The Secrets to Hosting a Great Gathering

There are many facets to putting together a great festival. Do it right, and your community stands to reap many rewards. Here are a few things to consider.

Crafting a memorable festival can prove a daunting task, even for those who are full of ambition and enthusiasm.

From raising funds and identifying budgets to spreading the word, ensuring safety and more, there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that festival goers don’t always see.

“I’ve lived here my entire life and I’ve gone to all of the festivals, but until I started working at the Chamber, I didn’t understand what went into the back end,” says Laura Rush, communication director for the Geneva Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of organization, a lot of patience and a lot of communication.”

Rush oversees multiple festivals and smaller events that draw thousands of people to Geneva every year. From occasions like Swedish Days in June and the Geneva Arts Fair in July to Festival of the Vine in September, the Christmas Walk and Holiday House Tour in December and mini events such as the Geneva Coffee Crawl and Geneva Restaurant Week, the Chamber team is always planning the next big gathering.

They’re not alone. All across our region, people are busy planning autumn festivals, Christmas kickoffs and winter bashes that keep people engaged with the community on many levels. And, after a crazy couple of years for festivals of all stripes, they’ve had more reasons than ever to craft a truly memorable occasion.

Many factors impact the organizing, planning and hosting of a memorable festival. Whether it’s a culturally driven celebration in the summer or a Christmas-themed walk in the winter, every festival must begin somewhere. Get the basics right, and you’re well on your way to success.
“Figure out jobs, set deadlines and set budgets so you know what you’re dealing with going into it,” Rush says.

(Sycamore Pumpkin Festival photo)

Assemble a Team

Planning and organizing a festival is not a solo job. Successful events are often driven by a passionate group of people who plan and anticipate every part of a festival’s needs, goals and premises while alleviating stressors that pop up along the way.

“First of all, get your committee or group together,” says Rush. “You have to have somebody who’s going to be the leader and not be afraid to delegate. The people on your committee need to be able to assume responsibility and not be there in name only. They have to be there for the right reasons. If the leader tries to do it all, it’s going to make them manic. That’s your first step.”

Once a group is established and a leader is identified, Rush recommends assigning roles to each group member. These assignments should in some way reflect each person’s specialties. If someone is familiar with sales skills, they’re a good choice to handle sponsorships. If someone else is good with numbers and accounting, that person might make a good budget chief.

Once roles are established, the committee starts to dive into the nitty gritty. Early tasks might include organizing schedules, booking entertainment, gathering must-haves such as mobile toilets, and creating and printing brochures. Priorities will shift the closer you get to the actual event.

The Sycamore Pumpkin Festival traces its roots to 1956, when local entrepreneur Wally Thurow displayed decorated pumpkins on his front lawn. Thurow went to the Sycamore Lions Club and asked them to host a decorated pumpkin contest. They did, and six years later, the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival was an established tradition.

Today, the gathering draws more than 1,000 entries into the pumpkin contest, but that’s just one facet of a busy weekend that brings an estimated 250,000 people. Scheduled for Oct. 26 this year, the Pumpkin Festival also features two carnivals, nonprofit vendors, a 10K race, a 90-minute parade and more.

Today, the event is organized by the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival Committee, composed of 13 members including Jerry Malmassari. As a show of support for the many other groups that benefit from the festival, Sycamore’s team invites other service groups to hold their own events at Pumpkin Festival. The Rotary Club of Sycamore, the Sycamore Kiwanis Club, Boy and Girl Scouts, Sycamore Music Boosters and more pitch in to host pie-eating contests, craft shows and other events that enhance the weekend festivities.

There’s no way the Pumpkin Festival could have become what it is today without the backing of dedicated organizers, says Malmassari, the committee’s historian.

“When it was a single group like the Lions Club, we had at that time an established group with membership that was probably somewhere around 50 to 60 guys, so we had a good pool of people to work with on it,” he says. “But you need that to work with. Then you can expand it out.”

(Barrington Area Chamber photo)

Identify Potential Sponsors and Partners

Raising funds for a premier festival might be one of the most intimidating tasks facing new organizers, but it’s also one of the most essential. New festivals need startup capital. Existing festivals need cash to cover all of the basics. Where do you find the money if you’re concerned about covering your costs?

The answer is simple: sponsorships.

“Community festivals are a unique opportunity for local business and community organizations to attach their name and support behind an event that brings families together, supports local business, and enhances the quality of life for residents in the community,” says Suzanne Corr, president and CEO of the Barrington Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s positive public relations for those involved. You will often find many local businesses interested in supporting these events, and even nonprofits want to be involved.”

Corr and the Barrington Area Chamber work with the village of Barrington to host the twice-annual Barrington Wine Walks. This fall’s event on Oct. 8 offered a taste of fine wines from local suppliers while participants patronized the many shops and restaurants in the village’s downtown. Sponsors for this year’s Barrington Wine Walks included Barrington Flower Shop, Shirley’s Piano Bar, Savvy Spirit Women’s Clothing and Accessories, and more.

The nonprofit Sycamore Pumpkin Festival Committee relies primarily on participating nonprofit vendors. Though there’s no consistent lead sponsor, commercial banks and other entities have paid to have their name associated with the event, most commonly in areas like live entertainment. As an added courtesy, sponsors are listed in festival brochures with one to three pumpkins, correlating to their level of support. One pumpkin equals a $500 donation, two indicate a $1,000 gift and three demonstrate a gift of at least $1,500.

The committee asks every sponsor and vendor for 10% of their proceeds to help pay for things like printing brochures, getting trash receptacles, portable toilets and more.
The local municipality is also a key supporter, though Sycamore Pumpkin Festival doesn’t receive direct financial support from the city. They do, however, benefit from a mutual relationship where the city helps to offset costs.

“We get tons of support from the city through the police department, the street department – assets that really aren’t yours, but if you really had to pay for them, it would be horrendous,” Malmassari says. The police help facilitate and ensure safety of festivalgoers while the street department helps with road closures and bypass routes.

It’s a win-win for everyone, says Malmassari, as the city gets extra recognition and sales tax dollars and the festival receives much-needed support. Festivals are a tourism asset, and they encourage people to visit a community, walk the streets and patronize local stores and restaurants, which in turn boosts sales tax dollars and the incomes of local businesses.

The Geneva Chamber has a similarly beneficial relationship with the City and with Kane County, whose courthouse is a backdrop for many local gatherings.

“We do rely on the City for garbage collection, at Christmastime to put up trees on light posts and string up lights, for police so that everyone feels safe at our festivals, for the fire department to do checks and make sure we’re all in code,” Rush says. “If we didn’t have that partnership, it would be very costly, even more so to run a festival, so we’re very grateful that we work well with the City of Geneva when we do our festivals.”

Landing the right kinds of sponsors is a big deal for festival organizers. Rush says the secret behind wooing a good sponsor is making them seem like a good fit.

“We have a thing called the Settlers’ Coffee at Swedish Days, for longtime Genevans,” she says. “It’s a breakfast complimentary of the Chamber. A sponsor that might fit with that event is an assisted living or retirement community because that’s their clientele. You’re not going to have a toy store be a sponsor for that. Try to be conscientious of putting the right people with the right sponsorship.”

During Christmas time, the Chamber’s beloved Christmas Walk and Home Tour light up the town, drawing additional sponsors in the form of tree lighting sponsors and home-related businesses supporting a tour of custom-decorated homes just in time for Santa.

The Chamber’s Festival of the Vine, an autumn celebration of craft wines, takes place in a fenced-in area. Because that fencing comes with an expense, the Chamber started recruiting “fence sponsors.” Now, local businesses and organizations can pay to display their message along the festival boundaries.

(Richardson Adventure Farms photo)

Know Your Audience when Marketing

A great festival is only good when people show up. And getting the right people to show up is the key. It’s vital to identify your target audience and to market your event in a way that draws them in. Is your event for adults only? Is it kid-friendly or centered around families? Are you trying to hit a particular niche, such as people who have a common passion? These traits will help you to focus your activities and your marketing.

“For Festival of the Vine, we want wine enthusiasts,” says Rush. “We want people who enjoy experiences. It’s not necessarily families that come to Festival of the Vine, so we’re not really focusing on that. Any time we can home in on a particular demographic, that’s good.”

If you’re using advertising, it’s important to remember that every platform has a different target market, Rush explains. Television stations, radio stations and newspapers each have a particular geographic reach. A fashion and lifestyle magazine is probably focused more around women’s interests, so if you’re planning a fishing festival, you may have a limited impact, compared with a wildlife and outdoor activities blog.

When it comes to events in Barrington, Corr believes the best way to market an event is to consistently promote it across platforms, using everything available from print media to social media. The Barrington Area Chamber promoted its Barrington Family Expo in August by sending postcards to every household within a 10-mile radius. They coupled that with print and digital ads that targeted people within a similar footprint.

“We also encourage all involved in the event to post, share and promote the event to their network of emails, customers, clients, patrons, families and friends,” Corr says.

Social media and other digital tools are a major focus for the crew behind Richardson’s Adventure Farm, 909 English Prairie Road, in Spring Grove. The 544-acre farm hosts a variety of events throughout the year, including a spring tulip festival, a summer sunflower festival and a fall pumpkin patch that invites guests to pick their own pumpkins, tour “the world’s largest and most intricate corn maze” and enjoy a number of other fall-favorite activities.

Because families are the major focus, co-owner George Richardson and his family use social and digital tools to reach many busy parents in the places where they spend their spare time. There is an art to doing social media, he says, and that’s why his farm relies on a professional marketing firm.
“It’s got to be done professionally,” he says. “It needs to look like the people doing this are enthused and excited about what’s going to be happening.”

Since passing off the marketing duties, the fifth-generation farmer has found that a high-quality website and social media presence effectively spread the word and build hype.

“Have a really good website and do some really good Facebook posts that are engaging and entertaining,” Richardson says. “Sometimes, you can do a contest to engage people on your website or Facebook. Build excitement, a little traction, get them talking about it.”

(Geneva Chamber of Commerce photo)

Be Willing to Adapt

Festival organizers must be able to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Whether they’re dealing with uncertain weather conditions or a global pandemic, any number of threats could arise at a moment’s notice. Adaptability is crucial.

“COVID kind of shut us down,” says Malmassari, of Sycamore Pumpkin Festival. “We technically had a theme contest, but we really couldn’t do as much as we wanted to. The Lions Club actually moved the display from downtown out to the park district. They had a spot in the park where you could drive in a great big loop around the center section and back out again.”

While the pandemic shut down plenty of activities, the drive-through event still received around 400 to 500 entries. Last year, COVID restrictions had somewhat settled and the festival looked more familiar.

“I think they hit somewhere around 1,000 or 1,100 entries again,” says Malmassari. “The community was right back there to support us again once we got back into the roll of things.”

Richardson Adventure Farm had the benefit of being a mostly outdoors event, but COVID still forced the Richardson family to alter the way they did things in 2020. From the start, Richardson set out hundreds of hand sanitizing stations for people who were concerned about spreading germs. The stations are a permanent fixture two years later.

“You have to look like you care,” says Richardson. “That gives people a much better feeling if they can see you care about cleanliness, sanitization, things like that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic created a ripple effect for the Geneva Chamber, which hosts a variety of festivals during the year. The revenue it earns from one year typically funds the next year’s festivals. However, abbreviated or canceled events in 2020 meant there was less money available to launch the following year’s lineup. Add to that the growing hype of the Chamber’s Festival of the Vine, and there were plenty of stresses in moving the event to a new, larger location.

“There’s always a craft show south of State Street, and Festival of the Vine was north of State, so we always had to have a police officer to help people cross safely because there was no light there,” explains Rush. “There have been times when the officer has come close to being hit by a car. So, for the past number of years, this has been in our head that we need to move it. Now, we’re hosting Festival of the Vine west on James Street. It’s now on a street that is wider and longer, and we think it’s going to give us a little more breathing room.”

Create an Experience

Last but certainly not least, a festival has to create a memorable experience.

“It’s about creating an experience – a memory local residents enjoy with family, friends and neighbors,” Corr says. “People are looking for things to do together in their own communities. Families like to walk to events with their children, or simply go a short distance to be part of something larger.”

A good festival doesn’t just create good experiences. It becomes associated with people’s memories about the town where it happens.

“Community events should help define the character of your community and establish your town as a destination,” Corr says. “Not only can community events enhance commerce in your community, but they make your community a desirable place to live.”