Future of Wichita River Festival: Organizers weigh community ideas, event costs

The Wichita River Festival is re-evaluating “absolutely everything” after losing money in recent years, says its new vice president of program development.

Ideas on the table include bringing back some favored old events, adding an expo inside Century II to showcase local businesses and artists, increasing the number of competitive events, and reducing the number of venues. The festival’s staff held a daylong retreat Friday to discuss its future.

“We definitely want to make it an experience that’s available to more people,” said Dana Plummer, the new vice president. “We don’t want it to be more expensive. We want it to be a family-friendly, economical event. We’re trying to find more things that we can do with your dollar.”

Two issues already have been resolved. The festival will remain a nine-day event, and it will continue to be held in June, said Janet Wright, the festival’s executive director who is leaving at the end of the year after 13 years.

The festival board considered alternative lengths, but because the set-up costs for things like the food court and entertainment stages would be the same no matter how long the event lasts, it wouldn’t make sense to shorten it and lose a weekend for vendors, she said.

The 41-year-old River Festival, Wichita’s signature event, recently reported losing money for the fourth straight year as the sales of buttons fell and corporate sponsorship didn’t keep pace. Festival expenses amounted to about $1.2 million this year, organizers have said.

Attendance has been up and down, from an estimated 380,000 in 2007 to a low of 161,000 in 2010, which saw cold, wet weather. It was estimated at about 240,000 in 2011 and this year.

Plummer said she is considering ways to gather community input to help give the festival a boost, possibly including town hall meetings.

“We want to be able to give you more value. That’s something the community can help us with,” Plummer said. “If they have ideas, we’d love to hear those.”

They apparently have plenty.

Festivalgoers who responded to an Eagle query through the Public Insight Network had a number of complaints and suggestions.

Complaints ranged from poorly-dressed attendees to poorly-placed porta-potties. Chief among them:

•  The costs of food and festival buttons

•  The hiring of special entertainment acts that required extra fees

•  The need to buy tickets to pay for food

•  The lack of events on the river

They want a return of former favorites such as the bathtub, bed and raft races, and the book-and-art fair.

Simpler days

One theme dominated: The people who responded want the festival to return to its simpler days. They think the festival has become too corporate and lost its family-friendly vibe.

“The home-town feel is gone,” said Craig Penny, who lives in the Riverside neighborhood. “The city takes it over and it’s just business, business, business and how much money we can make.”

“I remember when it first started it was just a bunch of hippies that kind of got together and started this thing. It just kind of took off from there. We need our hippies back running things. At least they knew how to have fun.”

Maureen Masters of Wichita wants to see more local artists featured.

“It seems that Wichita has a fat stable full of artists and musicians, and yet the festival seems to mine from far away. The B-list musician thing is just sad,” she said.

Masters, a digital marketer, also wants to see more of an online presence from the festival.

“Not using all the tools that this century has gifted us with? Wow,” she said.

Masters said the festival should use social networking on the Internet to interact more with the community.

“Play with the people more, and make it easier for the people to play with you,” she said.

Catherine Calderwood of Wichita would make the festival simpler and focused on family-oriented community events, including more events on the river, such as collegiate rowing.

She also would limit costly additional activities she said. This year, for example, organizers charged $15 extra to Rick Springfield and Kellie Pickler concerts.

“We don’t need big names to draw a crowd. We should be the kind of crowd that draws big names,” Calderwood said.

People also weighed in on the festival button, which is suggested for admission, complaining about its recent artwork as well as its $5 cost.

Marsha Nelson Carr of Wichita suggested organizers offer discounts at festival events and the food court to people who buy the buttons. Participants would have to wear the buttons to get the benefit.

“Repeat customers would recoup the cost of the button, and the organizers would receive the benefit of more button sales,” she said.

She also would like to see the festival offer tours showing off the city to people wearing buttons, and offer free buttons and event schedules to people who are staying in local hotels during the festival.

Event costs

Plummer, who started working at Wichita Festivals on Aug. 8, said the festival is looking to spend money more efficiently on talent, and that it will review former events and perhaps modernize those that worked and bring them back.

But events like the bathtub races cost money, she said.

“It’s great to say, ‘Go back to all those things,’ but you have to pay for them, and the community has to come out and support it,” Plummer said.

Wright said events people want back weren’t well supported before they were dropped.

“Some activities people want back had good attendance in the mid- to late- ’90s, then attendance started dropping,” she said.

There were only two or three teams in the final bed races in 2003. Interest in the bathtub race was low by the time it ended in 2008

“The bathtub races were costing us $15,000 for 30 tubs to race and nobody watching except the Wagonmasters who were running it,” she said.

“There’s an evolution in this like there is in other businesses,” Wright said. “Products are outdated or obsolete. What kept our interest for a long time is different now. We just need to look at things that can be on the river that would be fun, but more up-to-date.”

Having more racing and other competitive events is important, Plummer said.

“We’re missing the competition part of this, so that’s something we’re definitely looking at,” she said.

Wright said criticism about lack of local talent at the festival isn’t warranted.

“We use local acts all the time,” she said, pointing out that every act on the Star Lumber Floating Stage was local.

The popular art and book fair that ran in conjunction with the festival in Century II and Kennedy Plaza wasn’t organized or run by the festival. In 2011, when the festival moved from May to June, fair organizers decided to keep the event on its traditional date, Mother’s Day weekend. Plummer said an expo in Century II is one idea to take its place.

Combination of elements?

Elma Broadfoot, River Festival’s director in the 1980s, when the event experienced a huge growth in events and buttons sales, said the festival could try a combination of old and new elements.

“I tend to think some of that stuff might work again just because it gives a chance for the average person to be involved with it,” she said.

But things have changed since those early days, Broadfoot said. The festival seems to not be attracting the family-oriented crowds that it did in the 1980s, she said. It also has become difficult for organizers to get volunteer help.

“When I was with the festival, it was hard enough to get volunteers. Now it’s even harder,” she said.

Broadfoot remembered that she, too, was accused of making the festival too commercial with the growth of sponsorships.

“But there was a certain energy and synergy going on in the 1980s,” she said. “I think what people are feeling is that for the most part, it doesn’t feel like their festival.”

Broadfoot said organizers are in a difficult spot now, trapped between people who want the festival to be the way it used to be, and those who want to move on.

“I wouldn’t want to be in any of the shoes of the people at the festival right now,” she said.

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