Recession takes a toll on U.S. festivals

2 mins read

By Jane Sutton

Festivals celebrating everything from high culture to humble farm products are struggling in the United States as sponsors trim their support in tough times and revelers tighten their purse strings.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation's biennial poetry festival is billed as America's largest and has drawn prize-winning poets, scholars and word-lovers to New Jersey since 1986.

But the stock market crash cut the value of the foundation's assets by 30 percent, forcing it to cancel the festival for 2010.

"Depending on how things turn out, we may need to reinvent the festival on either a more affordable scale or in a more affordable venue," the foundation's president, David Grant, said in a memo posted on its website.

South Florida's Langerado Music Festival, which drew 25,000 fans a day last year, was canceled due to poor sales of its $75-a-day tickets for a lineup that included rapper Snoop Dogg and indie rockers Death Cab for Cutie in March.

Organizers also blamed the poor economy for their decision to scrap this year's Zellwood Sweet Corn Festival, a May tradition in central Florida for 35 years.

Corporations are scaling back or eliminating sponsorships for festivals to cut costs but also because they are reluctant to be seen underwriting lavish or frivolous events when times are hard, said Steve Schmader, president and chief executive of the International Festivals and Events Association.

"If your event depended on bank sponsorships, they're going to be having that magnifying glass put on them now," Schmader said. "I'd be lying if I said that we aren't seeing people that are certainly doing everything they can to make sure they're holding on to the sponsors they have."


Companies still view festival sponsorship as a way to build goodwill or advertise to a highly targeted audience. But they are adjusting their pitch to reflect the cost-conscious times.

Cheesemaker Sargento is one of many sponsors of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, which draws celebrity chefs, wine lovers and diners to Miami Beach in February.

They are using the Feb. 18-22 event to introduce a Mexican artisan-blend cheese, served up in sweet corn empanadas, and other dishes that diners can easily duplicate at home, said Chris Groom, Sargento's core marketing director.

"There are more and more consumers who are opting to eat in but still want to have a delicious meal," Groom said. "We're kind of answering the call for more value from today's consumer in the tough economic times."

The popular South Beach festival still managed to sell out many events, including a $1,000-a-plate banquet that celebrates Spanish food and wine with Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia as invited guests of honor.

Some organizers have found creative ways to adapt.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, is offering lay-away plans that let fans pay for tickets in two or three installments.

The bigger fear for many festival organizers is that cities will pull their support. Many organizers count on free or discounted services from park, police and fire departments and municipal cleanup crews.

"The cities who are now trying to balance their budgets because of tax revenues going down are starting to charge where they didn't charge before, or charging more," Schmader said.

Organizers of Philadelphia's 108-year-old Mummers Parade had to scramble for donations this year when the city announced it could no longer provide prize money or cover the entire cost of the New Year's event that sees local clubs compete in elaborately costumed and choreographed routines.

Still, organizers are optimistic that some festivals could draw larger crowds this year as people skip long-distance vacations and look for fun closer to home.

"We're certainly not laying down and saying it's all over," Schmader said. "Our industry believes that in these kinds of times, celebration is more important than ever."