New Orleans is known for its richness in culture, music, food, people, and, of course, festivals. Festivals combine all our city’s passions and manifest themselves as an afternoon block party, a two-week extravaganza, and everything in between. 

In our recent event, Festivals Forever: How CMO’s Are Navigation Change, we spoke with the leaders of some of New Orleans’ most well-known festivals to understand how they have adapted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our discussion was moderated by Mark Romig, Chief Marketing Officer of New Orleans & Company, who spoke with an impressive panel that included:

While each of these panelists works hard to put on their festivals, each festival is vastly different from the others in regards to their missions, audiences, demographics, and budgets. In a typical year, New Orleans would host over 130 festivals, bringing in over 19 million visitors and over $10 billion in direct spending in the city.

What Did New Orleans Festivals Do in 2020?

In 2020, all of these festivals were put on hold, dramatically altering the cultural and economic landscape of the city. Each festival embraced a different approach in reaction to the setback. 

Jazz Fest, the largest and longest-running of the three festivals, took the lead in their response. After canceling the festival in 2020, Jazz Fest worked with its partners, specifically WWOZ, to start a movement they called “Festing in Place.” Traditionally, the marketing behind Jazz Fest is very grassroots. Most notably, the lineup release gets shared organically across social media. Festing in Place gave Jazz Fest fans a time to celebrate by themselves alongside an entire digital community. People flocked to social media to share how, when, and in what manner they were Festing in Place, creating a format that could be followed by other festivals. “Festing in Place was obviously a huge success, emotionally more than anything,” Goldman stated. 

For Beignet Fest and other charitable festivals, their cause helped keep interest alive. Collins noted that a call-to-action corresponding with the idea of Festing in Place would allow the festival to make its grants and continue with its original mission of embracing and enhancing the lives of children with developmental delays and disabilities.

Hogs for the Cause took yet another approach. This festival is mainly driven by individual teams who spend months preparing for this event. After canceling the festival in 2020, the festival leaders wanted to remain committed to those participants, worrying that they may move on and gain other interests. Hogs for the Cause came roaring back in 2021, this time with limited capacity. Interestingly enough, the limited capacity and the city’s craving for live events meant that the festival sold out almost immediately.

How Does Festival Marketing Work in New Orleans?

Marketing for New Orleans festivals has changed over the years. With the rise of digital marketing and social media, many festival organizers are pushing their budgets online. However, our panelists recognized that you first have to understand your audience and segment your messaging based on demographics. 

When discussing Jazz Fest, Goldman mentioned that local radio is still a large driving force to get people to the event. With each station, you have to highlight different headliners in your ads to address the specific audience. For Beignet Fest, Collins noted that there are typically two audiences she speaks to — those interested in the festival and those interested in their charitable mission. Knowing where those audiences spend their time can help her direct her marketing budget to the right spaces. Finally, Hall mentions that his audiences on Facebook are different from those on Instagram, and he changes his Hogs for the Cause messaging accordingly for each platform. 

Every panelist touched on the fact that sponsors and partners are a huge part of their marketing plan. By leveraging existing relationships and partners with a shared interest, festivals are able to get their message to a much wider audience. They mentioned the importance of grassroots social media posts as a way to bring authenticity to their message and promote it even further in the digital landscape. 

When discussing how they use vendors to market the festivals, each had a different response. “Our food vendors are some of our biggest ambassadors,” said Collins. “We’ve been able to leverage larger brands. We love when our food vendors advocate for us.” Goldman noted: “Our vendors are participants. They’re a part of the festival at this point. They’ve been out there 20, 30, or 40 years. They have always been part of the branding and part of the ambassadors.” Hall added, “Our teams are our biggest ambassadors.”

Marketing Festivals After COVID-19

Moving forward, every festival organizer hopes to get back to pre-pandemic levels of participation. Despite the minor setbacks, they are energized by the continued interest in their events and the resiliency of their fans and participants. We hope to see them all at the next festival so we can continue to embrace the cultural and economic benefits of these events.

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