Past experience helps Mary Beth Jarvis take Riverfest to a higher level

03/28/2014 6:21 PM

03/28/2014 6:21 PM

When Mary Beth Jarvis left Koch Industries in 2011, she helped the YMCA with its strategic plan, helped with her kids’ sports — and painted nine rooms of her house.

So, it wasn’t much of a switch from her normally hard-charging life when she was hired in the fall of 2012 as president and CEO of Wichita Festivals, the organization that puts on the River Festival.

Last year’s festival was her first, and it appeared to mark a turnaround for the venerable festival, which had been losing money and momentum in recent years.

The 2013 festival saw 360,000 attendees, an increase from the 300,000 the year before. It sold 104,000 buttons, the most since 2008. Sponsorship revenue was up 11 percent, and will be up again this year.

The result: Wichita Festivals actually had a slight surplus last year for the first time in five years.

“It was razor thin, but it was the right color,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis, 45, who served as the face of Koch Industries for 15 years and, before that, McConnell Air Force Base, by many accounts has rebuilt connections, learned a complex job and is about to help raise Wichita Festivals to a higher level.

Jim Hand, an accountant and longtime River Festival volunteer, was on the committee that hired Jarvis. A few weeks earlier, he had written an open letter to the community saying that the festival had “lost its rudder, tossed in a sea of red ink, navigating in a fog of issues.”

The hiring committee was surprised and pleased to see Jarvis’ resume in the pile as they sought to replace retiring Wichita Festivals president Janet Wright. His optimism has only grown since, Hand said.

“I don’t know that we could have expected anyone as good as Mary Beth,” he said. “I’ve been an admiral, been on the board … Mary Beth is exactly what we were looking for. And the proof is in the pudding because she’s even better than we hoped.”

Rebuilding bridges

Soon after she was hired, Jarvis made a flurry of phone calls to longtime festival volunteers, board members and friends asking advice on what to do.

The advice came in two main flavors, she said.

The first was to maintain and restore relationships with the festival’s many volunteers, businesses and participating groups, some of whom may have felt their interests had not been adequately considered in recent years. She has spent a lot of time in meetings and on the phone, soliciting ideas, consulting on methods, thanking and congratulating, say observers.

“She never met a stranger,” said Todd Johnson, a longtime volunteer and current Windwagon Smith. “She would engage with people from every walk of life and listen with an open mind. She would talk to anybody.”

One of the bridges that was rebuilt was to Goodwill Industries.

Early in 2012, the festival told Goodwill that it was moving the popular Cajun Food Festival from its longtime perch in front of Century II to the WaterWalk area so as not to conflict with the main food court. Goodwill balked at the move and sat out that year.

Jarvis asked Goodwill to come back, in its old location, along with a Cajun band. It returned in 2013.

“I think she is a tremendous leader for the River Festival and has done a miraculous job in changing the event around,” said Goodwill CEO Emily Compton. “I can’t say enough about her leadership and what that means to the community.”

Between new and old

The second piece of advice she got after taking the job, Jarvis said, was to aim for a “sweet spot” between the festival’s long heritage and trying something new. Everyone understands that the festival needs to evolve, she said, but its change has to be measured.

“How do you evolve without turning away from the historical nature? How do you be hometown and world class, all at once?”

Some of the highlights of what’s new at the festival this year:

• A Salute to Aviation, June 1, will include flyovers of locally made aircraft, the aircraft companies’ static displays on Main Street, a car show, a motorcycle rally, a Rosie the Riveter look-alike contest and a paper airplane contest. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts will be the musical act.
• Hot-air balloons will fly on the first weekend, including a launch over the top of the River Run.
• A 90-foot-tall Ferris wheel will anchor Cox Kids Corner, in the WaterWalk area.
• Tennis activities, at Ralph Wulz Riverside Tennis Center, will return.
• No block party this year. Instead the musical acts will be spread throughout the festival.

Buttons a must

One of the innovations put into effect last year was enforcing buttons for admission. That means putting up fences and gates around events, and then securing them.

The festival also offered $3 buttons for children to lower the price for families.

In recent years, requiring the $5 buttons for attendance wasn’t always strictly enforced. That may have increased attendance, but it reduced the incentive of buying the buttons for everyone, which hurt the festival financially, and it changed who came.

“It created a different feel in the festival zone,” Jarvis said. “Everybody in there was in there on purpose. You weren’t meandering through. You weren’t skulking about. You were there to participate with your friends and family, and we had the safest, most incident-free, more-secure festival that we’ve had in years.”

But it was a little controversial, she said.

“We annoyed quite a few folks,” she said. “Business people coming down at lunch wondered why they needed a button. I get it. But come back eight more days or give your button to a friend. But buy in because this is our festival.”

What it takes

The future looks bright if the River Festival keeps performing well.

The community is ripe for festivals at other times of the year, Jarvis said. The leadership at Wichita Festivals has discussed a holiday season event and, in future years, something on the river later in the summer.

“We’d like to be on the river more than nine days a year. … The time is right to throw more options out there and see what folks respond to,” she said.

The future of the Wichita Flight Festival is also under discussion. The city-sponsored festival is off this year, and McConnell wasn’t able to offer its air show, although there will be a state-sponsored aviation expo at the National Center for Aviation Training in September. Wichita Festivals is studying some kind of aviation event in the future and is testing the waters with its Salute to Aviation, Jarvis said.

In some respects running a community festival is similar to what she did for Koch and the Air Force, she said. As the public affairs person in both previous organizations, she understood how to communicate and how to make hard decisions.

“You’ve got to understand that you have to listen to what the community wants and needs,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to work with businesses and key entities in town — without them this doesn’t work, whether that’s the city or the museums, attractions and cultural institutions — and you fundamentally have to look at the economics of what you can afford and what you can’t in running a project like this. … Here’s where you’ve got to make decisions, setting priorities and looking at the return on what you can do with your resources. Luckily, those fundamentals carried over from my time at Koch.”

Others who have worked with her praised her intelligence, passion, professionalism, knowledge of the community and open-mindedness.

She returns the favor. She spent a lot of time in a recent interview praising staff and, especially, volunteers for their passion and dedication. She describes the River Festival as a community institution that no one person or group really owns or runs.

“It is a wonderful role and, frankly, I’m honored to do it,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun because of the great team — not only the staff, but the volunteers. It’s hard not to have fun when you are stewarding something that people love so much.”

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