Festival promoters and professionals of all stripes swept into Santa Barbara this month for FestForums 2019, the three-day event where producers and performers converge. Tight Ship co-captain Keir DuBois navigated his old commute route up Highway 101 for three days to be there, documenting the latest festival branding best practices and sharpest insights from industry leaders. Here are Keir’s three top takeaways, from breakout sessions on social capital, sustainability, and the latest marketing and promotion strategies.

Festforums SB

Social Impact > Financial Impact

Tight Ship is fascinated by the socio-cultural aspects of host cities that creatively integrate local color with their events, and the first presentation described how to do just that! The city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was threatened with economic demise by the closure of its last steel blast furnace in 1995. Today, however, Bethlehem is thriving—and one reason why is a reinvention helmed by ArtsQuest, the arts and culture nonprofit behind Bethlehem Musikfest.

ArtsQuest COO Curt Mosel described how his organization shifted their value measurement from economic impact to social impact, providing a more complete picture and better accounted for the public good that festivals, arts and events create. “Festivals and events can no longer afford quiet confidence about social impact,” he said. “They must be able to analyze and report on it with the same rigor used to measure financial return.”

Curt’s co-presenter Lesa Ukman of ProSocial Valuation talked about how her firm used more holistic ways to measure community well-being. “GDP might capture gasoline sales, but it won’t capture how traffic jams affect quality of life,” she said. “Air pollution stats are useful, but they don’t show how commuters feel about their drive. The economic aspect of people’s lives matter but so do the non-economic ones, like the natural environment they live in.”

Mosel and Ukman recapped how ProSocial and ArtsQuest worked with Bethlehem’s community to produce 25 years of rich cultural events with Musikfest (music and food), SteelStacks (concerts, films and festivals at the disused furnace), BananaFactory (arts education), and more. It was a great example of how to do revitalization right, and Tight Ship will be exploring how other cities and festivals do that in the near future!

Cooperative Sustainability Gets Results

A small sustainability panel on Day 3 became a quick but substantial survey of what works via incrementalism (gradual cost savings) & consistent messaging (event as teaching moment) citing the general reduce-reuse-recycle philosophies of Glastonbury & Burning Man. 

Glastonbury Commercial Director Robert Richards conceded that festivals will always leave footprints, but his event has been chipping away at theirs for decades by educating attendees, who change vendor behavior by their purchases. Richards talked about the initial cost of removing single-use plastics like cups—bumping up overall cost by 36%—and how in subsequent years that cost came down after attendees demanded that from more vendors, which drove down overall production costs.

Richards also mentioned how Glastonbury successfully persuaded attendees to take their tents home, eliminating tons of day-after garbage. This prompted Burning Man founder Michael Mikel to describe how his festival is the largest recurring “leave no trace” event, and Burning Man attendees who adopt sustainability for the festival take that philosophy home to their cities—diffusing the practice and normalizing it among their friends and families.

All panelists agreed that incrementalism has so far been the most effective way to reduce environmental footprints. The only sticking point was energy; solar is more widely used than ever, but the goal is still to improve as much as possible as quickly as possible, because 88% of consumers look to support socially responsible organizations. Festivals that creatively engage their attendees with economic incentives, teaching moments, and behavioral diffusion are the ones seeing the most progress.

Experiential Marketing Creates Advocates

Later on Day 3, a huge marketing panel covered best practices for festival branding and customer service for differentiation. We were keen to see how the panelists’ combined wisdom validated longtime Tight Ship event brand identity advice—and they did!

Moderator Lindsey Medina (DWP) wasted no time, jumping in with “how do you start?” Louie La Vella (Imagine Music Festival) noted that if a brand isn’t established, refreshing creative is a good idea. Leah Anderson (SIFF) mentioned her nonprofit keeps marketing in-house, and finds out what they can trade for (i.e. $500K of media). Kreg Peeler (Events.com) talked about reviewing the attendance baseline to determine if that’s still a feasible target.

Nathaniel Bagnell (LiveGauge) discussed remarketing for festivals that happen yearly. He recommended collecting the right information from attendees in pre-registration, actively interpreting data for common attributes (“what else are EDM attendees doing?”) so festivals can remarket to last year’s crowd and transform them into advocates for the current year. 

Peeler also noted events aren’t competing with each other—they’re competing with Netflix. Festivals that invest in their experience perception will see higher attendance, creating experiences that people can’t get on their couch. Erica McGuire (C3 Presents) described teaming up Austin City Limits promotion with College Football Weekend—”come watch the game and then see the show!”

Wendy Ellis (KLOS-FM) recommended storytelling across multiple media, recruiting influencers like radio DJs. Determine which aspects of your story work best on which platforms—social, radio, print, or TV—and make it easy for partners to carry the message, with pre-created graphics and copy. Finally, Peeler encouraged festivals to pivot if their current efforts aren’t sufficient—but also to review what is converting and think as the invitee, reviewing their mental journey and “awareness, discovery, decision” customer experience.

It’s What We Do!

There was much more going on at FestForums—trade show booths, networking shindigs, and even a talent show (!), but wisdom from the above three panels resonated most for Tight Ship based on our own festival branding, planning and production backgrounds. 

When you hire Tight Ship to work with your festival branding, you’re getting a wealth of experience from both of us—not least because we’ve been in your shoes and we know what you’re up against. Get in touch with us today!