Festival fever

Foothills Fall Festival was a gamble that worked

The crowd packs the Bicentennial Greenbelt Park to enjoy the entertainment of the Foothills Fall Festival in 2007.

The crowd packs the Bicentennial Greenbelt Park to enjoy the entertainment of the Foothills Fall Festival in 2007.

Sometimes good conversation and creates great ideas.

The Foothills Fall Festival is nine years old this week but it was 11 years ago that two city leaders hatched the idea of creating a festival the community could rally around.

“It actually started with a conversation between me and assistant city manager Roger Campbell,” retired City Manager Gary Hensley said. “At the time, there were a number of festivals around the country that had given communities something to rally around and something to be proud of.”

Hensley said they looked at a festival in Kingsport and one in Greenville, S.C. and picked the brains of organizers, got ideas from them about how organization and sponsors to help with costs.

“Basically we started planning two years out from the first festival. We formed a committee and worked on it for a year. Then, within six months of the first festival, we hired an events coordinator. The first coordinator was Diane Anderson, then Valerie Parsley, and now, Jane Groff,” he said.

Hensley said what got it off to a great start was the attitude of the city council and the planners. “We could do it two or three ways: Go small and work our way; go medium; or go for the big stars and try to draw big crowds, which required soliciting a number of sponsors at $10,000 or $15,000 levels,” he said. “The City council had the guts to go big and try it and take a shot at it.”

Hensley said they were working with a budget of half a million dollars, which was huge for them. That money was from sponsors, ticket sales and some city subsidies.

“We lost $40 or $50 thousand the first year. We lost money but had a great crowd. The second year, we lost a little money but the city council said, ‘It will make it. We have to be patient and build a tradition.’ Around the third or fourth year, it started paying for itself. The last couple of years, it has been a complete sell-out, and they’ve done extremely well.”

Realtor and festival committee member Mike Owens was one of the founding organizers.

“We met several times for a couple years before we actually walked out on a stage. I can remember the first year trying to sell it and push tickets. We had great acts. I don’t know if the stars didn’t realize they were going to be walking out on a little Maryville Greenbelt stage. The crowds were nothing on Friday night. Saturday, it grew, and Sunday, it was large. They were almost to the creek, and everyone had a view of the stage. It wasn’t spread out like it is now. People weren’t on the bank, and we didn’t have screens.”

Owens said organizers were figuring things out in the early days of the festival. “Being in that beginning stage, we had to think of things like safety, transportation, what are we going to call it, how do we run it and how long is it going to be. There was absolutely nothing to go by,” he said.

Hensley said the event is successful in part because it involves so many people. “Not only do thousands of people attend, but it involves hundreds of volunteers,” he said.

Hensley is quick to praise the event’s sponsors as one of the keys to making it a success.

“Tickets would have to cost $400 to $600 a piece if not for the sponsors,” he said.

The former city manager said one year festival organizers listed all the acts coming to the festival and added up what an individual ticket to hear each of the acts would cost.

“It was over $500 if someone bought tickets to see all those people. The reason we can chare $35 is because of the sponsors. The sponsors have the single biggest effect on the whole deal,” said Hensley.

Current City Manager Greg McClain said the mission of the Foothills Fall Festival has remained unchanged since the first day.

“That mission is that we want to provide high-quality entertainment at a reasonable cost to the citizens of Maryville. What has evolved or changed over time is that you just get better at what you do the more you do it,” he said. “We have built on the success of those who have gone before us and continue to refine the process to make it a very, and I think more predictable, process to be successful.”

McClain praised events coordinator Jane Groff as being a tremendous addition to the festival. “Jane has been an asset to the city and the festival, but also to all the special events we coordinate,” he said.

Groff said she had heard about the festival but hadn’t been able to come over from Sevier County where she was working with Dollywood but she applied for the job. She knew, she said, that the Foothills Fall Festival had a reputation for quality.

“When I got here, it was solidified. I began to see why it has such a great reputation. This community supports it and gets behind it. It’s not one entity, it’s the many sponsors and volunteers who support it,” she said. “The support of the administration and our leaders is key, too. Without all that, this would not be what it is today and where it is today.”

Children’s Adventure Area chair Patti Clevenger said the reason the festival has been so successful is the community support. “So many people take ownership in the festival. When you have so many people who take ownership in this, you can’t lose,” she said.

McClain said the festival has an annual budget of more than half a million dollars and ticket sales and sponsorships cover those costs.

“Plus a few vendor fees with food vendors. Our Arts and Crafts area actually pays for itself. The vendor fees they bring in pay for tents, activities and entertainment that help in that area, along with the First Tennessee Foundation,” Groff said.

Groff said the sponsors names have become synonymous with what they sponsor. “When you think of Ruby Tuesday, you think of Foothills Fall Festival. With GreenBank, you think of the Children’s Adventure Land; First Tennessee -- Arts and Crafts” she said.

Groff said several of the corporate sponsors have been with the festival at least five years. “We were able to join forces with the U.S. Army last year, and they’ve become an annual sponsor,” she said.

In addition to Ruby Tuesday’s signature sponsorship, each area has sponsors. Entertainment sponsors for the festival include Massey Electric, Clayton, Denso, U.S. Army, Partners in Power, TVA and WIVK-radio. First Tennessee Bank Foundation sponsors Arts and Crafts while GreenBank sponsors Children’s Adventure Land. Operating sponsors are City of Maryville Water Quality Control, Atmos Energy, KenJo Markets and Smiths Detection. Media sponsors are Graphic-FX, the Daily Times, Charter Communication and U.S. Cellular.

McClain said the motive has always been to at least cover the city’s costs. “It’s not a money-maker. In trying to get there, there have been years we’ve fallen short and years we’ve done better. Overall, we’ve accomplished the goal of breaking even,” he said.

McClain said there is additional economic impact to businesses, restaurants, hotels and other establishments besides just those vendors who work the festival.

“We’ve never done a study to see how many people are actually coming. We know there is a great impact on the community as a whole,” he said.

Groff said often area businesses such as the Wal-Mart in both Alcoa and Maryville cater to vendors. “Boyce Smith at Alcoa Wal-Mart, and Melvin Covington at Maryville Wal-Mart call us and ask, ‘What do you anticipate the vendors needing: extension cords, fans, tongs, arts and crafts raw materials?’ Our retail stores are seeing sales from our vendors, who are in turn using those to serve our guests,” she said.

Employees who work at companies that sponsor the festival get to participate in discount programs for tickets. “I can’t think of many things in the community not impacted,” Groff said.

Groff said that new businesses are continuing to go in downtown and are getting to open their doors to a customer base that typically wouldn’t be there. “They’re having opportunities to show community neighbors what we have in Maryville that might not have been noticed,” she said. “The marketing effort going into this festival brings lots of benefits to people all around.”

McClain said the festival helps the businesses and the businesses help the festival. “It’s symbiotic,” he said.

Entertaining the entertainers

Groff said when entertainers do festivals or fair dates, sometimes they’re not sure what they’re going to get. “When they get here and see how we roll out the red carpet and give them a great experience, they say ‘Can we come back?’ I know REO Speedwagon was saying they wanted to come back,” she said.

The events coordinator said this kind of reputation makes it easier to get good acts. “It is easier to book artists if they know this is a great event,” she said.

Bands and other acts know they’ll see 15,000 fans and be treated well. “They’re more likely to spread the word so their management knows and their talent agencies know,” she said. “We find when we get ready to talk to some of the artists, they already know about the Foothills Fall Festival.”

Maryville City public information officer Pam Arnett said often word of the festival spreads in unlikely places. “It’s amazing how many people know the reputation of the festival,” she said.

McClain said organizers want the entertainers’ time in Maryville to be pleasant. “Just as we want people in the audience to have a pleasant experience, if the entertainers are happy, they put on a better show, and everybody wins,” he said.

In 2007, for the first time in the history of the three-day event, the Foothills Fall Festival sold out. Organizers said this created a phenomenon that improved the festival even more.

Groff said selling out in anything automatically creates demand. “Once we sold out, we started seeing that secondary market where people were selling tickets,” she said.

The events coordinator said organizers often put a lot of plans on hold until they know what revenues are. “Having the opportunity to know where revenue is gives us a chance to know what we’re doing with expenses, including adding extra portables, extra security, extra volunteers,” she said. “It also does help with the volunteer aspect. Once people can not buy tickets, they know they can work a shift and have a chance to have a ticket.”

Having a sell-out also helps logistics and in improving the event. “We have found that instead of focusing our marketing on selling tickets through the end of the festival, we’re able to re-allocate money toward helping advertise the arts and crafts section and toward thanking our sponsors by doing sponsor ads,” she said.

Selling out also creates a new momentum on the part of participants to get their tickets early. “People are finding out about the entertainment from all over the place. They know they have to get their tickets early,” she said.

McClain said the quality of the festival shows through and it leads to increased interest. “ I want to believe we pay attention to quality, and, when you do something with quality in mind, you’re going to sell out,” he said. “There’s a limited number of people who can get in. If you do it right, people want to be there. It builds on itself. It sold out in six weeks last year and four weeks this year.”

Turning the festival green

This year, Denso is partnering with Keep Blount Beautiful and Spectre Recycling to make the festival more environmentally friendly. “The first year effort we’re going to put out containers for cans and bottles, and we’re recycling cardboard from vendors,” Groff said. “This gives us the data we need. We know how much trash goes into landfill,” Groff said. “They’re trying to reduce the impact on the landfill this year by doing cans and bottle.”

Groff said next year organizers would look at new things like printing on recycled paper, and, next year after that, taking the green concept even farther.

“This is the first phase. We’re excited about working with Denso and getting their support to help us have less of an impact on the environment,” said Groff.

A major part of the effort is showing children how important recycling is. “We think kids are the ones who will make this effort work,” she said.

Owens said 2008 organizers didn’t have a lot of hope that tickets to the entertainment venue would sell out.

“People are trying to put food on the table, and gas is high, and then the festival sells out in four weeks,” he said. “It surprises me every year. It’s really neat to involved in, and I’m blessed to be part of the committee.”

As the 2008 Foothills Fall Festival kicks off and people begin to look ahead to the 10-year anniversary of the event in 2009, Hensley said it surprises some people Maryville gets the quality of talented performers it does for a small venue like the Theater in the Park. “It has really worked out well,” he said.

The festival has been recognized on a national level as well. USA Today called it “one of the Top Ten Fall Festivals to attend in the country” in 2004. It is recognized as a Southeast Tourism Society Top 20 Event and won Best Festival in the Southeast in 2005 at the International Festival and Events Association Kaleidoscope Awards. This year, the festival won the Silver Kaleidoscope for Best Festival.

While organizers are busy with this year’s festival, they already have an eye on plans for a 10th year celebration in 2009. “As far as what we’re doing, we have surprises in store -- none ready for us to tell,” Groff said.

McClain said fans of the festival would want to be on hand at the 2009 festival. “You don’t want to miss next year,” he said.

Hensley said at some point during the festival, he will sit way in the back of the theater area to get the feel of what attendees are experiencing. The moment is always gratifying, he said.

“I sort of sit back and enjoy the fact I had a part in starting the whole thing,” he said.

© 2008 blounttoday.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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