Insight: Party On!
A few years ago, visitation at The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium had hit a plateau. Attendance peaked at around 1 million annually and its customer base was dominated by families with young children and retirees who came from the local area. Simultaneously, 70% of the attractions’ annual attendance was realized during the four-month summer season.
After consulting with several other attractions, the zoo contracted with Tianyu Arts & Culture, Inc., to produce its first ever Asian Lantern Festival in 2021. For 10 weeks, the extra ticketed festival offered large illuminated Asian lanterns, along with specialty food and beverage (F&B) offerings and entertainment. Tianyu provided the lanterns and entertainment, while the zoo also collaborated with the local Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) to organize performances by regional arts groups.
According to Allan Marshall, vice president of internal relations the impact was immediate. More than 120,000 guests attended the 2021 festival. While its traditional customers turned out, Marshall was pleased that the festival also proved popular with young adults, teens, and couples. Satisfaction scores also soared: 96% of surveyed guests gave the festival a score of four of five, with 80% giving a five rating. The one-year contract with Tianyu was soon extended to a multiyear deal. And thus, a new tradition was born.
The Pittsburgh Zoo is one of many attractions that have realized the power of hosting festivals to drive attendance and reinforce their brand. While the zoo’s festival is new, since the early 1990s, DelGrosso’s Amusement Park in Tipton, Pennsylvania, has long ended its season with an Italian Food and Heritage Festival and Harvestfest on consecutive weekends in September.
While festivals are popular in North America, some international attractions have discovered how effective special events can drive attendance. For instance, in 2015 Italy’s Gardaland first leveraged the popularity of Germany’s Oktoberfest by hosting one of its own. According to Elisa Nicastro with Gardaland’s publicity department, the park’s Oktoberfest event has not only allowed the park to extend its shoulder season, but draw guests from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland to the property.
The Trick is in the Timing
While many attractions see their festivals as a way to boost shoulder season attendance in early fall, other operators view other parts of the season as the optimal time to host festivals. The Cedar Fair Entertainment Company positions its festivals at times where the operator wants to drive attendance. “We consider July and August to be our sweet spot,” says Brent Barr, Cedar Fair’s vice president of live entertainment. “It’s a great time to program.”
While summer may seem counterintuitive, Barr explains that although it is peak season, it is also the time of year where the park is well-staffed and has maximum resources. “When you are putting something out there, you want to make sure you can handle the volume. It’s difficult to pull off when you don’t have resources,” Barr advises operators. Cedar Fair hosts festivals unique to specific facilities, such as Frontier Festival at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, taking place each May and June. The spring Boysenberry Festival at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, honors the unique berry that led to the founding of the iconic theme park in 1920. Almost a century later, in 2019, the company launched Grand Carnivale, a traveling multiweek evening festival. Each summer, Cedar Fair creates two or three Grand Carnivale tours that visit their parks simultaneously. Operating multiple festivals at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri. and Dorney Park, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, along with Valleyfair in Minneapolis, creates greater efficiencies and leverages various synergies among the facilities, spreading the costs over a larger base.
Each event of the same name features international food and beverage stations, live entertainment, and the evening Spectacle of Color parade featuring nine custom-built floats from 3dx Scenic and Kern Studios, which has built floats for New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations since 1947.
Barr tells Funworld Cedar Fair always wanted to get into the parade business to lengthen guest stay and keep the day-focused water park visitors around into the evening. “We wanted to do something celebratory,” adding that Grand Carnivale celebrates numerous countries which drives food and beverage sales with unique offerings. “The food departments can show off a bit and guests can sample different things.”
All attractions leaders interviewed agree that a successful festival cannot be thrown together on a whim, but needs thoughtful and detailed planning. Kevin Kreczko, senior vice president, business development and marketing, RWS Entertainment Group, has learned that 12 to 18 months is the optimal time frame needed to plan a special event. Anything shorter can lead to unnecessary challenges. “We’ve done them in three months, which generates a lot of inefficiencies.” Kreczko also suggests creative brainstorming and focus groups to help generate ideas.
Amy Mearkle, director of marketing, advertising, and events at DelGrosso’s, adds that it is important to stay focused. “The devil is in the details. Instead of trying to do 100 things, pick 10 ideas to focus on and do them well. Then build on that.” Scheduling their events on consecutive weekends helps to create efficiencies, with DelGrosso’s Italian Festival handled by marketing and management teams, while a different, internal, four-person committee oversees Harvestfest.
While it is possible and, in many cases, preferred to produce festivals with internal teams like DelGrosso’s, outside assistance—ranging from contacting peers and competitors regarding their ideas and experiences to bringing in outside experts—is highly recommended. “Go to competitors, see how that will help you create something different, new and fresh,” suggests Kreczko.
And keeping expectations in check is important once the festival launches. “You need to be patient, take time to plan, and don’t expect an immediate return,” says Cedar Fair’s Barr. Mearkle of DelGrosso’s concurs “Allow three to five years to build; the first two years are learning curves.”
In the end, determining the success of the festival is not just the traffic and sales it generates. Kreczko suggests thinking in terms of “return on experience.” That includes not only the direct experience of guests and their feedback, but the engagement on social media. “How are we creating emotional souvenirs?” Kreczko asks. He suggests “moments of surprise” into each festival to help generate that activity. “Festivals are a great way to test boundaries of an attraction,” Kreczko concludes.
The keys to developing a successful festival
Building an event that drives attendance and builds revenue takes planning, collaboration, and patience. Kevin Kreczko, senior vice president, business development and marketing, RWS Entertainment Group, offers his seven suggestions to keep in mind.
1. Allow three to five years to establish the festival. “Essentially what we’re doing is creating tradition.”
2. Make sure marketing is completely in line with the festival. “The guest touch point has to start with the message.”
3. Recognize the power of authenticity. “Create the sixth sense of human engagement.”
4. Make sure you have clear objectives. “Everyone has to have a clear expectation of what is expected.”
5. Infrastructure needs to be highly considered. “Power is a big pitfall.”
6. Have a plan for storage and refurbishment. “If you don’t store properly, you are wasting money.”
7. Plan for contingencies. “Make sure you have a solid operational plan, including weather contingencies.”
Ready to learn more about the power of festivals?
In his IAAPA Oral History Project interview, the late Hank Salemi, former president of Six Flags Great America, Gurnee, Illinois, recalls how festivals helped to turn around an otherwise slow period at the park. Watch the video at IAAPA.org/Hank.