Running a Multi-Day Festival - Director's Management Advice
Podcast speakers: Savannah McIntosh (Purplepass Marketing Director) and Brad Veach (Executive Director, Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival).
The EventBuzz podcast: Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival
08:36 - Volunteer management during COVID
11:42 - Safe food handling and vendors
14:23 - Transitioning to digital ticketing
18:13 - Key takeaways to planning a festival
22: 00 - Rewarding volunteers
Podcast transcript: Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival
Welcome to another episode of the EventBuzz podcast. I'm Savannah, your host and today like every episode, we have another amazing guest and industry expert joining us. Executive Director Brad Veach.
is with me today to talk about festival management, and what it's like to plan a multi day event. With their annual festival just around the corner, the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, they’ve been preparing for not just one, not three, but over 20 different events spanning across 10 days. The annual festival is a largest community event in Winchester, Virginia with over 250,000 attendees each year.
This event is so big that during the spring in preparation, the people of Winchester hold an annual cleanup followed by decorating the city in green, pink and white festival colors in order to make the community more presentable for its anticipated guests. I'm excited to hear more about the behind the scenes of such a large event and hopefully some suggestions and advice for other promoters out there in the festival industry.
Hi, Brad. How are you doing today?
Doing great. Thanks for having me.
Yeah, we’re so excited to talk to you and and hear more about this amazing festival you guys have coming up. So why don't we just dive right in and before we get going introduce the listeners more about your guys's festival what it is and let's include like a little introduction of who you are, so they know who who's talking.
Sure. My name is Brad Veach, excuse me. And I'm the executive director for the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, which is located in Winchester, Virginia. The festival has been around since 1924. This year 2021 will be our 94th Festival. And there's only been a handful of times that festival didn't hesitate in place, one being last year during COVID. But then, the last time before that was way back during during World War.
So, you know, we have had a very long, rich history of hosting events, showcasing our apple industry is really how we started back in 1924. And it was a collaboration up and down in the Shenandoah Valley, here in Virginia and Winchester. Winchester was was lucky enough to kind of be the location that everybody said they wanted it to be hosted. So that's kind of how the festival started and you know, over the years, we've expanded it to over 40 events.
And it includes 2 parades. On a Friday and a Saturday night we have like the nation's largest firefighters parade. And we have firefighters and antique fire trucks that come from all over to participate.
And then we have a grand feature parade on Saturday, which is is kind of our showcase. And we've had high school bands come from all over the country to participate in our grand featured parade. So we've got a very rich history, we are a very long standing festival.
And certainly COVID has presented many challenges to planning the festival, but we're working our way through it. And we're looking forward to celebrating our 94th this year.
That’s so exciting and I was just about to ask to how many events you guys have. Because I think online it says like over 20 but like, I think they have at least 40 going which is crazy.
Well, yeah, we actually cut our events in half of this year. There are certain things like parades and, and things like that, that we just can't have due to the governor's orders with restrictions on the number of people. So we basically cut 50, almost 50% of our events this year. And we've been working very closely with our health department to make sure that we are, you know, in compliance and that we're doing everything that they feel that we can do to provide you know, some safe activities.
Yeah, yeah, it's, I mean, it's so impressive to me that you guys are doing 20 events. That's a lot over 10 days like…that’s so fun, but it's a lot. And that kind of goes into my next question. What is it like planning such a large festival I for? I mean, for people listening like what does it take essentially to run this annual event? I know that's a lot.
It is. It's a whole lot. I actually took this position that in November of 2019. Our former executive director had been with the festival for over 20 years. And, you know, as, as the new person coming in, I was super excited about, you know, the opportunity, but also the potential to kind of take the festival, you know, to the next level. And then COVID hit.
So, you know, as the Executive Director, I have not actually been in this row in a full festival. So, you know, it's a bit unique in that, all of a sudden, I've been thrown into the mix, and almost had to rethink everything that the festival has done, because of COVID. So, you know, even if I would have had some years of experience under my belt, I don't know that it wouldn't necessarily matter in this situation.
But, but yeah, it's quite the undertaking, we have, you know, just a plethora of, of volunteers that just, you know, you spend a lot of time dedicate a lot of their, you know, their talents with the, to the festival. And it's a year round kind of planning operation, we were I'm a full time employees. So it's not like, you know, really work in, you know, a couple of months out of the year, we maintain an office that's open 12 months out of the year. And we rely on hundreds and hundreds of volunteers to make these events happen, anything from the dance parties, from things like that, to the parades, to bring the carnival into town and getting all the logistics set up for that. And of course, we're working very closely with our local emergency management folks from our, from our City and County, because you know, they are essential when it comes to providing a, you know, a safe environment for folks to be able to come and enjoy.
I mean, we shut down a number of city streets, basically, Friday and Saturday of the festival week, just for the parades and 1000s upon 1000s you know, people line the streets and, you know, enjoy enjoy the festivities. So people have house parties, and I mean, it's just, it is a, it is an opportunity to showcase our community. And, you know, it's funny, because the folks along the parade route the weeks ahead of time, you'll see the the landscaping crews coming in and, and putting down fresh mulch and trimming bushes and, you know, you adding a coat of paint to their house and the people really take that serious take it seriously. And it's really an opportunity to showcase our community and our community pride has has has a lot to do with the festival. So it's just a, you know, it's a fun thing.
A little slice of, you know, Americana, where, you know, we're outside, we're going an hour outside of Washington DC. And, you know, folks come from the city out to to enjoy the festival, and it's a bit of a slower pace. But it's definitely an opportunity for us to showcase that community. And, you know, just we provide that, you know, warm invite to folks who come in from out of town.
Yeah, I love that. And with COVID A since you said you rely on volunteers so much has as like management for them had to change at all? Or have you guys had to do a little something a little different when it comes to working with your volunteers.
It has, you know, there are some volunteers who just don't feel comfortable. Yeah, we're wearing what what the governor's calling the phase three, which basically allows up to 1000 people outdoors. So we had moved almost all of our bins from indoor venues to tents, which is how we used to do it. And we've, you know, had some of our volunteers who said, “I’m going to sit this one out this year, I just don't feel comfortable.” It we get it, you know, we're not going to force any of our volunteers to come out and do something that they that they don't feel comfortable doing. And and we certainly don't, you know, want our participants to feel uncomfortable with with coming out and doing things.
So, you know, we're offering these events, we've certainly lowered the number of tickets that we're selling to certain events, knowing that they, the governor has set a limit of 1000 people, and that's one of the reasons why we can't do parades because we're talking about 200 to 250,000 people that live on the streets of Winchester.
So yeah, and that in itself has become a bit of a challenge. But because the festival is is smaller this year, we also know that we don't need as many folks to volunteer their time. So, yeah, it's, um, it is a bit of a challenge with with the volunteers and some events, you know, we're in great shape other events like, you know, maybe some of the the older folks in our community, you know, it's been a little more challenging just because of them being in a higher risk.
Yeah, that makes sense. So you said you guys have kind of moved what you can outdoors, doing tents, limited ticketing. Is there anything else like on the event day like other other protocols you have thought of or need to follow in order for the event to run safe as safe as possible?
Yeah, we actually are still working through that. Again, we've been working very closely with our, with our local health district to ensure that we're kind of in compliance and doing everything we can, and even beyond to make sure that folks are safe.
We, we do expect, we put this out on all of our Purplepass tickets and in all of our advertising, that folks are responsible and are required to follow all CDC recommendations and state mandates. If they buy a ticket and participate in our events, which basically means that you will be doing temperature checks when folks come in, we are expecting folks to wear masks many of our events, include food. So you know, we've got the situation where folks are sitting down at tables, and chairs.
And, you know, removing their masks for a meal. A lot of this through Purplepass, which has been great for us, this is our first year using Purplepass. And we basically have done a lot of our ticketed meal events, with with, I'll say assigned seating, where folks can pick their seats. And so a lot of folks will say I, you know, “my four friends from the office room and go to our business launch it.” And so they sit together, you know, they sit together, you know, the table, and so they feel a lot more comfortable with our dance parties and things like that, where it's more general admission, most folks don't sit down anyway, they're going to be out dancing.
But you know, we, you basically have set up the tents and the tables and chairs. You know, they're 60 inch round tables and normally you can fit like eight or 10 people around there, we're only doing four chairs per table. Again, trying to spread people out. So folks are required to wear their masks, we're going to have additional hand sanitizing stations, hand washing stations, many of our events, because of our limited number of participants, we actually are doing in smaller blocks of time. So for example, our Wine Festival. It used to be that you buy a ticket and you can come all day, spend the whole day there. This year, and through Purplepass which made it super easy, we actually do it blocks of time, we did four hour blocks.
So you know, four o'clock time slot. And you know, you've got your four hours to come in and do your wine tastings. And then we clear people out, we have an hour break, where we sanitize and clean and remove trash and do all that. And then we'll do another four hour block and that has worked perfectly through Purplepass. In that folks go on, they go up to the ticket page, you know, they select which day, which time they want, they order their tickets, and of course, their date and time stamp is, is on the ticket.
So you know, they know what time they're supposed to be there. And we've done that with some of our other events as well. Like we're doing a midway which is like games and carnival food and things like that. And you know, we're kind of keeping track of, you know, how many people are coming in. We are setting a limit, even though we can have 1000 people that also includes our volunteers and our food vendors and anyone else. So most of our tickets are actually set at 900 max.
So Purplepass I mean, just to put a shout out to you all. I mean, I'm not sure how we would have done it in our old system. It was all paper ticketing. You come into the office, you'd buy your tickets, and you know, then you show up to the event. And it (A) we’re spending a ton of money on just the cost of printing tickets. And to be honest with you since we transitioned and this was a concern by our board was that you know, when people do an online ticket. We probably, we had maybe two dozen people, out of all the tickets that we've sold, we sold 1000s of tickets already. We've maybe had two dozen people that actually came in, didn't feel comfortable, you know, doing the online ticket part of it. And so we just, you know, we took their money here and printed out their ticket, and they were happy they walked away, and they had their ticket ready to go. So, I mean, I'm, you know, obviously, we didn’t transition to Purplepass with the anticipation of COVID hitting, but I'm so glad that we did, because it's definitely made life a lot easier for us from a ticket management standpoint.
Yeah, I'm so happy. I'm so happy that you can (A) save money on all the printed cost, because people don't realize, yeah, it's a lot of tickets, especially for how big you guys are. And that it's working so well for you guys. It's crazy. Yeah, we've definitely, the digital ticketing has definitely been pushed, like 10 plus years into the future, because now everyone's kind of forced to be online and, and kind of minimize those interactions and purchase it in advance and it makes it easier.
You know, to be honest with you, we've we've had our, you know, our challenges with transitioning in Purplepass. In that, you know, we have traditional ways of doing certain things. But, you know, we’ve found that almost, I don’t know if it's 100%, but it's pretty daggone close. You know 100% of the issues, say it’s 95% of the issues is probably a good number, you know, that that we kind of identified as, you know, how do we do this? We can't figure this out, you know, this is, you know, this conflicts with, you know, some of our internal processes.
We found, you know, that, you all folks have been super helpful in helping us to think outside the box even more. And, you know, there's been a couple of things that because we are unique, and we are so big, that you know, we've had a couple of hiccups. But I mean, nothing really that's like a deal breaker. I mean, it's been, it’s been a pretty tremendous experience for for us through through with your all support. I mean, whether it was setting up all the individual seats with four chairs per table. You know, you guys were there to help us walk us through all of that. So kudos to you all for for the great service. So I’ll give you guys a little plug on that.
Oh, yeah, thank you, our team, they are amazing. And honestly, they've seen it all. So that's why they are so creative, like you said, and with adjusting and making it work because they've just seen every thing under the sun.
With events and every event. It’s just, every event is so so unique. So it's not like we can just put them in a box and be like, this works for you. It's gonna work for everyone.
Yeah, we've been very impressed with the flexibilities of that. That's, that's been good.
Thank you. I'm glad. And then putting aside, let's put aside COVID for a second. And if we pretend like we're talking about just a regular festival, I wanted to ask you this, because we have a lot of event professionals that listen to our podcast and kind of get ideas from it.
So since I'm talking to you, I just want, for those interested in hosting their own, like mega festivals or multi day events. Are there some key takeaways that you've learned from this whole planning process, planning this big festival that you could maybe give them advice on?
Yeah, I think you're never able to do it alone, you got to surround yourself with, with a team of people who have different talents. You don't have to surround yourself with the same type of person, you know, especially during COVID when you've got to identify and be able to think outside the box to make things happen.
But, you know, having a good strong team, you know, that, that is committed to communication and keeping everybody in the loop, you know, no surprises. You know, I think that's, that's like probably one of the the most important things you know, and you know, those those folks who are Executive Directors or in chairs or, or, you know, whatever your title may be, you know, just don't don't think that you got to do it all.
You know, if you've got good people surrounding you, they want to help you and that's been a bit of a challenge for me because I've been new, I'm new and you know, I'm trying to be as involved with every step of the process, because I want to learn. But you know, some of them are like, Brad, just back off, you know, we got this and I'm like, “I’m not trying to micromanage you, I just, you know, I want to know if something goes wrong, I want to at least have a good understanding of, you know, what, what happened. And what what we, you know, why did we run into this snag?”
So, you know, to me, it's definitely about, you know, compiling that, that strong team of diverse people, folks who think differently, and, you know, engage with them and collaborate, you know. I like to throw out ideas, and sometimes I'll throw out a stupid idea just to see what their reaction is. But what it does is it makes them start to think, you know, well, we can't do it that way, but we could do it this way?
And so, you know, it's always interesting to, you know, to have this collaboration brainstorming times with, with your team. And, you know, a lot of times that I feel like that helps empower them, because you sometimes you're using some of their ideas, and it just creates that buy in even more and their commitment to success. So that's probably one of the biggest things that I feel from, from a large festival standpoint. You can’t do it alone, you got to have good people around you. And you know, getting those folks to commit to, you know, the, whatever that end goal is. So, that's probably my biggest piece of advice to everybody who's listening.
Yeah, especially if there's, there's so many moving parts, you definitely need a team. And, and solid communication. So figure out how you guys all work together. So that, you know, it could really you don't have any gaps or, or cracks in the process.
But you know, another thing too, is, and because we're so big, we have so many volunteers, and we are a nonprofit, and it's hard. And this is one of the questions that came up in my interview was, you know, how do you reward and how do you motivate your volunteers?
And, you know, that's in a smaller organization, it might be a little bit easier, you know, you could have snow a party, or you can recognize them with, you know, some type of piece of swag or something like that. But, you know, in our organization, I mean, we, we break the budget, you know, if we had to buy you 1000 polo shirts, or feed, you know, 1000 people who didn't have a sponsor or whatever, and, and we try to keep our pricing affordable to, to our, to our ticket holders, and participants. And, you know, find creative ways, that's another thing, it's just to find creative ways, you know, to recognize your volunteers, because, for us, they're, they're the lifeblood of the festival, the festival could not, it would not happen without them.
You know, it's easy to, you know, just kind of pass by, but I mean, these folks are dedicating and committing and volunteering their time, either to help to help you succeed, to reach your goal. And finding that unique and special way to recognize this folks is, is sometimes hard, but I think it's essential.
Yeah, what was you like, what, what do you guys do for recognizing your volunteers?
Well, we, we do some simple things. We have a ribbon. This is something very traditional, but it is something that the folks are very proud of. We do throughout the rest of the week, you know, all of our event chairs and volunteers will have different colored ribbons. And so it recognizes, you know, kind of what their position is in the festival and the folks that are kind of at the lower level or aspiring to, you know, move up and get that that, you know, that different colored ribbon.
We also have something we also have things as simple as lanyards with like, with their, with their name and their event. So, there's different colors for that. And so people you're aspiring to become event chairs or their, you know, their their volunteer or their you know, part of the that you know, kind of gives gives them special recognition that they you know, they were part of the festival and folks that walk around you people may ask, “Hey, you know, got a question.” You know, because they think oh, you know, you've got you got a lanyard with with your name on it, you you're important.
Even some simple things like that. We have done a post festival gathering in the past with our volunteers. That hasn't happened since I've been here because we obviously haven't had a festival. But, you know, we've, what we found there were people just, they were so tired from the festival that by the end of the week, they, they were like, I don't think I want to go to it.
Yeah. So, you know, we're, we're constantly exploring ways. And we don't have the magic wand that works perfectly for us. We're, we're gonna continue to work on that because it is, it is a way to keep them motivated. It's a way for us to say thank you. And so, you know, I don't think there's a perfect science to it. And everybody has, you know, their own unique event, which, you know, it just got to kind of be creative with it so.
Yeah, I think, like you said, it's, it's fine to be simple, as long as you're taking the time to acknowledge them, and thank them, because at the end of the day, I think it's safe to assume that most volunteers are volunteering, because it's something they're passionate about. They want to be involved, they want to be there. So at least for me, when I've volunteered for events before, like, I just get excited that I'm even accepted as a volunteer, and I'm, I'm working the event alone.
So when you go that extra step and be like, “okay, here's here's a name tag, here's a ribbon, we just want to let you know, like, thank you, thank you, and you're part of this team.” It means a lot. So you really don't have to do a whole bunch.
No, no, and a lot of our volunteers, especially those who have who have children, or even before they've had children. They know that, you know, if I volunteer and I'm committed to the festival, there's a chance that my kid's gonna be, you know, with the queen, or, you know, a part of the Queen's court.
We have a Queen in Shenandoah, and it's usually a celebrity's daughter, and she has a court. And folks really take that seriously. They're like, ‘Alright, I want little Suzy to be you know, a maid, I want her to be a princess. But for her to be able to be considered, I have to put in my time and I have to commit to the festival.’ So that's another thing that that we do that is people take very seriously, when it comes to volunteering.
Yeah, I need to go to this festival. I need to make my way over there and see it because it sounds sounds really fun.
Well, if you if you go out to our website to bloom.com , go to social media. Let me let me hit it real quick. We actually have a series of videos can kind of see, we actually have a tribute rate. It's the very first one and it actually is a two hour video of past footage. We did that last year with we had COVID and we actually did it. We did a virtual parade and we just took the old snippets and the old B roll from past parades and we had a local radio announcer, who kind of kind of you know, talk walked us through, you know, the festival.
I mean, it was pretty amazing. I actually had a televised on one of our regional television stations that actually went into the DC market. So you know, we had to get really creative last year, it came to, you know, celebrating the festival. So, yeah, you can check that out, there’s a bunch of videos out there.
I will! That’s really I think this year has forced us all to use our brainpower, like, really dig deep to see how creative we can get.
That’s exactly right. Exactly. Right.
People pull old content just to have something and I've seen like a lot of people I've talked to are just doing they do really unique things, or I'm like, wow, I wouldn't even think about that. But um.
Yeah, yeah, you got to be creative in times like this.
Yeah and back to like the volunteer thing, keeping it simple. I feel like that can apply for anything. Like if you're in an office, all you really need is the acknowledgement and a small thank you like it doesn't ever have to be a big thing as long as someone's putting the effort to stop and recognize your hard work.
I agree. I agree.
And before we wrap up, I did check out your website. You guys have a lot of cool stuff. I didn't look at the video so I want to look at those. But I noticed that you have a festival store, which I thought was really cool.
And I just wanted to ask you, do you think guests really appreciate being able to purchase merchandise online ahead of the event or do you guys have a lot of success from running that
Yes, we revamped our website. In my former career I was a web developer, so I saved us a ton of money and develop that.
Yes, that’s such a good skill.
And you know, the interesting thing with with our website is I got the buy in from the office staff, we have a total of four of us here in the office that are paid staff and I actually got them engaged in and showed them how to make edits and build out pages.
And they absolutely loved it. I mean, they have no experience, you know, with with building a web page or website. And they, they manage a lot of appointments now, but back to the to the store. As part of our retail, we totally redid our store. And we tied in with, with a great company, that that really helped us out with building out the store, we also are going to have a physical store, in our shopping mall here.
It's called the Apple Blossom mall. It's how important Apple Blossom.
Oh my gosh. That’s what I’m saying I need to go.
Yeah, we also we are going to have a physical store in our in our retail center. And we're super excited about that. A lot of folks come out and buy things we actually contract with consigners, who will build and create, you know, hand tight things artisan, you know, artisans who will hand create pink and green, you know, whatever. And we're we're also this year trying to work with some of our local businesses to create.
Like, for example, and I don't know if you're familiar with these, but a fire ring. It’s basically going in your backyard, and it's a metal ring, and it has cutouts in it. And we're actually doing going to be doing Apple Blossom fire rings, which are local manufacturers, they do a lot of custom metal work. And they've got those plasma cutters that are going to cut out our logo and apple blossoms and so we're trying to, you know, get the local businesses and be more involved in the festival and you know, trying to find a way for them to be able to profit off of the festival, as well.
So but our festival store has all sorts of goodies here, your standard t shirts and, and sweatshirts and, you know, shot glasses with the logo. But we also like to work with our local artisans and they create some pretty amazing things and that, you know, you basically are giving them that retail store to be able to sell.
Yeah, so we've got the online store plus come April the ninth we'll have that physical store in our shopping center that we're that we're super excited about. So it's definitely people do buy a lot of Apple Blossom swag. It's it's definitely a good profit center for us.
Yeah, yeah, I always think it's a good idea to include if you sell merchandise, to include it online as well, because they don't want to wait in line at events and they want to come with, like already wearing it and ready to go.
And, you know, COVID has been a curse, but it's also been a blessing, because we knew last year that we were going to eventually come go to an online ticketing system. But it also really pushed people for online shopping, which was not, it was not a priority necessarily for COVID.
And we had tons of people who wanted you know, we just want a T shirt. And we did a lot of curbside pickup. We did, we mailed stuff out too. But we had a ton of people who said, ‘Hey, can I come and pick that up? Can I come get my Christmas ornament.’ We do a custom Christmas ornament with our theme every year. And we had a lot of people that did that curbside pickup, which, you know, people felt more comfortable shopping online.
And it really segwayed in well to this year, we were actually able to have a festival that folks feel comfortable shopping online and they have actually a good experience shopping online.
Yeah, I've heard that so many times. It's a curse and a blessing for our promoters because obviously, I mean we were put on pause, put on a halt. But then a lot were forced to go to digital ticketing go to hybrid virtual events. And now talking to them they're like before they're like I don't want to do it. I don't want to go online. I don't want to do virtual and now they're like, Wow, I can't believe we haven't been doing also hybrid and virtual experience too because it's a whole other like revenue stream.
But with virtual ticketing they're like, you know, this is actually working really well, and our guests enjoy it. So like, there's a lot of things they're not going to go back to, once we get through this pandemic.
We've had 0 complaints about our online ticketing experience. It's been, it's easy. And if somebody loses their email or their, you know, whatever, we can always just, you know, email them, you know, the secondary copy, and Purplepass just makes it so, so easy. So we've done we definitely have seen the benefits of making that transition.
Yeah, well, I'm glad everything's been working out for you guys. And I'm really excited that you can have your Festival this year, and I'm sure everyone's so excited since they didn't have last year and it sounds like a major community event.
So I hope it goes really well, really smooth.Yeah, you always have us here if you have any issues.
That's right. Yeah. well, I appreciate everything you have done for us, and help us kind of get over the hump and everything is working really well so far. So we're, we're excited for April the 23rd to come around and and you know, we're going to celebrate through May the 2nd. It'll be different, but I think people will be happy just to be able to get back to some some normal state.
Yeah, yeah. I'm excited. Yeah, and I think that's all I have for you today. And I hope you enjoy the rest of your week and, and weekend and, yeah, don't work too hard.
Alright, sounds good. Well, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it, this has been fun!
Video notes and links
Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival: