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How to Organize a Birding or Nature Festival

Nancy S. Millar

A step-by-step organizational manual for promoting and implementing a nature festival in your community

Biographical Information, Nancy Millar

Nancy Millar is Director of the McAllen, Texas Convention and Visitors’ Bureau and Vice President of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. She has written several articles on nature tourism product development, the value of community buy-in to nature tourism, and nature festivals and their economic impact. Her expertise is in marketing, an area in which she has worked for 19 years.

Nancy has been a major force behind the development of the Rio Grande Valley as a model for nature tourism development for other communities in the country. She has created and overseen the implementation of highly successful nature festivals in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in the past nine years. She conceptualized, developed and managed the nationally acclaimed Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen its first three years, and is currently overseeing her eighth Texas Tropics Nature Festival, sixth Wild Walk in McAllen and second Monterrey Birding and Nature Festival in Mexico. In addition, she has created and consulted on many projects and events in the region that highlight nature tourism, including an internationally broadcast television series, a regional magazine and several educational programs for schools and the general public.

She has presented at numerous regional, national and international conferences, has instructed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 3 ½ -day course “Developing Festivals and Special Events” at the National Conservation Training Center in Sheperdstown, West Virginia since its inception 5 years ago, and offers individual training for communities interested in developing or enhancing nature festivals. Many of her presentations emphasize the value of partnerships between all levels of government, and local business leaders and organizations, to foster community support for wildlife watching and its benefits.

Among other tourism related activities, she sits on the board of directors of Watchable Wildlife, Inc. (www.watchablewildlife.org), serving as its Vice-Chair, and of Texas Travel Industry Association (www.tourtexas.com) and is Chair Elect of Texas Nature Tourism Council (www.tourtexas.com/tnta). Nancy is also president and founder of Nature Festivals of America. Locally, she is president of both the Rio Grande Valley Nature Coalition (www.rgvnaturecoalition.com) and the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor (www.corridorfriends.org), the support group for 2 local national wildlife refuges, and sits on the board of directors of Valley Nature Center, on the Marketing Committee for World Birding Center and on the Paseos Verdes/Rio Trails Committee.


Nancy Millar is available for presentations to communities interested in developing a nature festival or enhancing an existing one, and on nature tourism product development.

Her topics include: For more information on scheduling a customized presentation, contact
Nancy Millar at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce,
P.O. Box 790   McAllen, Texas 79505-0790
call at 956-682-2871 or Email

Table of Contents:

Introduction

Organizing and hosting a nature festival, if done properly, is a huge undertaking. It is tiring and can be almost overwhelming. But it is also fun and incredibly satisfying. Making a difference in one’s community is what we all want to do, and if you can have an economic impact AND help the environmental conservation cause at the same time, it can be one of the most rewarding moments in a lifetime… and one of the most memorable.

A festival can be an amazingly effective way of shaking up a community- of awakening it to the value- and potential of nature tourism. I know. I’ve seen it work more than once. A festival- if organized well and publicized effectively- can turn things around in your city, too.

This text will explain, step by step, how to organize and host a nature festival in your community. It will list necessary partnerships and steps for planning and organizing the event, as well as pitfalls to avoid. It will also offer tried and true techniques for organizing, for working with volunteers, and for getting community buy-in.

This system works. Many festivals throughout the nation have used this framework, customizing as they went, to host successful festivals. Your community can, too. This is a step-by-step instruction manual that can take the fear of the unknown out of the process and still leave you with plenty of opportunity for creativity to mold the process to fit your needs and your situation.

Let me also add that a festival can have unexpected long-term results for your community. Based in very large part to the success of the first festival to use this program, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas has seen an explosion of nature tourism product development and a marked turnaround in the perception of the value of the natural resources among the residents. Anyone who knew the Rio Grande Valley a dozen years ago and knows it today can attest to the vast difference of the awareness in the area of the value of the birds, land and other natural resources. Now there are seven annual wildlife-watching festivals, educational programs by many nature organizations, and habitat being preserved.

And it all started with one festival.

The Vital First Steps

Gathering your Core Volunteers

The first thing you must do, once you have determined that you do indeed want to proceed with the festival, is to assemble a group of people who may be interested in working on the project. Speak with someone involved with a nearby refuge or State Park, an environmental organization, a birding group, a well-known birder in the community. Ask for the names of a dozen or so people who may be willing to help. Come up with a few people you know who are good organizers and marketers. Include a couple of people who are community leaders, also. These people can be your community liaisons, or can suggest someone who might be good for that role.

You must have expert advice on birding sites and certain elements of the festival organization. Without it, you may come up with a lovely festival, but one that has no attractiveness to birders at all. Not every birder will be a good organizer, and not every organizer will know anything about birds. And organizers and birders may not be well placed in the community or know the ins and outs of marketing. It is imperative to have BIRDERS, ORGANIZERS, MARKETERS and COMMUNITY LIAISONS represented in your core group. All four elements are vital to the successful implementation of your festival.

Finding a Niche

Not all areas are naturals for a general birding festival. Some parts of the country are well known for migratory birds or a large number of indigenous species. Others have a specific species that frequents the region. Ascertain, with the assistance of a local birding authority or two, the most reasonable attraction your area has and play on that strength. Do not try to force a non-existent strength. Birders won’t fall for it.

Covering The Fundamentals

Pulling a festival together will take a lot of people. We’ve all seen events that had one person doing all the work. As capable a worker as that one person may be, an event cannot be as good as it would be with a dozen people really committed to it. So use the strengths and passions of other- from the beginning.

Start by calling your people together to discuss the fundamentals of the festival. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your area. What time of year is best? What elements should be included in the festival? What is the purpose (mission) of the festival? What is a realistic time frame to shoot for? Who is your target- advanced, intermediate or beginning birders? What other major regional or national events may conflict with your timing or your marketing focus?

Compiling The Festival Notebook

At this point, it is time to put together your Festival Notebook. The notebook is a compilation of all committee responsibilities, a listing of volunteers’ addresses and telephone numbers, the festival’s mission statement and goals, meeting minutes, and all collateral pieces and other information as it is gathered and developed. Each committee chair should have one. New information should be handed out regularly so that the Notebooks are always up to date. The table of contents may read something like this:

  1. Mission Statement and Goals
  2. Budget
  3. List of Volunteers and Staff
  4. Individual committee responsibilities, time lines and collateral pieces
  5. Meeting Minutes
  6. Notes

Selling The Concept To Your City, Board

Key Players

A vital first step is to garner the financial and emotional support of key individuals and organizations in your community. Any one person or group can institute a birding festival- with the support of the community. Sell key players in the community on the economic impact such a festival can have, and your battle is half won.

Selling the concept of a nature festival to your city’s chamber of commerce, convention and visitors’ bureau or top governmental leaders will be an easier task today than it was even three or four years ago. There is a wealth of information available that proves the significant economic benefit of nature festivals. With the growing interest throughout the continent in nature tourism, there are few people involved in the economic progress of an area who have not heard stories about successes in other communities from such events.

Sell the Economics

The key to garnering the vital support of your city, board, and others who will provide volunteers and critical resources, is selling them on the financial value of the project. This is of paramount importance! Sell them on the economic impact of the hundreds or thousands of tourists who will be pouring into your community. Sell them on short term and long term benefits.

Do your homework. Research the impact of nature tourism and birding in general. Gather information on other festivals. Talk to local national wildlife refuges, state parks, local conservation organizations, the state departments of commerce and parks and wildlife, your local tourism arm. Find the facts and present them in a concise and organized way to the decision-makers in your community. If you can have an ally or two in the group already poised to support you, all the better. Bring in an expert if it will help.

Be Prepared As strange as it may seem, the more bells and whistles in your presentation, the more seriously you are apt to be taken. Solicit Support from your City

After you have the support, or at least the approval, of some key vital partners, ask for what you need. Do you need a building in which to hold the festival? Ask for it! Usually you would need to speak to your mayor or city manager, who can approve the use of public buildings -hopefully, for free. After all, this project will be a tremendous benefit to your community: it will bring in money and positive publicity. You may also want to consider schools, private buildings, or refuges or parks.

Involve key community leaders for credibility and financial support. Find a local expert. Speak to leaders individually if necessary. Start with those already sensitive to the issues.

Vital Partnerships

Identifying Partners

Certain groups and individuals will be critical to the success of a festival. These will include a funding source or sources, an office support system and someone strong in marketing techniques. Begin with anyone you know or are aware of who is interested in nature. Ask for help and for contacts. Call a meeting of a number of these people, and solicit support. Then, ask questions about key government and business leaders to find some who are supportive of nature or conservation related topics. Solicit their support in speaking to those who you feel will be key to the success of the event.

If you are with a Chamber or CVB, find one or more key volunteers who will champion the idea among the others. Involve these people from the beginning so that they have a real proprietary interest in the project.

How to Sell Them on the Festival Idea

Selling the various businesses and groups on the viability of the festival will increase the credibility of the event from the beginning as well as offer possible funding sources.

What you want to do is to elicit their enthusiastic support.

The Importance of the Media

Communication with your Media

Perception is reality. If the local media reports that the festival is a good idea, and that it is a success, then that is what the public, sponsors and potential sponsors will believe.

The importance of a good working relationship with the local media cannot be over emphasized. If the newspaper, radio and television give attention to your event, it will not only receive invaluable exposure to potential attendees, but will also add to the credibility of the festival for potential sponsors and other potential partners. The local media can literally make or break you, so make believers of the editor, the reporters, the photographer, the various section editors, the program directors, on-air jocks, everyone you can. Newspapers like to have their stories picked up by other papers, so help them come up with “hooks,” or angles, which give the story a unique perspective and are therefore more likely to be circulated to other markets.

Media Conferences

A media conference can be a good way to announce the event to the public- but only if it is well organized. Here are some pointers:

Publicity

There are plenty of free ways to spread the word about your festival. With a little effort, you can uncover many opportunities in your community to tell people not only about the event, but why your organization is doing it in the first place.

The Festival

Structure

Decide on the main components you want to incorporate onto the event. They will probably include seminars and field trips. Decide on any other areas: a trade show, specialized workshops, children’s involvement, a dinner, any other special areas and events. Delegate one volunteer as chair of each area. Then think of other needs: publicity, technical support, registration, finance, volunteer coordination, hospitality.

Delegate! There will be myriad details. It is probably a good idea for the festival volunteer chair and the main staff contact to be kept fairly free of specific areas of responsibility, as many details will come up that will require a good deal of time, especially in the first year.

Starting Off On The Right Foot

Very important to the smooth running of an event of this size is the understanding from the beginning of the areas of responsibility of workers.

9 Main Points to Remember
  1. Decide on the elements of the festival.
  2. Develop a mission statement, goals, budget, timelines. Be realistic.
  3. Develop a logo and use it consistently.
  4. Decide on the target market.
  5. Decide on program format and fee structure.
  6. Appoint/elect an executive committee.
  7. Develop bylaws even if not incorporated.
  8. Appoint/elect a steering committee, all committee heads & other major positions.
  9. Decide on individual committees: seminars, trade show, registration, publicity, sponsorships, field trips, technical, education, planting, historian, hospitality, signage, communications, novelties, transportation, financial, volunteer.

7 (+1) Areas to Avoid

  1. A lack of communication can be devastating. Keep your primary volunteers and organizational partners aware of the progress of events.
  2. Biting off too much the first year can be disastrous. It is better to run a smooth small festival than to run a poorly managed large one. Run a test event or a very small festival the first year. You can always grow it the next year.
  3. Organizing the festival without experts in all four areas: a nature expert, an organizer, a community liaison and a marketer, will not work well. It may seem like a time saving idea, but it’s a bad one. Don’t do it.
  4. Don’t make promises you cannot keep. If you can’t do it, don’t promise it. There is no faster way to destroy the event’s credibility. Remember to aim for giving people more, not less, than they expect.
  5. A lack of professionalism can also inhibit the festival’s ability to attract competent volunteers and necessary sponsors and partners. Everyone wants to be a part of a winning event. Presenting sloppy or incomplete work will drive valuable players away.
  6. You may have what at first glance appears to be attractive offers to partner with other groups, events and organizations. Be wary. Sometimes the match is good; however, it is wise to look at the possible partnership from all angles before deciding to join forces. Sometimes goals cannot help but collide. We partnered with another group one time in incorporating a presentation into the festival. The presentation ran very long because one of their speakers was late, which threw off our entire schedule for the day, making the festival organizers look unprofessional.
  7. Don’t overlap with other major functions. Check other major birding events and city events for conflicts, which could affect the turnout or the ability of your city to handle your crowd. We need to be wary of certain times of the year when our hotels and airlines are full, for example. What you don’t want is to have a festival that people can’t get to or have no place to stay!
  8. Don’t forget to have fun!

Volunteers

Make the Planning Fun

Having a handful of dedicated volunteers is of paramount importance. It will not be possible to implement an event of this scope without volunteers who are willing to spend a good deal of time and effort dedicated to the festival.

Be Organized

The volunteers will be very uncomfortable if they feel the people in charge haven’t sufficiently covered all bases enough to really have a handle on how the big picture should look. That is not to say that you need to have come to decisions on everything. But if you can offer some forethought to a situation as it is being discussed, astutely judging possible ramifications of a decision or action, the group will be able to make more informed decisions and will certainly be more comfortable.

Don’t take all decisions to the group. Especially in the first year, make the basic decisions yourself, with the chairman, or with the executive committee. Having every single decision made by a committee can also slow down progress to a standstill. And too many decisions can be overwhelming to the volunteers who, after all, are also novices at planning a birding festival. The Importance Of Bonding

Bonding with the group is very important. It will increase the volunteers’ desire to work harder, and will definitely make the project more enjoyable for all. Consider beginning with a birding trip to familiarize the non-birders with what it’s all about. It will be educational (remember, not all of your volunteers will be birders), probably a lot of fun, and an important bonding opportunity.

You may also want to try “dry runs” of some of the field trips you will offer, depending on the group’s comfort level with the different destinations. This is another opportunity for bonding.

Finding The Best Volunteers Keeping The Volunteers And Other Partners Once You’ve Got Them

In the corporate world, it is a well-known fact that it costs less to maintain a worker than it does to train a new one. The same could be said of volunteers and paid workers. And though you may not be talking about maintenance costs in the traditional sense, there certainly is a time cost in training a new person. There is also a loss of history, of course, when a volunteer or worker leaves. And you of course will want to keep sponsors happy. So it makes sense to try to hold onto good people when you have them. Here are some ideas:

Money- How To Get It

The festival will need money- maybe a lot of it. Unless your organization has very deep pockets, and is willing to dig into them, it will likely be up to the steering committee to find the funding.

  1. Corporate sponsors are a great resource. Look to businesses that are community-minded, or ones that are trying to improve their images. Environmental projects are often very popular.
  2. The trade show, should you decide to include one, should make money. Charge enough to cover your costs and then some- but don’t get greedy or you may scare off some attractive exhibitors. The exhibitors’ fees can always be raised in subsequent years. It can damage the credibility of the event, however, to decrease the fees.
  3. Look for in-kind sponsorships. The festival will need printing; speaker travel, meals and accommodations; rental equipment; publicity; graphic design; a location; what else? The festival will have publicity value. Use it to your advantage.
  4. Registrations can also, of course, be a revenue source. Be careful to budget conservatively. Since registrations will be received after most of the funds have been spent or committed, it is dangerous to depend on inflated or even aggressive numbers, especially the first year. However, people are willing to pay for a quality experience, so after you have proven yourself, you’ll find that the market may be able to bear a price increase.
  5. Consider grants as an option also. Large foundations and corporations often have seed money for programs that encourage environmental awareness. This is a time-consuming process, so take into consideration that if a funding source is located, it may be months before the funds are actually received. There is also a considerable amount of paperwork involved, and significant documentation required for grant consideration.
  6. Other income producing ideas could include auctions, special events during the festival such as a dinner, or even events outside the festival intended specifically as financial support events.

The Education Issue

The attraction of involving children in the festival is a no-brainer. Capture their interest at an early age, and you have the opportunity to make a difference that will last for generations to come.

Our various festivals have involved children in many ways. One has sponsored very popular art and essay contests before the event , with winners presented with awards during the festival. Another spun off a full-blown event just for schoolchildren where we bus in 4,500 elementary students in two days to participate in live animal presentations, animal displays, arts and crafts and other nature activities held under tents in a city park. High school students are also involved, as volunteers to assist with the younger children.

PLANT!

If a city wants to attract birders, there have to be birds. There are no birds without habitat. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to encourage the preservation and enhancement of native habitat. We have seen this as a major long-term goal, so created a planting committee along with all the others. If resource preservation is one of your goals, also, I highly recommend this committee to you as well.

Winning With Public Relations

You can’t have a successful event without making sure your community and government leaders are a part of the picture. Even if their support is minimal the first year- as it well may be until the festival has proven itself- give them the opportunity to be a part of it.

After The Festival - You’re Not Finished Yet!

After the festival is over, your work is not quite finished. There are follow-ups that are every bit as important as the details you so carefully worked on before the event.

Timelines

These timelines, customized for individual communities, have been used successfully by festival all over the country. I strongly advise actively using them. Simply having them in your notebook won’t help. Consider putting each committee on the agenda for every meeting, and going down each timeline’s list of activities each meeting. If any committee needs assistance, it will then be evident before panic time. (Knowing that each person will be held accountable will also encourage deadlines to be met.)

1. Executive Committee:

1 year before: 9 months: 3 months 1 month: Collaterals:

2. Seminars:

12 months: 9 months: 6 months: 3 months: 1 month: 1 week: After: Collaterals:

3. Trade shows:

12 months: 9 months: 3 months: 1 month: Ongoing: During: Collaterals: Tips:

4. Field Trips:

12 months: 6 months: 1 month: Day before: After: Collaterals:

5. Registration:

9 months: 3-6 months: Ongoing: During: Collaterals:

6. Novelties

12 months: 10 months: During: Tip: Collaterals:

7. Publicity

8 months: 6 months: 3 months: 1 week: Ongoing: Collaterals: Tips:

8. Volunteers:

This committee is responsible for procuring and organizing all the volunteers needed during the actual event. Depending on the size of the festival, this could be as many as hundreds of people.

4 months: 1 month: 1 week: During: Tip: Collaterals:

9. Transportation:

12 months: 3 months: 1 month: 1 week: During: Tips:

10. Hospitality

This committee is responsible for making attendees feel comfortable, and for disbursing information as a benefit to sponsors, partners, etc.

4 months: 1 month: 1 week: Ongoing: During: Collaterals: Tips:

11. Communications

10 months: 2 months: Collaterals:

12. Signage:

1 month: During:

13. Sponsorships

11 months: 1 month: Ongoing: During: After: Collaterals: Tip:

14. Technical

This committee is responsible for all audio/visual and other equipment (podiums, tables, easels, etc.) necessary during the festival, including procurement of 2-way radios and cellular phones, telephone lines for headquarters, etc.

4 months: 1 week: During: Tips:

15. Education

12 months: 1 week: During: After: Collaterals:

16. Planting

6 months: Ongoing:

17. Historian

1 month: During: Tips:

18. City Signage

9 months: 6 months: 2 months: Day before: After: Tip:

19. VIP

3 months: 1 month: 1 week: Day before: During:

How The Pieces Fit Together

Emcee Staff Chairman

It will be up to the chairman to guide the project and keep all the volunteers happy.

Treasurer

The treasurer will obviously play a vital role in the festival. Make sure the person chosen to be in charge of the finances is above reproach and very well organized.

Executive Committee Headquarters Layout could include:

A Special Note To Festival Organizers

Because of loose ends, you may not feel that you can afford to take the day after the festival off to rest. You will need rest, to be sure; however, it is most likely to be the second day following the festival when your body cries for sleep the loudest. That adrenaline will still be pumping pretty hard the day after. Why not plan on working through the day immediately following the festival- to accept all the congratulations you will heartily deserve, as well as to finish up those last details? Take the second day off- and the third, if you can swing it! After all, you probably will have worked several very long days. You’ll deserve it!

Resources

There are several resources available for festival organizers.
Moving from the general to the specific, here are some:

IFEA: International Festivals and Events Association. www.ifea.org.

Watchable Wildlife Annual Conference, held in the fall. www.watchablewildlife.org.

USFWS training: US Fish and Wildlife Services offers a 3 ½ day class, “Developing Festivals and Special Events,” about every year and a half. Instructed by Betsy Wiersma, Nancy Millar and Laura Jones. www.fws.gov.

Nature Festivals of America- A new organization devoted to assisting nature festivals. Naturefestivals@hotmail.com.

State organizations- In Texas, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas A&M University and Texas Nature Tourism Council all offer networking and resource assistance to festivals. Many states have similar organizations and departments.

Nancy Millar is available for consultation. Nmillar@mcallencvb.com.


Nancy Millar   E Mail
956-682-2871   www.mcallencvb.com



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