Starting this week, well over 100,000 people will be picking up their laminated badges, concert tickets and drink tokens to take part in the annual SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.
On a related note, in Grand Rapids, Mich., where I live, more than one thousand people will come out in the next few weeks for Gilda’s LaughFest (don’t make fun, I’m super excited about it).
LaughFest and SXSW really don’t have anything in common, except that they both represent how cities can create economic development through events. In Grand Rapids, this idea has become a bit of a thing, with LaughFest in the Spring, and ArtPrize in the fall.
Events like this may start small, but they can have a big economic impact. SXSW is estimated to have a $167 million impact on Austin. ArtPrize, in only its third year, had an estimated $15 million impact. The numbers for these events aren’t nearly as big as they are for the Super Bowl, or maybe even the G-8 and NATO summits, but those events move from place to place (even at the last minute).
The real problem is that lots of cities have events. How do you take yours to the next level, where you get national attention and big money? We’ve put together some tips.
We picked up these tips from three major annual events in the U.S. Each one defines its city, in a way. And each draws people from across the country. The events are SXSW, the Sundance Film Festival and Comic-Con.
There are probably other events we could have chosen to include. Mardi Gras or Burning Man, for example. Those don’t seem as replicable. The World Economic Forum also comes to mind, but, to do an event like that, you need princes and billionaires. The following tips all assume that you do not have princes and billionaires.
Here, then are the five tips to create a major national event:
1. Don’t limit yourself You might be tempted to look for something that your city is already good at. But if you’re in, say, Dayton, Ohio, you’re not going to get very far with a tire convention. The good news is, you really can do anything. What connection did San Diego have to comic books before Comic-Con? Not much. Park City, Utah was barely anything before Robert Redford showed up with his buddies to start the Sundance Institute. Good events are really more about people than place.
2. Appeal to a small, but fiercely passionate audience To build big appeal, the best events have always started small. They appealed to distinct subcultures. Sundance had film buffs. SXSW had music fans. Comic-Con had comic nerds. People who are passionate are willing to travel for the right kind of event. Most importantly, they’re constantly trying to find others who are interested in the things they love. They invite friends. They make new friends. The event grows.
2. Don’t make a fun event. Make a “must attend” event You want people in the targeted subculture to feel like they’re not complete unless they make it to this event. One way events have accomplished this in the past is by programming a seizure-inducing amount of activities. The one thing that SXSW, Sundance and Comic-Con have in common is that no human could ever hope to see even half the things going on at each event. Another thing that helps is star-power. Comic-Con had Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury on the same stage. Sundance had Robert Redford. You’ll need the biggest stars for whatever subculture you’re trying to reach.
4. Give up control You’ve got passionate people. They’re going to have ideas for how to change the event. Let them. Comic-Con started out as an event for comic book nerds. Those nerds love movies. So Comic-Con became about movies, too. This is how your event begins to expand outside of the original subculture, and becomes something truly huge.
5. Sell out. Big. You’ll know your event is on the right track when your original audience starts to complain about how big it’s gotten, and how it’s become all about the money. But anyone can sell-out their core audience. Sundance, Comic-Con and SXSW have taken it to the next level. Each one started for the outsiders. And each one is now essentially run by industry publicity machines. That’s important because the industry publicity machine is what gets the attention of the national media. And we’re not talking about landing the occasional Good Morning America spot that says, “Hey look, someone in Somewheresville is doing something interesting this weekend.” We’re talking about the attention that will leave you wondering where to park all the satellite trucks.
Not every major event in this country follows these tips (a case could be made that ArtPrize organizers skipped right to step 4, and they seem to be doing all right, for now). The best and the biggest events, though, they’ve stuck to this formula pretty well.
The only question left is what kind of event do you want to see in your city?