The Making of a Summer Festival
A behind-the-scenes look at the planning, organization and management of the many thousands of details involved in hosting a successful fest
A majestic Ferris wheel surrounded by carnival rides. Cotton candy and corn dogs — and these days, beer gardens!
Stuffed animal prizes for midway games that look easy but aren’t. A cacophony of sounds with classic rock tunes playing in the background, courtesy of the live band playing on a nearby stage.
And people, lots and lots of people — friends, neighbors and thousands of folks from throughout the area and beyond wanting to revel in the simple charm and fun of a good old-time summer festival.
While the outward charm of a summer fest may harken back to simpler times, the behind-the-scenes planning, organization, preparation and roll-up-your sleeves, do-what-you’ve got-to-do work that goes into making a festival run smoothly is anything but simple. More impressive yet is that the majority of area festivals are run almost entirely by local charitable groups and volunteers.
To get a better sense of the time and effort that goes into managing the many challenges and thousands of details that go into producing a successful festival, we went to organizers of some of the top fests in the western suburbs and asked them to give a behind-the-scenes look at how they make such complex events come off without a hitch -— at least most of the time.
Ribfest in Naperville — Planning for Happy
With the Independence Day opening of this year’s Ribfest just two months off, intensive planning for the 2019 fest is already underway. The four-day festival, anticipating crowds upwards of a quarter of a million people from the western suburbs and beyond, will be held at Naperville’s Knoch Park from July 4 – 7.
Now in its 31st year, the festival still counts on help from its original “idea” man, Bruce Erickson, who is a charter member of the Exchange Club of Naperville, the not-for-profit behind this formidable community event. This year Erickson, who has been instrumental in the growth and stewardship of RibFest since its inception, will man the food area in the Sponsor Tent.
The Exchange Club has about 150 members and this year hired its first executive director, Rick Grimes, after 30 years of strictly volunteer leadership. In addition to the countless hours put in by club members, an estimated 3,000 people — many involved in local charitable groups — will volunteer at Ribfest.
There is a detailed time line and about an 18-month cycle for each Ribfest, explains Mary Howenstine, the club’s director of marketing for the event, adding that, “Right now, Marketing/PR, Logistics and Entertainment are working simultaneously on 2018 and 2019.
“For a service club to run an event the size of Ribfest, the buy-in of the club members is critical,” adds Howenstine. “Club members work year-round on Ribfest. Then, they work sun up to after sun down during Ribfest — 12- and 14- hour days. Without the club members’ passion for service, Ribfest would lack an essential element: heart.”
The tasks are many and varied — serving food, managing finance, working on the bus schedule, emceeing the event, refilling the bbq sauce dispensers, ordering signs, hanging banners, signing in volunteers, hauling ice, working the gates, cleaning the sponsorship tables, picking up garbage, and showing up at 5 a.m. to accept food deliveries. “Every club member is important to the event,” says Howenstine, “They come early, stay late. They make sure they eat lunch together to connect and check in with each other. They wave to their friends and families as they fly by on some errand. They wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Ribfest prides itself on being mission driven — its hashtag is #partywithapurpose. Since 1987, more than $16 million has been directed back into the community, with last year’s total at just over $1 million. Proceeds fund charitable agencies from throughout the area, with an emphasis on organizations that strengthen families and reduce child abuse and domestic violence.
“The biggest challenge,” says Howenstine “is that we can’t control the weather.” To partially offset the risks, a literal rainy-day fund is set aside, managed by the DuPage Community Foundation, so that agencies can still be funded in the event Ribfest is ever canceled.
Does all the planning ensure the festival goes off without a hitch? Well, most of the time. Howenstine recalls the year that a semi-truck storing ice slowly sank into two feet of mud: “It was a head-tilt moment — ‘Does that truck look shorter than it did an hour ago?’”
Then there was the night that the shuttle ended its last run — without looping back to pick up the high-school crew that had been cleaning the park. Volunteers and their parents were “not happy,” admits Howenstine. Organizers made up for the glitch the next day by inviting the group on stage to a standing ovation. Result? Everybody happy, which is the ultimate goal of Ribfest.
Rotary GroveFest in Downers Grove — All Hands on Deck
Loss can sometimes lead to reinvention. In 2010, the city of Downers Grove made the difficult decision to discontinue its popular 30-year Heritage Festival due to budget cuts. Seeing an opportunity, the Rotary Club of Downers Grove stepped in. Having managed the beer garden at Heritage Fest for 15 years, club members had hands-on experience and knowledge on how the fest operated. But without the city’s funding, they knew they would have to do things differently — they downsized the event a bit and turned to a key resource, the community, which wholeheartedly supported their efforts.
Now in its ninth year, Rotary GroveFest is held over the weekend of June 20 – 24, and is made possible by the helping hands of 300-plus dedicated volunteers, many of whom come from local charitable organizations. In a nice win-win arrangement, volunteers earn a stipend from GroveFest for their respective charities for each shift that they work.
Other proceeds from the fest are used to help fund the Rotary’s “service scholarships” to help deserving local students pay for college. “Critical organizing time is February through July,” says Kent Ebersold, club member in charge of sponsorships and marketing for GroveFest, “with many other things like music and key vendors being decided much sooner, almost right after the last fest.
“Over 30 people on the main committee are involved and time lines are set for each area of responsibility,” adds Ebersold. “Lots of different pieces go into the Rotary GroveFest ‘puzzle’ to get all that needs to be done accomplished. We all have some strengths and we work hard to get the right people in the right positions. Amazing that it all comes together so darn well!
The Rotary Club works hand-in-hand with the Village of Downers Grove, the police department and public works to make sure the event goes off smoothly. Even the most unpredictable element — the weather — is planned for. A detailed budget anticipates that there may be a year when summer showers lower attendance. Funds are set aside for future fests, just in case.
“In the end, GroveFest is all about community,” says Lisa Rasin, Rotary Chair for the festival, noting that high school reunions are now often planned around the event.
"When all is said and done, we’re physically exhausted,” says Rasin. “But four days of fun, laughter and enjoyment by so many people make the time and effort worth it. And then we look back and realize, ‘Wow, look what we’ve accomplished for the good of the community.’ ”
Swedish Days and Festival of the Vine in Geneva — Sweating the Details
The Geneva Chamber of Commerce hosts not one, but two summer festivals and, according to Chamber President Jean Gaines, “It’s all about the details.”
Swedish Days, timed for the summer solstice, runs from June 19 – 24 and celebrates Geneva’s Swedish heritage, while Festival of the Vine comes at summer’s end, running from Sept. 7 – 9.
Swedish Days is among the oldest, longest and best-attended area festivals, says Gaines. It was founded “by a group of businessmen in the 1940s and the formula they put together is still followed today.” Celebrating its 69th year, the six-day event anticipates 200,000 attendees.
“The Festival of the Vine is all about food,” says Gaines, adding that it was patterned after Taste of Chicago, and started a year later. “We wanted a fall event but not an Octoberfest so popular in many communities. The Vine was selected because it could be anything grown on a vine including grapes, pumpkins and gourds. Grapes and wine with great food was the most popular theme and it has grown today to be one of the most popular of our festivals.”
Traditional or not, Gaines, who has been involved in planning for 40 years, states how important it is to constantly monitor each event, keeping activities that are popular but adding new ones to keep the festivals fresh and competitive. “Planning never stops,” she says, as staff work year round, shopping for ideas, setting agreements and printing marketing materials. “Often, we think our year goes faster because we are always working six to nine months ahead!”
As with other area festivals, the weather always poses a risk. But Gaines explains it this way, “Once one has invited thousands of people to town, there is no way to say, ‘Sorry, it’s raining.’” That’s one reason the town has opted for longer-running events — with luck, not every day will be a rainout.
Occasionally, there are unexpected events that the best of planning can not anticipate. Take, for instance, the time that two port-a-potties were set on fire, most likely by kids. In Gaines’ experience, “One has to be prepared for a surprise or two, but careful planning, checking the details again and again and reminder calls to vendors make it more secure.”
Most important, says Gaines, are the partnerships between the city and the volunteers, and a staff dedicated to creating a quality event. Patience, too, is needed. In the words of this long-time expert, “All events need time to grow.”
Old Canal Days in Lockport — Each Year Better Than the Last
Little did John Lamb know when he set out on a mission to elevate the Illinois and Michigan Canal from “a dirty creek running through town” into a respected part of Lockport’s history, that he was creating an event that would celebrate the town for years to come.
Back in the 1970s, the historian and Professor at Lewis University in Romeoville wanted to promote the significance of the canal. The result was Old Canal Days — this year slated for June 14 - 17 -— the success of which has helped finance local improvements such as the Canal Path, new walking bridges and the development of Lock 1 near Division Street.
This community bash — which includes live entertainment, an arts and crafts fair, beer and wine tents, and a carnival atmosphere — takes a full year in the planning, with the carnival booked for the following year as soon as the festival closes and bands and key vendors signed up immediately thereafter.
With State Street under construction this summer, Ron Lif, president of the Lockport Chamber of Commerce, expects this year’s fest will prove more challenging than usual. Construction work is expected to affect sidewalks, water mains, traffic lights and street lights.
Planners worked with the police and public works department to figure out an alternate route for the opening parade on Friday evening, diverting it away from State Street to avoid the risk of injury to attendees. “The parade is the official start to the weekend,” says Lif, “and without that excitement, momentum for the rest of the festival is lost.”
Lif, who has been involved in Old Canal Days for a number of years, has learned one good trick to help anticipate setbacks. “As soon as the festival is over, I write down everything that went well along with what didn’t go well,” he says. “I then come up with suggestions on what could have been done better.”
Scarecrow Fest in St. Charles — Expertise and Enthusiasm
Professionalism and coordination are the name of the game at Scarecrow Fest, a Columbus Day Weekend celebration in downtown St. Charles (October 5 – 7).
Now in its 33rd year, the festival is run by the Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau, which, until 2010, handled all aspects of the event. Since 2011, the Bureau has enlisted the expertise of Ravenswood Event Services and JMF Events to make sure every detail is covered. An added bonus of bringing in help from outside is that experts come armed with good ideas, contacts with potential sponsors and the ability to elevate the event in ways the Visitors Bureau may not have imagined, says DeAnn Wagner, interim executive director for the Visitors Bureau.
Over the years, the festival has grown in attendance from 60,000 to more than 100,000, according to Wagner. While that’s good news, costs have risen, too. “Insurance costs have gone up, remote parking shuttles and more toilets were added, and the number of people needed to set up and tear down the event increased,” she explains. “To make up the difference, additional sponsors are sought, many of whom provide an activity that enhances the event.”
That’s just one area where outside resources help. Ravenswood also contracts with entertainers and makes sure they have everything they need during the event. The Visitors Bureau works closely with Ravenswood’s event staff to address any problems and work jointly in marketing the event and organizing its signature scarecrow contest.
External expertise is also helpful in the early stages. Festival planning typically begins in January and in recent years has been managed by three representatives from the Visitors Bureau working closely with four staffers from Ravenswood, plus Julie Farris from JMF Events. The team creates a time line, specifying items due every month — everything from submitting an event application to the city to ordering pantyhose for the Make Your Own Scarecrow activity.
The downtown location presents an immediate challenge, as the Fox River runs directly through the center of town. This means that Scarecrow Fest has multiple entry points, making crowd flow a constant challenge.
Organizers learned the hard way that it’s best to keep its crowd-pleaser, the scarecrow contest, in one place. One year, with the intention of improving crowd flow, different contest categories were set up in three separate areas on the east and west sides of the river. Confusion ensued and coordinators have since kept all entries on the west side, in or near Lincoln Park.
Beyond professional assistance, the Visitors Bureau enlists special help for its key event, Make Your Own Scarecrow. “Boy Scout Troop 60 has done a wonderful job managing the event for over 10 years,” says Wagner. Collecting clothing from sponsor Salvation Army, the scouts sort through to make sure there are 1,500 sets of long-sleeve shirts and pants. And during the event, they assist families with making the scarecrows.
Says Wagner, it’s a team effort, all round.Edit Module