I've been around the renaissance festival world long enough to witness many different types of ren faires, both the fun and the boring, the old and the new, the successful and the unsuccessful. I'm no expert, mind you. I'll leave that to our crew member Aloysius, who has been performing on the circuit for over 27 years, but I have seen a great deal of behind-the-scenes action vs end results for a festival and I think I might be able to share a bit of insight for those that are thinking of starting a new ren-faire or the like
The Bilge Pumps have performed at quite a few first-year festivals and we have watched almost all of them disappear as quickly as they have appeared. Only one or two are still around, the Louisiana Renaissance Festival is the best example, along with Scarlet's Mid-Winter Ren Fest. Pretty much all of the others are gone: The Newcastle Faire, King Arthur Fair, Red River Renaissance Festival, etc have all gone the way of the dodo. Some of them managed to hang on for a few years like Hawkwood, but they still went away in the end. What's the common denominator for these? Well, I can't say about all of them, but most of them came down to putting too much money into the grounds and entertainment, and not enough into advertising.
I know it sounds kind of perverse saying they spent too much on entertainment when that's what the Bilge Pumps are, but it's true in some cases. A new owner sees what the established places have done, TRF, Scarby, etc. and wants to make the festival match their "vision" in the first year. It's tough to pull in all the acts you want for the first year until you get a better idea of what the ticket sales are going to be because it's really easy to go in the hole on your budget. The Bilge Pumps have helped many festivals by lowering our asking price for a first-year show in the hopes that it will get off the ground and become repeat business, and new owners can try to get all of their acts to do the same, but you have to have a limit. Set up a budget and stick to it. Get the best acts you can get with the money you have allotted. You want to have the ooh-aah factor of good shows, but you can't pay too much for them. Have a cast as well, as they are usually volunteers looking for a place to play and encourage them to do little impromptu shows in the lanes to add the the ambiance.
Many of the festivals put way too much money into the festival grounds as well. Once again, to see their owners "vision" come to life. I've seen festivals throw away tens of thousands of dollars in equipment, materials, and man power building huge front gates, stages, and booths and they get zero return on it if no one comes to see it. In fact, as Norman shows each year (over 200,000 strong on a 3-day weekend), you don't have to have a built-up, permanent site to do well, you need fun acts and good vendors. A "tent faire" works just fine until an established attendance starts to come in. Once there is extra $$$, then the building up of the grounds can get rolling. You can always rent a fence to go around your festival site.
Good craft vendors are a must as well. I've always taken up the stance that entertainment pulls in patrons, and the vendors keep them there. If you have great acts and hardly any vendors, people will only be at the festival for an hour or two max and then they're gone, because there's nothing for them to browse through. Even if they're wanting to hang around see a certain show, they will likely think the 45 minute wait in 95 degree heat isn't worth it if they've seen all of the shops already. Good crafters are easy to find, but hard to convince. They, along with everyone on the circuit, have been burned by festivals promising them patrons and then cranking out 50 people/day. To convince a crafter to come to a first year faire, they need to know what you're planning on doing for advertising and they'll typically be looking for a decent vendor fee. $25-$50/day is about all you can get from some vendors if they don't know what the attendance will be. Food vendors, on the other hand, tend to come out of the woodwork, since they're the most likely to make money at a festival. You can charge them more, because they'll be making more. Remember, the more vendors you get, the bigger the festival looks and the more start-up money there is.
Speaking of advertising, and you can't speak of it enough. If people don't know your festival is there and what it'll have, then they won't come, you won't make any money, and your festival is toast before it's even been buttered. Set aside a big chunk of money on the ads, because that's where the majority of the festival budget needs to go.
Of course, all this being said, you can follow your plan exactly and things can still bite you in the butt, like what happened to me and mine during Wild Western Days when we had a successful run all set up with tons of pre-order ticket sales and good advertising, a lot of good craft vendors, food vendors, and a killer list of entertainment... and what happens? We get hit with a weekend with wind chills about 20 below zero, snow, and a 1/4 inch of ice covering the ground and streets. That will kill the best of them, I don't care how organized ya are.
All in all, there is no magic formula to running a successful show, but you've got to make sure to have a plan, have some start-up money, and have a lot of luck. Sometimes the stars do align.
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