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The best festivals tout themselves as providing something unique. How well they succeed at that often translates into attendance numbers and receipts.
With more than 400 festivals on Louisiana’s annual calendar, only a handful are major economic engines and cultural bastions. The journey from folksy festival to tourism powerhouse has as much to do with maintaining uniqueness as bringing in dollars.
“Food and music are inherent components of almost any festival, and beyond that you have the color and flavor based on the community they represent. There’s a huge element of community pride.” said Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who oversees the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. “We’re capturing a big economic driver. People are always interested in starting new ones, and it’s not like we’ve maxed out our tolerance on festivals.”
There’s no end of things Louisianians are willing to celebrate — strawberries in Ponchatoula, mudbugs in Shreveport, jazz and heritage in New Orleans, catfish in Winnsboro, tomatoes in Chalmette, pirates in Lake Charles, author Walker Percy in St. Francisville, playwright Tennessee Williams in New Orleans again, meat pies in Natchitoches, pecans in Colfax, ducks in Gueydan, shrimp and petroleum in Morgan City, jambalaya in Gonzales, the blues in Bogalusa, corn in Bunkie and tamales in Zwolle.
Mardi Gras, the grandaddy of all Louisiana festivals, is celebrated statewide.
Some draw hundreds while others draw thousands. Capitalizing on success, however that is defined, is the name of the game.
“The Texas Avenue Makers Fair is getting so big it’s become a festival itself. Let the Good Times Roll has exploded. Mudbug Madness is easy to sell because it’s an industrial-strength dose of Louisiana culture,” said Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau spokesman Chris Jay. “And there are others you can’t help but wonder what’s next for them.”
Part of Jay’s job is marketing the local area to outsiders. Events such as Mudbug Madness Festival are a big part of that. As an event grows in size and scope, it becomes easier to pitch outside the local market.
Jay said crawfish and Cajun music are the major selling points for Mudbug Madness and help to tailor its appeal. If you took the Cajun music out or interspersed it with R&B and jazz, it just wouldn’t be the same, he said.
“Something for everyone has sort of lost its appeal,” Jay said. “It’s a narrow line to walk, but you have to hang onto that unique identity.”
The festivals out-of-towners and national media contact him about are the ones with their own identity, he said.
“It’s the ones that embody who we are as a destination that I hear about,” Jay said.
Despite Mudbug Madness’ success — 2014 may have been its highest-grossing year — there’s still room for growth. But that means finding new money, which has its pitfalls.
The threat of losing a festival’s uniqueness to sponsorship is real, said Mudbug Madness Festival chairwoman Terri Mathews. At the same time, it’s those sponsorships that took the festival from a one-vendor-one-act fair to the event it is today.
“Sponsorships are hard to come by these days,” Mathews said. “If people are just looking for a handout, that’s not a partnership, that’s a donation, and donations can come and go like the wind.”
The French Quarter Festival started small and is now one of New Orleans’ most popular festivals, said Jan Ramsey, editor-in-chief of OffBeat Magazine and a former festival board member. The idea for the free festival was to lure people back downtown after years of construction with music and food.
It got off the ground with strong city support, but it’s private sponsorship that keeps it afloat today, Ramsey said. That’s the Catch-22, she said, because keeping those dollars flowing means growing the crowd every year — a tough job when you’re looking to keep an event locally flavorful.
“That’s why you always hear festival producers talking about how many people are coming,” Ramsey said. “I remember board meetings where some of us said we didn’t want to see more people there, but that limits growth.”
Like the most recent history of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — the city’s second-largest economic engine behind Mardi Gras — the French Quarter Festival is on a growth pattern backed by attendance driven by talent, Ramsey said.
Twenty-five years ago, Jazz Fest was more interested in counting the number of folks that walked through its gates than producers are today, she said. Alongside major corporate sponsorship, Jazz Fest can rely on ticket sales, some of which can go for as much as $1,200 for the full “Big Chief Experience.”
“The French Quarter Festival has to constantly hustle for sponsorship,” Ramsey said. “And any free festival will have to.”
Statewide budget cuts have significantly reduced the amount Culture, Recreation and Tourism can spend propping up festivals, Dardenne said. Still, he said, festivals statewide are managing to maintain their distinct identities despite reliance on private sponsorships.
It took years of effort and planning to build Mudbug Madness’ lasting partnerships with sponsors, Mathews said. The festival board must show their sponsors a return on investment while keeping the festival a local experience.
Keeping and growing sponsorship dollars often means expanding the talent pool, the case for both Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest, Ramsey said. Bigger, more nationally recognized acts can help draw folks from across the country, but she said not every Jazz Fest lover is thrilled to see Christina Aguilera or Robin Thicke at their heritage festival.
But getting folks in from out of state — and putting their money in Louisiana coffers — is what tourism is all about, Dardenne said.
At least one Shreveport festival has a vision aimed at not just bringing people into the area, but keeping them.
Since 2012, the Louisiana Film Prize has given independent filmmakers from around the country a chance to compete for $50,000. The films, which must be shot in Shreveport-Bossier, sold 1,200 tickets that year and 2,000 in 2013.
But growing the festival remains a challenge of both intent and design. Expansion means more theaters, and growing too quickly could put the festival’s local flavor at risk, said director Gregory Kallenberg.
“My dream is that every nook and cranny of Shreveport-Bossier has film and music,” he said.
Kallenberg said the South by Southwest film and music festival transformed Austin, Texas, into the cultural dynamo it is today. Beyond the fun and the film, he said that’s the grand dream for the Shreveport festival.
Some 70 percent of the 104 film crews who’ve participated are from outside the Shreveport-Bossier area, Kallenberg said. If just a handful of those folks find the area offers everything they need in terms of working, living and playing, the city benefits from potential future immigration of creatives.
“We want to show the film crews that we can be flexible. That you can do it here and that we have an awesome community here,” Kallenberg said. “These people get a weirdly wonderful Shreveport-Bossier hug when they get here. It’s a figurative and literal embrace.”
Information from: The Times, http://www.shreveporttimes.com