How cities can benefit from festivals

Memphis is stuck in the past! That was the headline of the Memphis based newspaper The Commercial Appeal. Memphis, Tennessee: Rock’n’Roll, Elvis Presley, blues, Beale Street. Turns out that the city isn’t doing that great economically. Perhaps the city needs more festivals.

Festivals can put a place on the map. Festivals can bring pride to a city. People are drawn to a region because of events and festivals that take place there. And people bring their money with them. Austin, San Francisco, and Brighton are some examples of cities that benefit from large events within their city limits. The questions than are: are the Memphians proud of their city? Do they make best use of the festivals happening throughout the year? And what is the economic impact of these festivals on the city?

Beale Street Music Festival

About 16 years ago I was fortunate enough to study a year in Memphis. Of course I visited Beale Street Music Festival. A great festival with loads of good bands and delicious BBQ. The Offspring, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Vertical Horizon to name a few of the bands that performed. Turns out that the festival brings around $70 million to the city each year. I am sure there’s some pride in that.

  BB King's Blues Club on Beale Street

BB King's Blues Club on Beale Street

The city has quite a few festivals already. Festivals like the Delta Fair & Music festival ($5 million economic impact in 2013), River Arts Festival, and Memphis Bike Fest. So how can festivals help Memphis?

Well first and foremost the city should do a cost-benefit analysis. Not every event will bring in money. Some will actually cost the taxpayer money. The city should have a good look at which festivals actually add value.

Memphis: a festival destination?

Memphis needs to figure out how they want to position themselves. Is it still a music city or is it clinging on to its past? According to one report from 2013 the music industry in Memphis only contribute $185 million per year. I say ‘only’ as in Nashville it contributed $5.5 billion. Now there’s a difference. In the article of the Commercial Appeal it was suggested to make the city more accessible for musicians and recording studios. Nurture your local talent and give them opportunities to grow.

The current slogan of the Memphis Convention & Tourist Bureau is Memphis: Home of the blues, birthplace of Rock’n’Roll. If that is what the city wants to be seen as, than they need to look at what each festival brings to the table.

What does each festival add to this overall image of blues and Rock’n’Roll? I guess it is a bit like a mission statement of any business.

Getting festival ready

Memphis needs to figure out what it is that they want. For a city to become a successful host for festivals it is essential that they:

  • Work together with festival organizers: The city needs to be on board with (new) festivals. As a city you’re not only providing permits or licenses. You are part of that festival. You have to think along the same lines as the festival organizer. Or at least think with them! How easy is your permit process? How difficult is it to organize the logistics in your city? Do you have an event department that knows what they’re doing?
  Still had it after all those years...

Still had it after all those years...

  • Include the local community: To make a festival work for your city you need to work with the locals. You can think of local artists and local businesses. Or charities that for a small fee volunteer at the festival. What can the local community add to a festival and what can a festival give back?
  • Diversify events: Don’t make every event the same. You can cater for different audiences, attracting a wider demographic to your city. From festivals to conferences to cultural heritage events, there’s room to diversify.
  • Improve a city’s image: It is not just about the festival. Visitors want to see more. Memphis has redeveloped their downtown area. At least it looked like an improvement compared to 16 years ago. But a city needs to be able to offer something else besides a festival. Like a festival the host city needs to create an experience.
  • Inspire: Festivals can inspire people. As a music city with a lot of young musicians and a university that offers a music degree, Memphis should see its opportunities here. At the moment however, young people seem to leave the city. Nashville inspires more I guess. But besides an inspiring festival it is the city that needs to inspire. Why should people come back? And that goes back to a city's mission statement.

Let’s just hope Memphis will come up with an events and festival calendar that inspires. Memphis has a past it should be proud of but it’s time to start looking at the future. To quote B.B. King “You better not look down if you want to keep on flying. Put the hammer down, keep it full speed ahead. Or you might just wind up crying.”

For more information about Event Planning visit The Event Tutor or get a feel for my workshop Event Marketing.