What causes local festivals to go stale? Why do people stop coming to events that were once successful? How do events that were once alive and unique get so bland that they look like every other festival out there?
Mentor, Ohio, home to nearly 50,000 “Mentorites,” has earned an outstanding reputation for producing highly successful community events; and Jill Korsok, recreation program manager for the city, knows something of the magic it takes for them to live on.
“Across our department we have about two very large events of 10,000–30,000 people, four large events of 1,000–9,999 people and six medium events of 200–999 people annually,” she said. In addition to her direct involvement with four of these festivals — one of which is the city’s signature event — Korsok manages general recreation and fitness classes, summer camps, swimming pools and her department’s marketing and social media outreach.
She recalled how an annual summer festival, “Better in Mentor,” was for 35 years coordinated by a community volunteer group with limited assistance from the city.
It was last held in September of 2012. “It was at that time our city administrators decided that they’d like to see the parks and recreation department begin a new, professionally organized festival; and Mentor CityFest was born,” she related.
Having completed the third annual CityFest, Korsok said keeping things fresh is the most challenging part of creating and managing special events, especially events that take place in the same community year after year. Over time, things tend to become generic with the same foods, rides, games and T-shirt vendors.
Korsok strongly advises event managers to constantly look at trends.
“For instance, the emergence of noncompetitive fun runs like the color runs, glow runs and mud runs, or the trend and interest in local sustainable foods or craft beers — find ways to incorporate those into your next event.”
To help keep her own thinking fresh, Korsok belongs to the Ohio Parks & Recreation Association, the National Parks & Recreation Association and also the International Festival and Events Association.
“Each of those organizations provides wonderful educational, networking and trend information I tap into regularly.
“It’s a fine line between giving people what they expect and honoring the traditions tied up in events versus adding new activities within an event to keep it fresh,” she elaborated. “If an event features the same thing every year, what’s the draw for guests to attend again? Special events face a lot of competition. We compete for the time, money and the attention of very busy Americans. We face competition from other events happening in our geographic area, from professional and youth sports, from decreased disposable income and even seasonal happenings like Christmas shopping or family summer vacations.” Other factors, like a decrease in perceived security or poor word-of-mouth from past participants can also drive down attendance and affect the success of any event, she added.
“Think of how many music festivals or arts and crafts fairs there are in the U.S. What makes one more attractive to attendees than another?” Korsok posed. “The ones that survive and grow offer their guests new experiences. They provide a welcoming, interesting and memorable atmosphere. When people know they can expect that, they are more likely to return.”
New to this year’s CityFest, held Aug. 28–29 and made possible in part by an event sponsor, is a cavalcade of frivolity featuring a Color Dash and Walk. This untimed 2.2-mile run-stroll-jog-walk starts with all participants wearing white T-shirts and, at various intervals along the way to the finish line, being adorned with sprinkles of nontoxic, biodegradable cornstarch coloring, decorating each participant with pixie-dust layers of blue, green, yellow, orange and pink.
Ongoing festival activities this year included lots of live, mixed-genre music; giant inflatables; strolling entertainers; LED light dancers; family-friendly midway games run by local nonprofit organizations; beer and wine gardens with scheduled wine tastings; traditional fair foods; plus the biggest parade in Lake County. CityFest includes a night of spectacular fireworks and the chance to visit with more than 60 hometown businesses in The Main Street Tent.
Korsok emphasized that the success of very large events, such as CityFest, is built with a minimum of 10 to 12 months of meticulous coordination, detailed planning and continual teamwork.
“I’m fortunate to work with an amazing group of professionals who value creating quality programs and events. Having a team of like-minded people who understand the goals and objectives is so important. Every one of our staff members has a role to play, and each role is integral in the success of the event.”
Another technique is critical as well.
“Look at what interests are of the demographic attending the event and then get creative. Look at what kind of an atmosphere could be created to attract your target market. Analyze and evaluate how your team can provide the best service and services to your guests while they are at an event.”
She said some of her responsibilities today match up with her degree from Bowling Green State University in Recreation Administration, but “I don’t think the production of really large events was part of scope of most municipal recreation departments until the mid-90s. Not to say they didn’t exist — some departments have been assisting and providing support for events for a very long time. But I think we’ve been seeing an increase in the number of really large events produced in-house by parks and recreation organizations for the last decade, and I don’t see that slowing down any time soon.
“One thing to keep in mind is that events managed by municipalities come in all shapes and sizes,” Korsok continued. “From festivals to sports tournaments to historical events, there’s never a one-size-fits-all because every event is different and success is measured by different criteria for different events.”
For some events, success means having a larger attendance than the previous year or having more vendors on site. For other events the goal may be to generate revenue or gain new sponsorship.
In certain instances, the purpose may be just to create something that brings people together and generates a sense of community.
“We define our goals and objectives for each event beforehand so that we can evaluate based on our measures whether or not the event was successful,” she said.
“What will guests see, what will they discover, what might ‘oooh’ and ‘aahh’ attendees when they walk in the door? What do you want them to tell their friends about the event when it’s over?” Korsok encourages event managers to spend time imaging what the event will look like from a guest’s perspective. It is redundantly asking questions like this that has in just three years made CityFest the biggest two-day event in Northeast Ohio, she noted.
“I don’t know that it’s magic, but my No. 1 recommendation is to talk with your attendees and stay in touch with the people whom you want to attend your event. Observe what attendees are doing at your event. Are they walking in and walking right back out or are they engaged and participating? Get their feedback formally or informally, over a cup of coffee or whatever you have to do to see what they think.”
She cautioned, however, that sometimes what attendees have to say is not what event managers want to hear. Nevertheless, their honest feedback will help create an event that meets the needs of its attendees.
Find out what they want and then find a way to deliver it. Make attendees feel welcomed and important before they arrive, while they are on site and even after the event. Let them know: “Hey, we want you to attend this great event we are planning and we want you to have a great time while you’re there. We want your feedback on what you liked and what we could do better so you’ll come back again next year!”