Cultural events and festivals can be something else entirely. Not only do they often bring in huge visitor dollars but they often help define a city's identity.
We associate Austin with South by Southwest
We associate New Orleans with Marti Gras
We now associate Grand Rapids with Art Prize
We associate San Diego with Comic Con
We now associate Park City Utah with Sundance
We associate Albuquerque with The Balloon Fiesta
We associate Akron with The Soap Box Derby
From Brewed Fresh Daily
1. Don’t limit yourself You might be tempted to look for something that your city is already good at. But if you’re in, say, Dayton, Ohio, you’re not going to get very far with a tire convention. The good news is, you really can do anything. What connection did San Diego have to comic books before Comic-Con? Not much. Park City, Utah was barely anything before Robert Redford showed up with his buddies to start the Sundance Institute. Good events are really more about people than place.
2. Appeal to a small, but fiercely passionate audience To build big appeal, the best events have always started small. They appealed to distinct subcultures. Sundance had film buffs. SXSW had music fans. Comic-Con had comic nerds. People who are passionate are willing to travel for the right kind of event. Most importantly, they’re constantly trying to find others who are interested in the things they love. They invite friends. They make new friends. The event grows.
2. Don’t make a fun event. Make a “must attend” event You want people in the targeted subculture to feel like they’re not complete unless they make it to this event. One way events have accomplished this in the past is by programming a seizure-inducing amount of activities. The one thing that SXSW, Sundance and Comic-Con have in common is that no human could ever hope to see even half the things going on at each event. Another thing that helps is star-power. Comic-Con had Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury on the same stage. Sundance had Robert Redford. You’ll need the biggest stars for whatever subculture you’re trying to reach.
4. Give up control You’ve got passionate people. They’re going to have ideas for how to change the event. Let them. Comic-Con started out as an event for comic book nerds. Those nerds love movies. So Comic-Con became about movies, too. This is how your event begins to expand outside of the original subculture, and becomes something truly huge.
5. Sell out. Big. You’ll know your event is on the right track when your original audience starts to complain about how big it’s gotten, and how it’s become all about the money. But anyone can sell-out their core audience. Sundance, Comic-Con and SXSW have taken it to the next level. Each one started for the outsiders. And each one is now essentially run by industry publicity machines. That’s important because the industry publicity machine is what gets the attention of the national media. And we’re not talking about landing the occasional Good Morning America spot that says, “Hey look, someone in Somewheresville is doing something interesting this weekend.” We’re talking about the attention that will leave you wondering where to park all the satellite trucks.
One of the strange things is that, given how wildly successful events like this often are in relation to the dollars spent, few cities put a big focus at hosting or creating great events.
My guess is the biggest reasons for this are--
A) A failure to imagine, small homegrown events could grow to have an economic impact.
B) Fear of a loss of control--(our city will be taken over by nerds, hippies, comic nuts, furries or whatever) Leaders seem to like events they can understand and control.
Of course, for exactly that reason, sucessful dynamic events can help you be seen as a place open to creative ideas and people.