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Festivals bringing fun and profit to Main Street

Ingenuity, mixed with careful planning and branding can generate big buzz … and lots of dollars, organizers say

Nothing brings a town’s cash registers alive like a festival celebrating some unique aspect or iconic element of the community.

People from all across America flock to the Elvis Presley Festival in Tupelo.

People from all across America flock to the Elvis Presley Festival in Tupelo.

Slugburgers in Corinth, Loblollies in Laurel, the pottery of Peter Anderson in Gulfport and the whole lotta shakin’ of Elvis in Tupelo are among contributors to an economic development strategy that merchants and town treasurers alike have come to count on for a timely annual injection of dollars. You might think of them as over-sized block parties but little is left to chance in staging and branding the events, organizers say

Do it right and the dollars flow in. Do a few things wrong and you end up in a deep hole, says Jan Miller, director for Main Street Mississippi’s Central District.

“Anyone who puts on a festival should make money,” Miller said in an interview just before leaving her Columbus office for a trip to Corinth to help organizers plan the July Slugburger Festival.

Main Street Mississippi assists its Main Street communities as well as other towns and cities in the state with festival planning. Too often, Miller said, “I find they put on these events but they don’t know why they are putting them on. They don’t have a purpose behind them,”

As an economic development organization, Main Street Mississippi brings a business focus to the planning and staging.

Essentially, the events fall into three categories — retail, special and annual.

December, especially the first couple of weekends in the month, is prime time for retail festivals, an opportunity for a final holiday sales push for independent retailers, Miller said.

Columbus just finished its Wassail Festival, an event that drew 6,000 people downtown on a Friday night, much to the delight of shopkeepers and restaurateurs.

In Philadelphia they are staging “Cocoa with Claus,” and in Indianola it’s “Cocoa on the Bayou.” In Canton, merchants welcome visitors to December’s “Sip’N Cider.”

All bring holiday cheer — and retail sales.

“I’m a big proponent of retail events,” Miller said, and noted success hinges on getting stores, restaurants and bars involved. Street vendors, live music, free gifts and bargains on food and merchandise are essential, she added.

It’s also important to tie the retailers into the annual events.

These are the big dollar generators for the community as a whole but the layout of the booths, stages and activities must be done strategically to bring value to the retailer.  “If you block off the street, you’ve got to somehow make than beneficial to the retailer,” Miller said.

Ham Jam Arts Festival — Philadelphia

Ham Jam Arts Festival — Philadelphia

Putting the stage at the end of the street guarantees foot traffic along the storefronts. And putting vendors in the middle of the street helps to steer visitors to walk between the vendor booths and the stores.

Sales are the goal but not necessarily one that the festival will accomplish to any great degree.

But what it will do, Miller said, is give the retailer exposure and the potential for sales in the weeks that follow.

An annual festival needs to highlight something special about the community. Sometimes that requires some connecting of the dots.

Take Woodville, for example. Situated in Wilkerson County right up against the Louisiana state line, the town of 700 people discovered Wilkerson County could lay claim to selling more hunting licenses than any other county in Mississippi.

What followed was the Oct. 2008 launch of the Woodville Deer and Wildlife Festival – an annual celebration of music, writing, taxidermy, photography, crafts, storytelling, game-calling and cooking.  “In their first year they tripled their population and made $50,000,” Miller said of the one-day event.

Even a good idea needs some refurbishment after a while. Thus, Main Street Mississippi advises festival organizers to elevate every aspect of their event.

“That’s the key to keeping it fresh every year and keeping it in the right direction,” Miller said.

“You’ve got to have something new.”

Main Street Mississippi saw this soon after taking over planning for what at the time was Laurel’s Main Street Festival, an annual event suffering from declining attendance.

A new name was an immediate need, Miller said.

Loblolly had just the right ring to it, and local roots as well, it being a type of pine tree native to Laurel’s South Mississippi region.

Stacy Pair, Main Street Mississippi’s Southern District director, said the name change helped to make the event more uniquely Laurel. “Festivals should always speak to some aspect of a community’s ‘sense of place,’” Pair said in an e-mail statement. “Laurel’s history is steeped in the lumber industry.”

With a new logo and brand, Laurel’s Loblolly Festival has a product to sell, Pair noted.

And it has a structure that includes a business plan, a budget, a marketing plan, a volunteer organizational char, job descriptions, schedules and a sponsorship plan.

“So, now Loblolly Festival, after two years in the new name and brand, is a profitable festival,” Pair said.

Festivals are not all fun and games. “They’re a business,” Miller noted, just before heading up to Corinth for a slugburger.

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