, human resource management and volunteer recruitment, and event evaluation. "I highly recommend it to anyone looking to expand their base of knowledge, creative thinking, and to implement fantastic festivals and events," says Shari Kunza of the City of Shoreview, a past participant.

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