Blood, sweat, and tears

With costs rising and sponsorship money shifting, will big-event festivals become a thing of the past?

From the pages of In Business magazine.

When it comes to summer festivals, Madison and south central Wisconsin are second to none. From Shake the Lake on Lake Monona to the Green County Cheese Days in Monroe, the area is rife with fun things to do and events to visit from May through September and beyond.

But what about the future?

Remember the king of all Fourth of July events, Rhythm & Booms at Warner Park? Or the 30-year-old Elver Park fireworks? Or going back a bit further, the Blues Festival at Olin Park, The Holiday Parade, or winter’s walk-on-water event, Kites On Ice? They no longer exist.

Even in Milwaukee, the annual Air & Water Show, which often showcased the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, was postponed until 2017.

“Funds are needed to pay for performers, aircraft fuel, parking, safety and security personnel, and grounds staff. In recent years we have been, and still are, facing a lack of adequate financial support to cover these costs,” stated Air Show Director Rudy Malnati Jr., in a release. The annual air show attracted 400,000 visitors to the lakefront, and now it’s asking the community for support.

A lack of sponsorship support should surprise nobody, since businesses of all sizes and shapes have been trimming budgets to work “more efficiently” for years. But with the loss of Oscar Mayer in Madison and only a select few large companies in the area with coffers capable of sponsoring the big events, money earmarked for community investment is being spread thinner and thinner.

Could there come a time in the future when children will never experience the oohs and ahhs of a live fireworks show? Who will fund them?

Sponsorships run their course all the time for various reasons. Years ago Madison’s annual holiday parade came to a permanent end after its main sponsor, Famous Footwear, left the city. Kites On Ice was a winter event sponsored by United Airlines. After it pulled its support, a replacement sponsor was never found.

Rhythm & Booms has been replaced by Shake the Lake, but the city lost the Elver Park fireworks this year after sponsorships and city funding disappeared.

City and county budgets are constrained, corporate marketing budgets are getting slashed, and the largest of businesses may have to choose between the glitz of sponsoring a huge one-off event that delivers a lot of public relations goodwill, or taking a quieter, more impactful and focused approach to giving.

AmFam’s new focus

Few can argue the benefits that American Family Insurance brings to Madison, from the jobs it provides, to its stellar reputation nationwide, and the financial and community support it pumps into the local economy.

In early April, AmFam, once a significant sponsor of both Rhythm & Booms and the Taste of Madison, issued a statement explaining a shift in its philanthropic focus when it announced a new American Family Dreams Foundation grant proposal process that will support communities throughout its 19 operating states.

The company’s community investment grants will be carefully doled out to programs matching interests the insurer has identified as correlating to its core mission: protection (immediate needs); restoration (recovery and making families/communities whole); and inspiration (life-long learning, removal of barriers, overcoming obstacles, and reaching full potential).

The change will allow AmFam to give more often and more directly to programs in need.

“For some organizations, our strategy will simply mean a shift in how funding is pursued and potentially provided,” Judd Schemmel, American Family community investment director, stated in a release. “Instead of seeking sponsorship for an event that generates funds the organization may use on programs and services, the organization will now, through our grants program, seek funding directly for the programs and services themselves. For other organizations that do not provide programs and services, they would likely need to look for new sources of event sponsorship.”

The company remains a significant goodwill ambassador in the community. This year, proceeds from its inaugural American Family Insurance Championship PGA golf tournament in June will be donated to the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation and the American Family Children’s Hospital, and the company is also taking the lead, together with Madison Gas & Electric, on the highly anticipated entrepreneurial hub, StartingBlock Madison.

So to argue against its new philanthropic direction is like choosing which child you love more. In the end, they are all good. But are other major corporations doing the same, and if so, what impact will it have?

Corporate fallout

Rita Kelliher, president of the nonprofit Madison Festivals Inc., has seen the decrease in large corporate sponsors first-hand. “These large events are really better in cities with large corporations. You are not seeing that in a city like Madison where there are very few big companies.”

In fact, she says, AmFam, the presenting sponsor of the Taste of Madison since 1995, significantly reduced its level of support this year and also pulled funding from the Capitol Jazzfest and the Madison Sports Hall of Fame.

“It probably takes MFI five to seven other sponsors now to make up for what American Family had been doing.” It’s not that they’re not investing in Madison, she insists, but as sponsorship levels drop, groups are forced to raise ticket prices, other fees, and concession prices.

On the other hand, the loss of a major sponsor also creates excellent opportunities for more companies to get involved.



Rhythm & shake

MFI took over Rhythm & Booms in 2013 and ran the event in its last year at Warner Park. That same year, Kelliher says, the city reduced its support. “They also dictated the event be held on a weeknight with no activity prior to 6 p.m. This reduced the attendance and also reduced sponsorships.”

All city funding was cut in 2014, when MFI moved Rhythm & Booms to Lake Monona. “We reinvented it downtown and took a huge economic loss to the tune of over $300,000,” Kelliher says. “We were willing to invest further if we saw companies stepping up to the plate because we could not fund it alone.”

Events should be supported in equal parts, she explains — a third from individual donations, a third from sponsors, and a third from concession sales. Trying to appeal directly to the community, MFI implemented a plan to solicit $5 tax-deductible donations from individuals who simply texted FESTIVAL on their cellphones, but that effort only generated about $375.

After two years of heavy losses, MFI cancelled Rhythm & Booms to focus on its core events, the Madison Marathon and Taste of Madison.

“The problem is, everyone thinks others should pay for these events, and cities can’t afford it,” she says, adding that MFI’s future is secure “but if people want us to do a holiday parade or something, there’s no way. It’s just not possible.”

Enter the Madison Mallards, who were looking to boost their community identity. In 2015, together with Festival Foods and the Madison Parks Foundation, Shake the Lake emerged.

“It’s wonderful that they want this to continue for Madison,” Kelliher says.

Vern Stenman, president of the Madison Mallards, has had a much more positive experience in terms of event funding.

Festival Foods, he says, underwrites the cost of the fireworks for Shake the Lake, which is the single biggest expense. The Mallards manage everything else. All of last year’s sponsors re-upped for 2016, he says, and they’ve added a few more.

But Stenman has noticed a shift in sponsor motivations. “Years ago, people were buying sponsorships because they liked the warm, fuzzy feeling they got from putting their name on something positive in the community. Now I think companies are looking for more specific outcomes. They want to tie a sponsorship to helping make their business better, and they want to be able to measure it. That’s what we’re in the business of doing.”

As an organization, the Mallards renew about 98% of its sponsorship agreements. “I’d like to think it’s because we help them accomplish their goals,” Stenman says. “That started with the Mallards, but it extends to Shake the Lake and the events we’ll be doing at Breese Stevens field this year. It’s fair to say that the sponsorship space has gotten more competitive, but I don’t believe it’s going away, either.”

While Shake the Lake lost some money in its first year, Stenman says the goal in year one was to create an event that would be sustainable long term, “and I think we’ve done that.”

Lights out on the lake

Several years ago, Kelly Starr-King, CEO at Drake & Co. in Madison, was also the chair of Dane Buy Local, and helped organize a new Madison event called the Venetian Night Boat Parade, modeling it after a similar event in Florida that pumps $50 million annually into Fort Lauderdale’s local economy.

“I thought, ‘If they can do it, why not Madison?’”

The Venetian Night parade began at Maple Bluff Park and traveled down Lake Mendota’s shoreline to the Memorial Union, passing four city parks along the way — Maple Bluff, Burrows, Tenney, and James Madison. Dane Buy Local members decorated their boats with lights and one member even donated the fireworks.

After two years, the Dane Buy Local board decided expenses could no longer be justified, but Starr-King believed enough in the event to take it under Drake & Co.’s wing.

They renamed it Lights On The Lake and secured lead sponsors each year: Google in 2011, EZ Office Products in 2012, and Whoville Holiday Lighting in 2013.

“After that, we just couldn’t fund it any more,” Starr-King says.

In fact, the event’s last year was almost doomed from the start.

Plans for a local radio group to provide music at each park along the parade route was met by immediate resistance from the Parks Department.

“We were all so excited and thought this event would be amazing … to bring thousands to the lakeshore and pack the parks with the different music styles, the boat parade [which now included the UW Alumni Band], and the fireworks,” Starr-King says. “But when I explained this to my contact at the Parks Department, her response blew me away.

“She said, and I quote, ‘Well, we really don’t want that.’”

“I asked, ‘What do you mean you don’t want that?’” Starr-King recalls.

“She said, ‘We don’t want people in the parks. When people come to the parks they make a mess.’”

“My jaw just hit the floor!” she says. “This is our city and we have parks for people! How can you not want people in the parks? It was just crazy to me.”

Beer tents, which would be the event’s main revenue source, also would not be allowed, she was told.

[Ed. note: An attempt to reach that employee found she no longer works in the Parks Department.]

Mother Nature drove the final nail in the coffin. Extreme wind conditions prevented the fireworks from being fired from a barge near the Union, where whitecaps lapped at the shoreline, but elsewhere on the lake, the waters were much calmer, and people began airing their anger and disappointment on social media.

“It’s downright hurtful that people would say such negative things in public about a free event that others put their heart and soul into.” Starr-King says. “They make it very difficult for these organizations to continue putting their hard work into things. It truly takes a village to pull something like that off.”

Plenty of people also jumped to their defense. Despite all that, Starr-King says they “had five fantastic years,” although the event never turned a profit.

Clarifying the city’s position, Madison Parks Community Services Manager Claire Oleksiak says beer tents are allowed in the parks although some allow alcohol and others require a permit.

“We really value events,” she insists, “and we’ve moved forward in leaps and bounds in the last few years,” adding that she was saddened to learn of Starr-King’s experience.

“Events contribute economically and culturally to the city and bring the community together. Of course, we’re always balancing that with operation costs and making sure the space remains available to the public in some form, but events are a huge contribution to Madison.” The department’s involvement in Shake the Lake is a perfect example, she notes.

Also, permitted street-use events around town have increased from 390 in 2013, to 404 in 2014 and 528 in 2015, which included about 100 events scheduled by the downtown Business Improvement District.

Last call

With corporate giving initiatives being reworked, it’s becoming more and more apparent that if festivals, fireworks, and special events are to continue, everyone — small, medium, and large businesses, as well as individuals — will need to pitch in. That fireman’s boot needs to be filled, and a $3 bottle of water at a free event is $3 for a reason.

Kelliher comments, “I feel a community must have opportunities to celebrate — the Fourth of July or an end-of-summer picnic like the Taste of Madison. There must be a few free events for a city with a diverse population to come together in order to be a healthy, welcoming place to be.”

Starr-King agrees. “If everyone gave just one buck, these events would continue, but I’ve seen a shift from businesses supporting festivals to businesses supporting ticketed fundraisers for things like Go Red for Women, Coaches Versus Cancer, or Susan G. Komen. Those are fantastic causes, but they don’t bring the community together. They bring people who have enough money to buy a ticket at $100 or $150 together.

“And that is not family-focused.”


Syttende Mai

May 13–15 | Stoughton

Syttende Mai is a Stoughton Chamber of Commerce event and Norwegian heritage celebration that attracts up to 20,000 people annually with entertainment, arts and crafts, a run, and a parade. Its largest sponsor is King Oscar Seafood.

John Elvekrog, FFA Alumni group (nonprofit food cart): “Syttende Mai is our most profitable event. We make deep-fried cheese curds and cream puffs. Sales have been in the upper $30,000-range. We use the money for scholarships for high school seniors and to buy animals at the Dane County Fair from kids who are showing them.”

Patrice Roe, owner, The Nordic Nook (retailer): “Syttende Mai is a huge weekend for us. It’s like Christmas in July. We’re lucky. Most retailers have to concentrate on the fourth quarter to make their year, but we get this tremendous boost in the middle of May.”

Sun Prairie Sweet Corn Festival

August 18–21 | Sun Prairie

Sun Prairie’s largest event of the summer attracts upwards of 90,000 people each year and has been a regional attraction since 1953. The event is organized each year by the Chamber of Commerce and also supported by countless local businesses and about 200 volunteers.

In 2007, the corn fest was canceled due to rain and flooded fields, resulting in a $50,000 loss.

Ann Smith, executive director, Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce: “The Sweet Corn Festival is a fundraiser for the chamber. We spend $100,000 before the event even happens each year, including purchasing the corn for between $90 and $115 per ton and spending $1,200 on real butter. Yes, real butter. We sell about 80 tons of corn on average. And we now carry rain insurance.”


September 23–25 | New Glarus

Oktoberfest is New Glarus’ largest event of the year, attracting an estimated 6,000 people each year and tripling the town’s population. Deb Carey, owner of the New Glarus Brewing Co. started the event, where only New Glarus beers and local wines are served.

Susie Weiss, executive director, New Glarus Chamber of Commerce: “We close the downtown streets so people can walk anywhere with open intoxicants for three days. But it’s also family friendly during the day, with a chainsaw wood carver, hayrides, a farmer’s market, and craft vendors.

“After bills are paid, the event brings in $60,000, which the Chamber uses for downtown beautification projects throughout the year. The Chamber also makes money from beer sales, T-shirts, and food vendors give us 15% of their gross.”

Green County Cheese Days

September 16–18 | Monroe

Attracting more than 100,000 people and filling hotels as far away as Freeport, Ill., Green County Cheese Days occurs the third weekend of September in even-numbered years. It celebrates the area’s dairy heritage and elevates Monroe’s status, says Noreen Rueckert, executive director. The festival celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015, and Colony Brands is one of its sponsors.

“One of the biggest challenges is turning a downtown area into a festival grounds. It’s a logistical puzzle,” Rueckert admits. About 500 volunteers are required.

Richard Schindler, owner, Suisse Haus (restaurant): “We have to put on extra staff. It’s our biggest weekend and we see a 600% to 800% increase in beer and food sales compared to other weekends. We turn our parking lot into a beer and entertainment tent. It’s like a big family reunion every two years.”

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