My hometown hosts a festival on Labor Day weekend. There are a few things about the festival that intrigue me.
First, the festival takes place on and around the town square that dates back to the early 1800s. Go there any other day of the year and the square is D-E-A-D. But, for four days in September it attracts over 100 thousand people for funnel cakes, turkey legs, hot dogs, kettle corn, carny rides and crippy crafts.
Festivals, like any other money-making ventures are prone to failure. For every successful festival that draws a crowd and creates an economic profit for the parties involved, there are three to five festivals that were organized with high hopes, but just couldn’t generate the traffic needed to sustain themselves. The fact that this festival has stuck and remained successful since 1973 is remarkable. The fact that in draws so many people to a location that is barely alive for the rest of the year is even more remarkable.
A great question is why?
There are probably many answers. It’s on a holiday weekend that ends summer. There are a lot of people around with not much to do. It brings a market of food, crafts, bands, games and rides to an area that doesn’t see much of those. It’s become tradition for the last two generations of people that live in the town. It’s a place to see some familiar faces and reconnect with old haunts. It’s well organized and has a large variety of everything. It has ample parking and easy enough access. It has a good mix of organizations raising money for good causes and private organizations.
But, there have been other festivals that had many of these same attributes but didn’t succeed.
Second, some food booths do better than others. Consider the kettle corn stand that has been there since I was child, staffed by people dressed in period clothes and with period looking equipment – copper kettles and a person stirring the popping corn with the sugar, salt and butter with an old boat paddle. This stand usually has a line 10 – 20 deep even though there is at least one kettle corn stand a block away with 3 or 4 people in line. Both stands have the same price and the end product tastes the same.
The only discernible differences between the two stands are location, what the staffers are wearing and the equipment. There may be other intangible differences as well. Like I mentioned before, the first one has been at the festival, at the same corner, for decades. I’m not sure about the other one.
There are other stalwarts at the festival as well. One church operates a funnel cake stand that has two lines, usually with both lines 10-15 deep. Other funnel cake stands within a block of this one rarely have 2-3 people waiting. In this case, the products are the same and the people staffing the booths are the same (no difference in dress). Other than the different booth configuration, the only other difference is that the first one, like the kettle corn booth, has been on the same corner for decades.
I wonder why some of these booths have been able to generate long lines each year while others come in and try for a few years and quit because they can’t get the traffic.
I’m not sure there are good answers to why certain booths are successful and others aren’t. Many factors come into play.
Location may be a strong factor. For example, while the festival is a small area, people come from all sides and navigating can be tough when its busy. Certain spots might be better suited for certain things. For example, perhaps the funnel cake stand is successful because it’s well positioned between the hot dog stands and the carnival, so it catches a lot of the traffic heading to the carnival after eating dinner. The kettle corn stand is on a corner by which a lot of people leave. Maybe it catches the people leaving wanting to get that last big bag of kettle corn to take home and munch on for the next few days.
Longevity may be another factor. Return festival-goers looking forward to going back to the same booth year after year may not want to veer from what’s served them well before.
The size of the organization running the booth may be factor. For example, a large church will attract the church members and their large network of friends and family.
Another factor might be that new festival-goers see the long lines at some of the booths and interpret that as a signal that these are the good ones.
Maybe another factor is the institutional knowledge of “how it’s done” passed down from the experienced booth operators to the next group in line to run the booth might be another factor.
All these things probably matter some. Many can be done to improve the chance of success, but none guarantee it.
Much of the success of this festival, some of the booths at the festival and, in a broader scope, successful businesses and organizations are in the secret sauce. It’s just that nobody has the exact recipe for the secret.