5 questions

By Ilene Denton April 30, 2010

Chris Lorway is artistic director of Luminato, the Toronto Festival of Arts + Creativity. He’s also a consultant with Toronto-based Lord Cultural Resources, which is working with Sarasota County arts and community leaders to develop a business plan for the county arts festival to take place within the next couple of years. (At press time, no dates had been set.) The festival will be created with a $1 million allocation of tourist development funds. Lord Cultural Resources is partnering with Sarasota Magazine in the planning effort.

What makes a festival successful? Consider the word itself: festive, something that gets people excited. [The most successful festivals] position themselves within a community around an idea or something unique about that community that people gather around to celebrate.

Why should businesspeople care about festivals? Festivals draw crowds. Arts festivals in particular draw a more affluent consumer, who is not only interested in culture but in travel, food, wine, high-end shopping. And it’s a way of creating vibrancy. A lot of downtowns are using festivals as a way to get people back into the center, to congregate and to be introduced to what’s there.

How can festivals make an economic impact? Getting the community out and engaged in what’s happening, in participation with local organizations. In some cases there’s an audience development spin—you can use the festival as a way to reach out to new audiences; it becomes a gateway into moving people into your institutions. If you create a centralized event that brings in people and money, businesses in that area are recipients of that money: eating, staying overnight or whatever activities people are doing.

What about cultural tourism? You can be really big like [the $12-million] Luminato, make enough noise that people feel they need to be a part of it. For us, the Luminato, needs to be something unique to Toronto and preferably unique to Canada or North America, so that people will come to it rather than waiting until it rolls through their town.

If you don’t have the budget to make a major festival, figure out what makes people in the region or across the country want to come to this city rather than participating in their own towns.

If you’re a community that’s really serious about having a festival or major event and using it as a catalyst for boosting tourism, focus on what it is about your community that makes it special; tease out what strengths to play on, rather than dropping a—I use the word “McFestival”—on top of the community.

How do you make a festival sustainable, more than a one-off event? If you can get people excited, they will continue to make the investment. You can’t do something halfway; you have to be committed to it. You probably have one chance to do it. If you create the expectation that it’s going to be wonderful and it’s mediocre, then you’ve failed. That’s why planning is so critical.

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