Beyond the stage: Fourteen years later, Foothills Fall Festival’s success a mixed bag of repetition, team effort
By Steve Wildsmith | email@example.com
Two weeks from today, the 2013 Foothills Fall Festival will begin its final hours.
Gates will open and fans sporting general admission wristbands will storm the grounds of Jack Greene Park in downtown Maryville to stake out a spot before the final performance of the weekend, by country supergroup Rascal Flatts. Children will tug at the sleeves and wrists of parents, begging for one more trip to Adventure Land. Artisans will roll up the flaps of their tents along Broadway Avenue, hawking wares carefully crafted by hand and unavailable anywhere else.
By the time night falls, food vendors will begin to shut down dozens of fryers, grills and ovens, and the smell of popcorn, funnel cakes and hot grease that’s filled the air of downtown Maryville will slowly dissipate. Backstage crews, exhausted from untold hours of pushing road cases from tractor-trailers to the wings of the Charles West Sr. Amphitheater, will enjoy a brief few minutes of peace before Gary LeVox, Joe Don Rooney and Jay DeMarcus wish the crowd a farewell and go trotting off the stage and the breakdown team goes into action one final time.
Police officers will await the departure of the final tour bus and the steady stream of patrons out of the gates. Volunteers, tired but pleased, will nod and bid farewell to strangers and friends alike, and they’ll smile to one another as overheard conversations on a singular subject come to bear.
“Standing at the Ruby Tuesday gate, you can feel the energy of the people leaving, and that to me is the neatest thing when you’re there at the end of the day,” says Cookie Crowson, assistant director of Maryville-Alcoa-Blount County Parks and Recreation and Theater Volunteer Coordinator for the Foothills Fall Festival — one of several volunteer team members who make the festival happen every year.
“It’s like putting the festival to bed for the night,” she adds. “And then on the last night, you hear everyone saying: ‘I wonder who they’re going to get next year?’”
Then and now
This marks the 14th year of the Foothills Fall Festival, and every year the general public is aware of a scant few things about it:
• Which stars are performing;
• When tickets go on sale and how much they cost;
• When the gates open up and what time the acts take the stage; and
• Where they can park.
They do not, for the most part, see the Herculean effort that goes into mobilizing a city of 27,914 people (as of July 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) for roughly three times that many visitors. According to organizers — led by City of Maryville Community Relations Manager Jane Groff — an estimated 75,000 people will descend on Maryville during the weekend of Oct. 11-13, the dates for this year’s festival.
Their lack of attention to detail, to the behind-the-scenes hustle and bustle of an army of city workers and volunteers, is by no means a bad thing — in fact, it means the festival itself is running like clockwork and that all of the necessary components are free of error, mishap and problems.
Some of that smoothness of operation can be attributed to repetition — after 14 years, there are certainly aspects of the festival that come second nature to Groff, who’s been on board since 2006, when she was hired as the city events coordinator; and to Stephen Moore, a senior producer with Atlanta-based company RCS Productions, which was hired as the festival’s production company during its second year and has been a part of it ever since.
“Year to year, some things are pretty standard; when you do things for multiple years, you establish certain standards that don’t change,” Groff said. “With a company like RCS Productions, we know who we are dealing with. Those are the things in doing an event and building it every year that, when you start from scratch, are kind of daunting.”
The inaugural Foothills Fall Festival was held in October 2000 at Theater in the Park adjacent to the Blount County Courthouse — renamed Jack Greene Park in 2010 to honor the late country music star/Grand Ole Opry member. Performers included the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Classic Rock All-Stars on Friday; Ronnie McDowell, Johnny Rivers, Blackhawk, Lee Ann Womack and Mark Chesnutt on Saturday; and Ricky Van Shelton on Sunday. Planning, however, began almost two years prior, and Crowson was there in the beginning.
“I actually sat in on the idea when (former City of Maryville Manager) Gary Hensley walked in the room and said, ‘I want to do an event,’” she recalls. “Because of my job with Parks and Rec and having a large event background planning special events and activities — I was a World’s Fair employee from 1978 to 1983 — it didn’t seem foreign to me. It was like we were going to do something really neat.”
That first year, Crowson organized some 30 volunteers per shift to help staff the gates, take tickets, usher guests and help with various areas of the festival. This year, she’s booked 80 per shift, and that’s just one example of how much the festival has grown over the past 14 years. Consider:
• The first year, area businesses could donate $5,000 to be a presenting sponsor for one of the artists; now, levels are based on contribution amounts, which can range from $5,000 to $50,000, and sponsorship benefits are based on the level of contribution.
• The first year, craft vendors were charged $65 to set up and sell their wares; now, artists who get their applications in by the first jury selection must pay a $150 fee.
• The first year, food vendors were charged $150 for the weekend; this year, vendors must pay $600 to $800, depending on location. (And that’s still a bargain compared to the $1,000 for one night to set up and sell food at downtown Knoxville’s annual Boomsday celebration.)
• The first year, a three-day pass cost $20. This year, tickets were $60 for a three-day pass when they first went on sale.
Take note, however: On the surface, those numbers are deceiving. That first year, the marquee entertainment had a combined 21 No. 1 hits among them all. Rascal Flatts, this year’s Sunday night headliner, has put 12 No. 1 tracks on the Billboard Hot Country Songs by themselves. The quality of the entertainment has improved, and with better quality comes more expenses, especially as inflation has meant that the artists themselves charge more to perform now than they did 14 years ago.
Striving to break even
“The biggest misconception about the festival is that somehow the city does this to make money,” Maryville City Manager Greg McClain said. “Governments are designed to cover their costs; at the same time, we’re supposed to manage an event like this in a way that it doesn’t lose money. Our goal is to bring world class entertainment to our community. With this festival, we’re in the business of entertainment, and it’s very competitive.”
As with any new event, the festival lost money during its first year. By the third festival in 2002, the event was turning a profit; in 2003, even after spending $500,000 to secure a show on the farewell tour by country supergroup Alabama, the festival posted a profit of almost $8,500. According to city reports, the revenue-to-expenditure ratio fluctuated over the next couple of years — the 2004 festival saw revenues of $444,935 and expenditures of $517,679, and in 2005, the festival spent $561,029 and took in $487,403; in 2006, revenues were $485,152 and expenditures cost the city $491,988.
The following year was a turning point, however. The city transferred $185,000 to clean up the previous years’ fund balance, and record revenues of $901,735 vs. $593,307 in expenditures left the festival with a fund balance.
The festival operated in the black every subsequent year until 2012, when the festival posted a $153,500 loss. Fortunately, a fund balance from previous years covered that shortfall, but it represented another challenge to the ongoing success of a very unique event in Blount County.
“When we first started, we provided start-up money; there were years we made money and lost money, and then Jane came in, and we wanted to get to where it could cash flow itself,” McClain said. “In 2007, previous dates were cleared, and we began to build up a fund balance, which is necessary because we have all of these expenses prior to tickets going on sale. In 2007, we turned a corner, and it lasted through the economic downtown.
“But last year we started seeing a decline in attendance. My gut tells me it’s competition; and while that doesn’t bother us, we have to adjust our festival to match.”
“It’s all relative to how the music industry is working,” Groff added. “Seven years ago, there weren’t that many events and festivals around the same time, or they didn’t have the kinds of entertainment we were bringing in. Now, market saturation is hurting everybody’s shows. There aren’t many selling out when there are so many of them in the same time frame.
“People have a choice to make with their discretionary income, and along with our unique product are many free activities subsidized by sponsorships that keep the festival attainable and affordable — even in a tough economy. We don’t charge to park or ride our shuttles or charge any other fees. What you see is what you get.”
Predicting the impossible
If there’s anything Maryville officials have learned in the 14 years they’ve been putting on the Foothills Fall Festival, it’s that having a crystal ball would be nice. They can’t predict the weather, and it’s ranged from spitting snow on the final day of the 2001 event to sweating-even-in-short-sleeves warmth in 2011.
They can’t predict how the national and local economy will affect sponsors, whose funds are necessary to bring in acts of a Rascal Flatts caliber. Maryville-based restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday, a presenting sponsor since the beginning and a linchpin of the event during its early years, pulled out after the 2011 festival, a loss that made a significant dent in the revenue stream for last year’s event.
And they can’t predict how the public will react when tickets go on sale: Last year, after selling out for five years in a row starting in 2007 (and in 2011, general admission tickets were gone in three weeks), the festival didn’t. Some of it likely had to do with the entertainment — organizers tinkered with the formula, booking as a Saturday night headliner the rock band Train, which didn’t play as well in East Tennessee as reliably solid country and classic rocks have in years past. (Part of that had to do with the lack of available headline-status country stars during the 2012 festival weekend). And even more of it, Groff said, probably had to do with the changing nature of the entertainment marketplace.
“We always build our budget based on what revenues we know we have coming in, plus ticket sales potential, and those are always the most elastic,” she said. “In 2007, 2008 and 2009, we had country headliners; in 2010, we had Lynyrd Skynyrd; in 2011, we had Reba, another country headliner. Of all of those country acts, none have sold more albums or was as popular nationally and internationally as Rascal Flatts.
“So this year, we have one of our biggest acts — Lynyrd Skynyrd — coming back, along with one of the biggest acts ever. But now, there are more economic factors than ever before. The demographics change, and there’s more competition in the marketplace. And to overcome those challenges, we have to look at the way we do things and adjust accordingly.
“Every year is different,” she added. “When it comes down to it, we have three days to set everything up, operate everything and take it all down. We figure out what works and what doesn’t, and from an operational standpoint, we’re figuring it out as we go.”