by Kathryn R. Martin, Vice President
When you search the word “festival” on Google, approximately 941 million results appear, with well over 200 performing arts festivals in the United States and over 2,000 throughout the rest of the world listed. While the focus, size, and location of festivals varies greatly, and they offer a feast of diverse arts and cultural experiences, their intended impacts all share one common element – a celebration of community. Jonathan Mills, Director of the Edinburgh International Festival is quoted
as saying, “A festival is an expression of the creative ambition of the community it serves.” But is this dynamic unique to Festivals, or could the same be said of all arts and culture organizations? In this edition of Arts Insights, we will look at the unique challenges and opportunities that are common to successful festivals and explore how their effective strategies can be applied year-round by all arts and culture organizations.
Festivals Set the Tone
Festivals can be a destination for excitement, informality, Herculean efforts, high productivity, community engagement, volunteer interaction, increased participation, and artistic/cultural impacts. They can help create clear organizational identity, purpose and focus. A multitude of stakeholders are involved in making any performing arts or visual art festival a reality - Board, staff, donors, volunteers, audiences, and particularly artists, all working towards a common goal. Organizations
that offer a performance season in addition to their seasonal festival often notice that a different “energy” exists during that time. People become connected to the organization in deeper ways, acting as vocal ambassadors and loyal patrons, giving their time as well as generous financial contributions. Patrons plan their annual vacations around the festival while recruiting friends and family to join them for the experience. In many places, performing arts festivals are a growth industry while other areas of the arts and culture sector are cutting back, attracting smaller audiences, facing flat revenue streams and operating with reduced budgets.
The National Endowment for the Arts’ 2009 Research Report: Live from Your Neighborhood, A National Study of Outdoor Arts Festivals, reported that attendance rates for festivals far exceed those for many single types of arts activities – classical music concerts, theater, ballet or opera.
Shifting expectations among live audiences, particularly young adults, now include a craving for a new level of interactivity and a preference for arts experiences in informal settings. The case studies in the report illustrate that audiences derive special satisfaction from encounters with artists and art forms in an open space that reinforces choice, experimentation and free movement.
With all of the above in mind, what core lessons can the arts and culture sector learn from performing arts festivals?
Understand and Articulate Your Organization’s Uniqueness
Now more than ever, an organization’s ability to differentiate itself in the marketplace is key. Competition for ticket revenue and contributions is high. How is your organization minimizing competition, maximizing opportunities, and serving your community? To survive and thrive,organizations must first ensure that they DO serve a unique purpose in the community, know what that purpose is, and then look for ways to convey that purpose simultaneously with more traditional marketing and communication messaging.
At minimum, most successful festivals strategically (or intuitively) create a sense of destination – celebrating and marketing the venue, location or region of the festival as well as any related social traditions, to convey a sense of the total experience the festival will offer, creating anticipation, as well as concrete expectations, in their target audiences. Think of the festivals in Aspen, Avignon, Santa Fe, Spoleto, Salzburg, Venice and other “destinations.” In the performing and visual arts, those names now conjure up images that let you visualize yourself being there. In addition to exciting approaches to programming and audience/artist interaction, candid pictures of engaged audience members, information on local attractions, and details on destination amenities packages
are all prominently featured in marketing strategies and promotional materials.
For all arts and culture organizations, each performance or exhibition, every venue, and even each board or staff meeting, has its own unique “vibe” – intentional or not, tangible or intangible, subjective or objective. If someone attended your performance or event, how would that experience be different than another organization’s - even if the repertoire, artist or venue was the same? If that experience can be described along with other vital information, such as core mission, artistic programming, even the relationship between artists and audience members, then a clear and convincing picture of how your organization is unique is created and will help attract those to whom your experiences resonate.
“So What?!” Taking it to the Next Level
Many organizations do well with articulating the “who, what, where, when.” Adding “the why’s” and putting them in the context of where you are going can have a profound impact; elevating your cause as one worthy of a broad base of community support.
Communicate Your Impact and your “Why”
Articulating a compelling case for why an organization matters to the community can mobilize a group of people that passionately believe in the value of your organization. Who does your organization benefit? In what ways? How do you make a difference in people’s lives? In what
ways? Think about your organization’s successes with individual contributors over the years. What were the compelling reasons for each of your donors to give? Think about the times your professional staff worked long hours in order to help advance the organization. What were the internal and external factors that motivated them? Think about the times your volunteers were engaged, enthusiastic, and effective. What motivated them?
Identify the factors that influence the hearts and minds (and wallets) of your stakeholders and find ways to communicate those messages throughout the year. For some, it may be the educational
aspects of your organization or the initiatives providing free access to those who could not normally experience your programs. For others, it may be bringing top artists to your community or creating
networking opportunities. When you have clarity regarding your organization’s purpose, along with a clear picture of the motivators and values of your stakeholders, you will be able to create compelling messages that resonate with your mission.
Create your “Strategic Trajectory” for Increased Momentum and Focus
To stakeholders, knowing where an organization “is,” where it is going, and what is needed to achieve its goals, can be very compelling. By their very nature, annual Festivals have the feeling of a campaign. A group of people work together all year for the big event. It’s exciting, it’s different,
and it’s fun. It is easy to see, experience, and understand. The concentrated time frame of a festival enables the organization to create a sense of anticipation, urgency, and the idea that this “can’t be missed.”
Arts and culture organizations engaging in a capital campaign or fundraising campaign often see group dynamics similar to those experienced during the months before a festival. Watching a
thermometer rise towards the end goal may be exciting, but festivals allow organizations an opportunity to create and articulate their own strategic trajectory, in a way that connects far deeper with participants than a fundraising goal. The challenge is to create that same sense of excitement and sense of “cause” for your organization as a whole through packaging, marketing and messaging. What do you plan to do in the next few years? Why? If you DO those things, what will the IMPACT
be in your community? What do you need to get there? And how will you accomplish this success? Take your existing Strategic Plan, your season/budget planning, or even your organizational conversations, and memorialize and summarize them into strategic trajectory messages. Then invite your community to be a part of the journey to make great things happen.
Engage Your Stakeholders
Most festivals cannot be produced in the same way that a “traditional season” is planned or presented. They need large numbers of volunteers in key roles, a wide-range of in-kind donations, housing, hospitality, and the ability to sustain a high level of energy during the concentrated period of the festival. Festivals often do a great job articulating what is needed and then asking the community for help. This sounds simple, but in non-festival settings, there can be reluctance to share “problems” with community stakeholders. However, in general, members of society look for ways to help others, to have a role, to be needed, to contribute, to be valued and acknowledged. By communicating your cause, what you are setting out to do, and what is needed to accomplish your plans and vision, you provide a perfect opportunity for members of the community to be inspired to become more deeply engaged and truly make a difference!
Create an Effective, Dedicated and Loyal Team of Ambassadors
During festivals, there is often a sense of increased staff and volunteer productivity, enthusiasm, and camaraderie, especially in the weeks leading up to and during the events. (Alternatively, burn-out,
turnover, and lack of focus or direction can be a real threat immediately following – or even during – a festival as the “common goal” is finally reached.) Ensuring that staff and volunteers know their role not only in performing specific duties but also in the overall context of the organization’s mission and the impact it, the festival, and they will have on the community, can be inspirational, leading to a deeper connection to your organization in the future.
For example, artists may be drawn to a particular festival by factors other than fees, such as the opportunity to work with colleagues or repertoire that they couldn’t otherwise. They may return year
after year to mentor others, or to enjoy a family-friendly opportunity to balance artistic duties with social time in a vacation setting. Board members and donors may become more generous with their
time and resources as the events of a festival unfold and as they engage in a visibly active hands-on or participatory role. Patrons may feel an increased connection to an organization as the daily performances, receptions, behind-the-scenes opportunities, and informal interaction with artists often create a sense of context and community. Successful festivals tend to capitalize on this dynamic, finding ways to create, celebrate, and market a sense of ownership, belonging and civic
pride. They often use the word “family” to identify the diverse group of stakeholders who are connected by the event, reinforcing the connection between participants.
Build Year-Round Relationships and Presence
Festival organizers must find ways to keep themselves in the minds of audiences, donors and community partners year-round. Because of the high level of anticipation often associated with an annual event, as well as the high volume of details required to mount one, festival organizers tend to communicate with stakeholders more regularly over the course of the year than an organization might with its periodic fundraising and ticket sale campaigns. E-newsletters, interactive websites, and social media all play a role in maintaining connections. Often, organizers must communicate effectively with artistic personnel and support staff who don’t permanently reside in the community. Many festivals must also overcome the distraction and competition that a beautiful destination provides by creating compelling messages that entice people to attend.
As a result, festivals have learned ways to get the attention and spark the involvement of seasonal residents through social and community networking. Updates on the exciting plans underway for the
next festival are communicated through newsletters, electronic media and volunteer planning meetings throughout the year. Off-season season performances provide an opportunity to stay connected to audiences, to artists, and to the larger context of the upcoming festival. (They can
also, of course, provide an additional source of earned and contributed income.)
In addition to frequency, there is often a deeper connection established with these communications. Festivals often share more details about the behind-the-scenes process than non-festival event marketing, providing information on everything from artistic vision to logistical details and,
specifically, what it will take to achieve success and where the community’s help and participation is needed. This “We’re all in this together” approach can reap huge rewards in terms of stakeholder
response, enhancing your organization’s brand, and even financial contributions.
In today’s economy, and with today’s sophisticated board leadership and busy contributors, it becomes increasingly important to use resources wisely, invest in areas that bring tangible results, and substantiate decisions with objective data and information. Although experience and intuition serve organizations well, if used alone they can be responsible for preventing an organization from realizing its full potential to grow. When organizations engage in formal and informal public dialog about how and why they are important, who they impact, what they envision for the future and how they will get there, the result is a keen sense of organizational identity that informs everything they
do, resulting in programs (and promotional materials) that truly resonate with stakeholders.
A festival is never “business as usual.” As a result, festivals challenge those involved to embrace new problem-solving techniques, be “in-the-moment,” and ask for help and involvement from others. In turn, these opportunities provide some of the most intimate and effective ways for arts and culture organizations to connect with audiences, staff, volunteers, and artistic personnel. Let’s bring the “Festival” atmosphere - a celebration of community – into the rest of “the Season!”