River Festival

Revamped River Festival seeks to build on, rekindle successful traditions

When Mary Beth Jarvis took over the helm of the 42-year-old Wichita River Festival Inc. in November, she inherited an organization that had lost money four years in a row, had cultivated a culture of button resisters despite its best efforts and had developed a serious perception problem among members of its target demographic, who complained that it had moved too far away from its family-friendly roots.

Jarvis decided the best way to start attacking the problem was to just listen.

After taking over for retiring festival president Janet Wright, who’d held the position for 13 years, Jarvis started a stint of full-time listening, she said.

She got hold of a recording of a public idea-gathering forum that had been organized by Wright before she left. Jarvis read through hundreds of comments on Kansas.com articles. She chatted up members of the volunteer ranks and members of the festival board.

She listened to anyone who had anything to say about the festival.

“And I dove back into the history of the numbers to see what key factors made this successful when it was and to see what key factors we had lost sight of,” she said.

Her listening resulted in a Wichita River Festival this year that is both filled with new ideas and is inviting old ones back, all in an effort to convince people again that $5 is a good value for nine days’ worth of entertainment.

The listening also made her realize, she said, that most of the festival naysayers were people she could win back.

“If you break it down, the source of the grumbling is all the people who cared and really wanted the festival to be awesome,” she said. “When you love something, you want it to be great.”

Make it like it was

As Jarvis gathered information, she said, she heard the same things again and again.

People wanted the festival to feel like it used to. They didn’t want to pay extra for concerts. They wanted more activities for families. They didn’t want to fight crowds of troublemakers who weren’t at the festival to enjoy the festival.

The festival’s financial woes, which contributed to an $85,000 deficit for Wichita Festivals Inc. last year, apparently had roots in two things: fewer buttons being sold and fewer sponsors signing on in a down economy, she said.

Jarvis and her staff of eight managers – five of whom are new this year – tackled sponsorships first and were able to sign up several new ones, including what Jarvis called a sizeable sponsorship with Ford.

Sponsorships this year are up nearly 15 percent over last year, in part because of new relationships she and her staff forged, she said, and in part because of an improving economy.

Those sponsorships made Jarvis and staff members better able to develop plans to address major festival complaints, such as concerts that cost extra. Over the past several years, the festival had brought in bigger-name acts but charged admission above the button price to cover the costs of the acts. Last year, festivalgoers needed $15 tickets to see Rick Springfield and Kellie Pickler.

Jarvis also hired two people experienced in booking entertainment and organizing events: Ann Keefer, who’d spent 10 years heading marketing for the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., and Adam Hartke, a former operations and promotions manager for the Orpheum whose specialty is booking musical acts.

This year’s festival will feature night after night of top-name acts – The Go-Go’s, Montgomery Gentry, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Chris Mann – and the only admission is a $5 festival button.

“We had to make sure before we were willing to commit to entertainers that had a swallow-inducing price tag that the sponsorship support was really there,” Jarvis said. “And we got enough support and sponsorships to allow us to take a little bit of risk in bringing in entertainment.”

Jarvis, whose resume includes public relations stints at Koch Industries and McConnell Air Force Base, also heard people say that they wanted the festival to feel like the event they remembered from their childhoods.

For many of those people, that meant bathtub races, an event that was canceled after the 2008 festival because of a lack of participation.

But setting the bathtubs afloat again wasn’t an option, Jarvis said. The event is too costly and time-consuming to participants to be practical anymore, she decided.

Instead, staff members resurrected several other former festival events and made them part of a “throwback day” on June 2. Among the activities will be a paper airplane drop, a celebrity egg toss, a hula hoop contest and a swing dance exhibition.

Festival organizers also decided to move some signature attractions back to their original locations, “where God intended them,” Jarvis joked.

The main food court, which had been moved twice in as many years, is back on Century II Drive. The West Bank Stage is no more, and most concerts – including Friday’s opening night Koch Twilight Pops concert – are back on Kennedy Plaza. The Cajun Food Fest, canceled last year because organizers didn’t want to move it off Kennedy Plaza to accommodate the moved food court, also is back.

Buttons: Not optional

Making the button more appealing, though, was one of Jarvis’ top goals.

For a festival to be a financial success, she said, at least 100,000 buttons must be sold. Sell 125,000, and there will be a nice chunk of money in the coffers for the following year.

In 2012, 74,988 buttons were sold.

Jarvis and her staff settled on a never-before-tried plan: Create a button for children that costs $3, a $2 savings from the adult button’s cost. Only 25,000 of the 150,000 buttons that were produced are child buttons, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

The change will allow a family of five to attend the festival for less than $20, she said.

“We’re taking a risk, but we’re giving that price break so that families feel welcome and are able to make the choice to come,” Jarvis said.

Buttons never were optional at the festival, Jarvis said, but this year, that rule will be enforced.

The festival zone will be nearly completely gated – more thoroughly than ever before – and only those with buttons will be allowed in. The move is intended to keep people away from the festival who aren’t going for the right reasons, another common request Jarvis heard during her listening spree.

“Buttons are required in the festival zone,” Jarvis said. “We want folks to be there deliberately and participating rather than just meandering through.”

Jarvis also turned her focus to an old program that had been neglected but that is resulting in button sales.

Celebrations for a Cause is a longstanding program that asks sponsors to buy buttons for people who might not otherwise be able to attend the festival. But no one had been tending to the program, Jarvis said. Last year, only 30 buttons were bought and donated.

This year, she signed on Cessna as a sponsor of the program, and Cessna donated 3,000 buttons. So far, other sponsors – both corporate and individual – have donated another 1,000, which will cover admission for participants in Kansas Big Brothers Big Sisters, for several YMCA day camps and for about 500 troops at McConnell.

“It was one of those things where I just thought, ‘We can do better,’ ” Jarvis said. “If this community knew there was a way to make River Festival happen for kids or other people, I felt like they would.”

Staying relevant

Jarvis and staff members also wanted to freshen up the festival with new activities, especially those that families would enjoy.

They dreamed up more than 20 new events, and the one they’re most excited about happens on June 8.

It’s a beach party that will fill Kennedy Plaza with 310 tons of donated sand.

On the sand, people will build sand castles, play sand volleyball and tug-of-war and watch a concert by beach-friendly band the Go-Go’s. Attendees will be asked to help break a mark recognized by Guinness World Records for wearing the most sunglasses at night.

“We really tried to decide to do something new or different against two criteria: Does it have a high energy level? And would it be engaging and fun?” she said. “The beach party is a perfect example of that.”

Among the other new events: senior activities every weekday during the festival from 10 to 11 a.m.; a neon night dance, lighted by glow sticks, on June 7; a touch-a-truck event that will allow families up-close looks at all manners of vehicles; and a two-mile walk in the River Run lineup.

“I think the goal is to find the sweet spot where you honor and build on the tradition while also finding a way to continue to be relevant and inject energy and evolution to keep it fresh for each generation,” Jarvis said.

New momentum

Jarvis does not want to be portrayed as a one-woman show saving the festival, she said.

She’s quick to point out that the previous administration put many good things in place that she and her staff can now finesse.

She also points out that the new regime hasn’t proven anything yet.

But several people close to the festival say that the new leadership has helped redirect the attitudes of people needed to make the event a success.

Dave Carter, a longtime festival volunteer and former Admiral Windwagon Smith, has been a vocal proponent of refocusing the festival.

Carter, who this year is the festival’s food and beverage director, said that over the past several years, the festival slowly and subtly lost sight of what made it great.

New leadership offers a new opportunity to re-examine the festival

“It’s just human nature: When you step into a new job, you’re energized, motivated. You have new ideas. You want to listen to the old ideas, too, and pick up on the base that Janet set, which is a good base, but it morphed to the point where we needed to bring some things back on course again.”

Alan Howarter, a local accountant and festival board member who is the vice president for financial reporting at the festival, also sees the new leadership as an advantage.

Already, he said, people in the volunteer ranks are feeling more as if their ideas are being listened to and that their opinions are being valued.

Jarvis and many of her staff members, including Keefer, are high-profile, known members of the community who are helping to mend fences and bring new financial supporters on board.

The festival can’t survive many more bad years, Howarter warned.

Organizers have done all they can do for this year, he said. Now it’s up to the weather.

“I like the way it looks right now, although we need to have some nice weather. If we don’t, we’re going to be right back in the same boat no matter how hard we’ve tried.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle