Recognizing the importance of holding special events and festivals

Love thy neighbor and prosper
Parks & Recreation. 32.9 (Sept. 1997): p106.

Many communities, even very small ones, are recognizing the importance of holding special events and festivals. These promote tourism, which provides income for recreational programs and boosts economic development, and they also improve community relations.

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Building Community Relationships is a Vital Process for Festival and Special Event Success as a part of Community Tourism Development

All across our nation, many community residents, along with recreation and park professionals, are realizing the potential of tourism as part of an economic development strategy and financial support base for recreation programs. In addition to economic benefits, the lesser recognized non-economic benefits of tourism may be key in developing support among local community residents, support which is vital to the long-term success of community tourism development. Festival and special events, events that are short-term and consequently less impactful on the physical and sociocultural environments, are among the fastest growing types of tourism attractions. Even in small towns of less than 1,000 people, it is not uncommon to see two or three major festivals held each year. Because of the proliferation and scale of some of these events, it has been suggested that festival and special events constitute one of three major categories of tourism attractions. As such, festival and special events can complement the other two major categories: ambient attractions, such as climate, scenery, culture, hospitality, and wildlife; and permanent attractions, such as theme parks, historical sites, sports facilities, convention centers, and sacred sites.

Building Community Relationships

Building community relationships is a vital process for festival and special event success as a part of community tourism development. Efforts here can occur at two distinct levels. At an intra-community level, working on building relationships within a community is crucial. At an extra-community level, building relationships with other communities in a particular region–and with other agencies and organizations outside of the region–becomes important.

There is considerable evidence supporting the importance of building and strengthening relationships within a community in order to facilitate successful festivals and special events. First, local leaders, as the “spark plugs” and the “movers and shakers,” provide the driving force for festival and special event success. They provide leadership, get other individuals actively involved in meaningful roles, and coordinate activities of different organizations and agencies. These leaders may be park and recreation professionals or volunteers in the community. Reliance on volunteers is often crucial to an event’s success. As volunteers working with volunteers, such leaders unselfishly work on key committees throughout the year, up-front and behind-the-scenes. The result of this process of overall building and strengthening relationships can be a deep and expanding ownership of a festival or special event by all members of a community.

Second, the long-term success of such events is likely to depend on the extent to which these events identify and respond not only to needs and wants of visitors, but also to those of community residents. Small festivals developed by townspeople and scaled to their tastes seem to be successful; residents need to perceive that they have control over the form and function of their community. Consequently, it is important to listen to the local people and pay attention to the real spirit of the community. To be successful with such efforts takes creativity and a strong community spirit. A broad base of community mix keeps the ownership of the event diverse, and it keeps the management team in touch with everyone’s vision for the event. Jointly developed plans, approaches, and shared goals enrich the impact of a festival or special event as an agent for community empowerment. Such cooperative and collaborative enterprises can build trust and ownership and create all kinds of meaningful relationships within a community. By developing place-rooted community themes and celebrations based on the local physical features and sociocultural characteristics, community roots, identity, and pride can also be strengthened.

Third, establishing and marketing a public image and event identity is crucial to long-term and continued success. Of key importance is developing and maintaining a close working relationship with the local media in order to generate favorable publicity at every opportunity (Rolley and Clements, 1994).. Such publicity helps create a positive image of the festival and special event in the minds of both local residents and visitors. Leadership, along with public and private partnerships, marketing strategies, and a dedicated and interested community base, will strengthen community relationships and guarantee a festival or special event’s continued success and growth.

At an extra-community level, building and strengthening relationships with other communities in a particular region becomes important, especially in terms of coordinating a variety of events and other tourism opportunities throughout that region. Communities in a region can create a tourist destination by joining together to present visitors with a package of different tourist activities, attractions, and experiences.

As an example, local leaders from several towns in the Ozark region of the southwest Missouri joined forces and worked together to develop the Festival of Lights, designed to be America’s largest outdoor lighting attraction during the Holiday Season. In each region, community groups, businesses, and government get into the festive spirit by sponsoring creative lighting displays in order to celebrate the holidays and attract visitors to the region. Once visitors arrive for the Festival of Lights, they find there are dozens of other things to see and do throughout the region during the holidays.

Another example of inter-community involvement in coordinating a variety of events for visitors can be found among 19 different villages and towns in Fulton (Il.) County (Burr, 1997). Here, the Spoon River flows southeast through a scenic valley of woodlands and farmlands, eventually emptying into the Illinois River. The Spoon River was made famous in the early 20th century by poet-author Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology. Masters lived in Lewistown, and in his youth wandered along the banks of the river and in Oak Hill Cemetery. Later, he gathered thoughts and ideas into a written book of poems about the local residents. Today, the highways and byways in Fulton county sport the colors of four seasons and are open to visitors year-round, with routes running approximately 140 miles through a variety of picturesque rural towns such as London Mills, Avon, Farmington, Babylon, Canton, Ipava, and Vermont. Although the spoon River Valley Fall Festival is the largest special event in the area, a variety of other festivals and special events occur throughout the year in the different communities. Marketed with the theme “Spend Some Time with Nature’s Joy on the Spoon River Scenic Drive,” a marketing mix employing a variety of approaches, attracts a large number of visitors to the area. In 1996, over 120,000 people visited Fulton county over two weekends in October for the Spoon River Valley Fall Festival.

In Iowa, the Des Moines River flows from the heart of the state to the Mississippi River in the southeast. Riverboats used to steam upriver to Des Moines, passing through scenic, wooded Van Buren County and its old river towns of Bentonsport, Keosauqa, Bonaparte, and Farmington. Today, 15 different towns and villages market themselves under a unified rural tourism concept as the Villages of Van Buren, preserving a slower-paced environment in which visitors can relax and enjoy the rural small-town settings and amenities. County tourism promotional history began in 1987 with “Bike Van Buren,” an event that brought bikers from throughout the state. The success of this event demonstrated to local leaders the great potential for tourism development that lay untapped in their county. Today, tourism visitation is promoted through the theme “Explore the Villages of Van Buren–An Age Apart.” A variety of festivals, special events, and other activities attracts a great number of visitors to the Villages of Van Buren from April through December. In 1996, over 200,000 visitors toured the Villages of Van Buren. The Fall Festival attracts about 15,000 to 20,000 visitors each weekend. Other festivals held throughout the year draw about 3,000 to 5,000 visitors. Most of the visitors come from a 100- to 150-mile radius, which includes the cities of Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. However, more and more visitors are coming from as far away as Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City.

Strengthening relationships with other agencies and organizations outside of the region is also important. There are a variety of agencies, such as the USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Soil Conservation Service, National Endowment for the Arts, state tourism bureaus and state arts councils that may be able to contribute professional expertise and financial resources to the development of festivals and special events at the local level.

Show Prospective Volunteers and Supporters the Potential Benefits

It is sometimes difficult to get a “critical mass” of local residents excited and actively involved as volunteers in a festival or special event. However, if the potential benefits can be demonstrated to residents as prospective volunteers and supporters, there can be an enormous amount of energy and good will for such projects. For the visitors, a festival or special event might be an opportunity for a leisure, social, or cultural experience beyond the everyday experience. Visitors may be attracted to the novel experiences that festivals and special events offer. Local residents may also enjoy these events that offer opportunities for a new experience. In addition, festivals and special events may offer a wide variety of other benefits to local residents.

A good financial return on invested resources is a primary benefit of festivals and special events that are staged as commercial ventures. However, the majority of festivals and special events are organized by nonprofit or governmental entities interested in producing other benefits besides revenue. Festivals and special events can stimulate economic growth and development by increasing opportunities for employment, improving local infrastructure and recreation facilities that local residents can utilize, landscaping, and conserving the culturally rich heritage of a town or region. In addition to bringing in money to the local economy, festivals and special events may benefit a community by creating a positive image of place, minimizing negative impacts, contributing to sustainable development, fostering better host-visitor relations, and helping to preserve sensitive natural, social, and cultural environments. Festivals and special events may be used to promote agricultural products, enhance community spirits by serving as an outlet for community expression and promote community pride, togetherness, awareness, and culture. Internal revenue may be generated for the festival or special event organization, or external revenue may be raised for scholarships or for a variety of nonprofit organizations. Festivals and special events can provide opportunities for recreation and socialization, along with opportunities for family togetherness, fun and entertainment for all ages.

Although the Festival of Lights was designed as an economic-development project, it also produced the added benefits of enhanced community identity, increased local pride and better regional cooperation. In the Spoon River Valley, local residents really enjoyed sharing their rich heritage with visitors, the beautiful scenery, crafts and demonstrations, antiques and quilts, historic buildings, house tours, great food, outdoor recreation, and many other sights and sounds of their county. All of this activity has instilled “pride” in the towns, villages, county, and region–pride in place, tradition and family. In Van Buren County, residents have banded together to present themselves as a unit through coordination and cooperation, and this focus on unity has been beneficial for the county. The success of the county’s festivals and special events has made residents more aware of the county’s amenities. Residents enjoy their quality of life, are proud of their heritage, and enjoy sharing it with visitors.

A Process For Facilitating Festivals and Special Events

Figure 1 on page 108 depicts a model of a conceptual process for facilitating festivals and special events. As a first step in this process, it is necessary to gain an understanding of a community’s situation. This can be accomplished by conducting an assessment of community attitudes toward festivals and special events, present and potential tourism attractions that may complement festivals and special events, human resources and visitor services, quality and capacity of the infrastructure, and nearby markets.


As a second step, goals and objectives for the festival and special event must be identified and established. A festival or special event with the goal of substantial economic impact may have a very different character than one with a goal of instilling its residents withe a sinse of pride. In the third step, it is necessary to identify and involve interested residents who are supportive of tourism and tourism-related development in the form of festivals and special events. Individuals here provide initial leadership and can influence the broader populace by demonstrating the potential benefits of festivals and special events. If there is not fairly widespread interest and support for tourism development initiatives in a local area or community, there is a strong probability such efforts will not be successful. In step four, with growing support, individuals and groups must be able to share information in order to make sound judgments for decision-making. As a fifth step, there must be a sharing of ideas among interested individuals and groups, and identification of place-rooted community themes that may be developed and celebrated through festivals and special events. If tourism development is to be part of a county- or region-wide economic development plan, themes must be identified for the entire county or region. The sixth step in the process involves the actual planning, followed by the seventh step of planned actions toward festival and special event development and implementation. This is followed by the eighth step of the actual operation of a festival or special event. As a last step in the process, there should be evaluation or feedback that loops back to and continuously affects and modifies all of the previous steps in order to ensure continued success and growth of a festival or special event.

Without strong and supportive intra-community relationships between volunteer leaders, volunteers, and local residents; between volunteer leaders and recreation and park departments; between recreation and park departments and other government agencies; between special interest groups and businesses; between businesses and tourism planners and developers, process of facilitating festivals and special events may not be workable for a community. Strong community relationships provide underlying support for the process to occur and for it to thrive.

Building and strengthening relationships with other communities in a particular region can facilitate the coordination of a variety of events and other tourism opportunities for visitors throughout the region.

The Role of Parks and Recreation Professionals

Recreation and park professionals are uniquely positioned to facilitate festival and special event success as part of community tourism development. These professionals recognize their responsibility and the impact their programs have on the quality of life for local residents. Many park and recreation departments are already programming festivals and special events. In addition, park and recreation departments can do more to document both economic and noneconomic benefits for their communities resulting from festivals and special events. Visitor expenditures can position a park and recreation department as an economic asset. The park and recreation professional is in the unique position of being able to bring community constituencies together in order to build and strengthen relationships within a community.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)

Burr, Steven W. “Love thy neighbor and prosper.” Parks & Recreation, Sept. 1997, p. 106+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 13 Jan. 2017.

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