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Festival or Event Planning Guide

How to Organize a Birding or Nature Festival

Nancy S. Millar   See more about Nancy Millar

Timelines for your Festival

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.)
  • Work out individual timelines for each committee. Begin as early as possible, as many details need to be set with significant lead-time. A year out is not too much lead-time.
  • Organize steering committee meetings and executive committee meetings comprised of the volunteer chair, financial committee chair, staff, and a small number of other critical volunteers. (Small is the critical word here. 5-8 is a good area to aim for.) Be sure to include at least one real birder in this group.
  • Come to a consensus on major organizational points: the mission, dates and location of the event, most important aspects to cover. Then 
  • Empower individual committee heads. Allow them the flexibility to make decisions in their areas of responsibility.
  • Make it clear to all volunteers that in any decision, they must defer to the executive committee. Often a seemingly small decision can have large repercussions that a volunteer involved with only one facet of the festival could not imagine. Only someone with a more comprehensive view has the vantage point to understand and anticipate how one decision could affect another area of the festival.

1. Executive Committee:

1 year before:
  • Decide on the date and location of the festival. Negotiate for building, maintenance, security, technical assistance, etc. Will there be parking concerns?
  • Decide the targeted number of attendees, and how best to reach them.
9 months:
  • Make all advertising expenditure and layout decisions.
3 months
  • Decide on policy concerning speakers selling and autographing their works.
  • Appoint someone to be festival liaison with any other organizations or events that will play a significant part in your festival.
1 month:
  • Buy insurance.
  • Develop attendee evaluation form.
  • Copies of advertising
  • Copies of contracts
  • Evaluation form
  • Fee structure spreadsheets

2. Seminars:

12 months:
  • Decide on format, list of preferred speakers/ subjects.
  • Contact speakers with request. Tell them specifically what they will receive: honorarium, expenses, free admittance to festival, etc. Tell them what they won’t: accommodations past the festival dates, etc. I was once charged for a limo ride for a speaker from his home to the airport because I wasn’t specific enough about what we would and would not cover!
  • Decide whether transportation, accommodation, other offers will include spouse/significant other.
9 months:
  • Follow up with written agreement (may be in the form of a letter) so there are no misunderstandings. Request biographical information, list of audio/visual equipment necessary. Give them a deadline. For some reason, getting this information has always seemed to be a struggle, so give yourself plenty of time here.
  • Develop forms for technical, communications, publicity and signage committees to communicate information they will require.
  • Work with speakers to plan transportation schedule. Develop calendar of their arrivals, any transportation needs, lodging, meal schedule, any special requests.
6 months:
  • Make speaker transportation plans.
3 months:
  • Develop an agenda for providing meals for speakers. Supply transportation.
  • Plan to pick them up at the airport if necessary.
  • Plan for accommodations.
  • Have a backup speaker or two on call for emergencies.
  • Deliver tickets and transportation details to speakers.
1 month:
  • Verify all arrangements with speakers.
  • Develop evaluation form for seminar speakers.
1 week:
  • Order and deliver welcome baskets to their hotel rooms prior to their arrivals.
  • Send thank you’s
  • Develop evaluation form.
  • Letter to speakers
  • Technical requirements
  • Biographical information form
  • Meal itinerary
  • Form for tracking receipt of each stage of contact: contract delivery and receipt, transportation information, biographical information, hotel/transportation assignments, etc.
  • Evaluation form to improve following year’s seminars

3. Trade shows:

12 months:
  • Contract with pipes and drapes company. Decide if they will provide drayage.
  • Develop exhibitor invitation to exhibit.
  • Decide on rules, registration fees, hours, number of people allowed at booth, security procedures.
  • Plan layout of booths. Take into account electricity requirements.
  • Develop list of businesses to invite to exhibit.
9 months:
  • Distribute invitation to exhibit.
3 months:
  • Send all necessary followup information to vendors: hotel information, and setup and other details they will require.
1 month:
  • Develop evaluation form.
  • Monitor registrations; make individual contacts if necessary.
  • Return confirmation of receipt of form and check.
  • Have a volunteer designated as point person for signing up exhibitors and answering questions.
  • Have a volunteer designated as technical assistance while booths are being set up and dismantled.
  • Provide evaluation forms for exhibitors to improve the following year’s show and to begin the following year’s list of interested participants.
  • Invitation to exhibit
  • Trade show rules and regulations
  • Trade show layout
  • Booth registration tracking
  • Evaluation form
  • Keep trade show pure. Make decisions and stick with them with regard to parameters (for instance, non-consumptive nature items only).
  • Decide on cost of booths. Keep it underpriced the first year until the festival proves itself. Then, if desirable, you can raise the costs slowly over the next few years.
  • Consider separate pricing for profit and non-profit businesses and organizations. Consider tiered pricing for prime and less desirable booth locations.

4. Field Trips:

12 months:
  • Decide on venues. Work out arrangements with venues’ staff on costs, timing, bus parking, etc.
  • Decide on maximum number of people that venues can accommodate.
6 months:
  • Find credible field trip leaders. Make sure there are enough and that all are assigned.
  • Set up payment system. Plan meals, lodging schedules for leaders. As with seminar speakers, provide all instructions in writing. Make sure someone understands the needs of the leaders as well as participants in planning the venues and actual trips.
1 month:
  • Confirm details with leaders.
  • Procure insect repellant, water, lunches (if necessary), bathroom tissue, paper towels, “reserved” seat signs for leaders on buses, sunscreen.
  • Provide leaders and bus drivers with maps of where they are going. Scout areas for birds beforehand if necessary.
  • Develop evaluation form for leaders.
  • Create maps to sites for drivers.
Day before:
  • Give maps to bus drivers. Try to have same drivers assigned to same venues each day. If that is not possible, have extra maps for every day.
  • Hold leader orientation meeting night before first trip so all leaders are familiar with basics.
  • Collect remaining supplies and store.
  • Pay leaders.
  • Hand out evaluation forms to leaders to improve following year’s trips.
  • Evaluation forms
  • Tracking form (similar to speakers’) for all necessary information
  • Maps
  • Leader instructions

5. Registration:

9 months:
  • Study forms of other festivals (nature or not) to get format ideas. Make it as simple as possible. It gets confusing fast. Have some people not involved in the festival organization process look at your form to see if it is clear. It may be to you who know what is happening, but may not be to others.
  • Proof the form.
  • Proof the form again.
  • Decide on fee structure: individual events, inclusive ticket, trips separate?
  • Give deadline for registration and for refunds. There will be lots of calls requesting more information or clarifying info in the registration form.
3-6 months:
  • Mail out registration information.
  • Track all forms as they are received. Good tracking is vital. Have systems set up for tracking funds received. Keep track of seats for seminars, field trips as they are sold. Never oversell!
  • If possible, put together packets as they are received. Have a system so forms are easily accessible so that when people call to cancel or change their tickets, they can be efficiently handled.
  • Decide what else will be allowed to go into packets: evaluation forms, special information, another schedule of events, necessary reminders about “housekeeping” details, etc.
  • Have registration packets available for pickup at a specific date at a specific location. Try not to overwhelm chamber/convention and visitors’ bureau staff. Have volunteers come in to help if necessary. (I recommend not mailing tickets. They can be too easily lost in the mail or after received, and then keeping up with tightly controlled maximums is a nightmare.)
  • Tickets
  • Registration tracking system
  • All information which will be included in packets
  • Registration packet envelopes

6. Novelties

12 months:
  • Decide on novelties to be sold by the festival as a fundraiser: T-shirts, caps, patches, pins, plastic bottles, festival checklists, books, etc.
  • Select an artist and bird. Negotiate with artist on use of artwork. Invite him/her to attend to autograph and/or sell items.
10 months:
  • Order items and decide on selling price.
  • Sell at event. Keep tight inventory control.
  • Decide on comp policy. Will you give shirts to sponsors? All volunteers? Just committee members?
  • We create special “committee shirts” to give or sell at cost to committee members. This protects our supply of t-shirts and also both acknowledges committee members and makes them easy to identify by attendees.
  • Inventory forms
  • Financial forms
  • Receipts

7. Publicity

8 months:
  • Develop killer media list locally, nationally, and internationally if appropriate.
  • Set up calendar of media releases announcing festival, discussing specific aspects of festival. Consider: economic impact, specific speakers, VIP’s expected to attend, children’s involvement, volunteers, planting aspect, city gearing up, bio on leading volunteer, info on specific bird(s) to be highlighted, info on birding or how to bird, impact on local environmental organizations.
  • Consider developing a card for attendees to drop at businesses they patronize. This will publicize the economic impact they are making in a very tangible way for businesspeople.
6 months:
  • Make sure birding organizations, nature organizations, birding publications, tourism organizations are all on the publicity list. Contact them and ask them how they can help you get the word out. Send them a schedule of events.
3 months:
  • Plan a media conference to announce the festival.
  • Give the newspaper a list of story ideas for them to pursue before and during the festival.
  • Contact local media for specific coverage.
  • Offer yourself and other committee members as a speaker for local civic group programs. More than one program can be offered, depending on the areas of expertise of those who would be speaking. Topic ideas could include economic impact of the festival and of nature tourism in general; birds of the area; planting habitat for attracting birds; the children’s program and its potential impact on the area’s youth, to name a few.
  • Ask your city and state to pass resolutions commending the organization of the festival, proclaiming the day “Festival day,” etc.
1 week:
  • Prepare media kits to give during or before the festival, as requested. Be prepared to give numerous interviews before and during the event. The publicity contact should be comfortable before a camera.
  • Keep a scrapbook of all publicity received.
  • Media releases
  • Media kits
  • List of publicity appointments
  • Each time anyone is contacted, always mention economic benefit and always give them a name and number to contact for more information.
  • For committee members who will be giving interviews, supply a “cheat sheet” with information you want mentioned: economic impact, special speakers, dates and location, etc.
  • In the media kits, do put media releases, registration information, listing of events, speaker and leader biographical information, list of committee members and sponsors. Do not put in samples of other media exposure the festival has received. Media representatives don’t like the idea of copying others.

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:
  • Work with all committee heads to determine the number of volunteers each will require. Work out a schedule of shifts.
  • Begin searching for volunteers and get commitments and telephone numbers.
1 month:
  • Develop evaluation form.
  • Reconfirm with volunteers; apprise them of orientation.
1 week:
  • Hold an orientation (or2) for volunteers, providing them with nametags, rules, assignments, verifying their shift(s), introducing them to executive committee chairs to whom they can turn with questions. Make sure they are all comfortable with what they will be doing, when they are expected to do it.
  • Invite them the survivors’ party and thank them in advance for their help.
  • Act as main contact for volunteers. Be sure to have a specific place designated as volunteer check-in headquarters for last-minute instructions.
  • Provide a rest area for volunteers.
  • Try to commit to as close to the number of volunteers as you think you will need. You obviously don’t want to run short of necessary workers, but you also don’t want people standing around with nothing to do. Under-using volunteers can ruin chances for getting help in subsequent years.
  • Volunteer list and form
  • Rules
  • Hours log (important for future grant applications)
  • Evaluation form

9. Transportation:

12 months:
  • Work with executive, field trip and hospitality committees to decide the number and size of vehicles necessary for field trips, speaker transportation, etc.
  • Contract for buses and any other transportation needs.
3 months:
  • Verify vehicles.
1 month:
  • Plan a bus loading/unloading organization plan. This may be more difficult than it sounds, especially if buses leave before daybreak, and/or if several buses leave at the same time for various destinations. Take safety and parking issues into serious consideration.
1 week:
  • Procure ice chests.
  • Find source for ice.
  • Procure flashlights and reflective vests, if necessary
  • Alert police to the location and time of the bus boardings
  • Oversee timely loading and unloading of buses. Make sure that the water, cups and other equipment is on board each bus.
  • Depending on the number of buses you have going out at the same time, this can be a very, very big job. Having bus departures organized poorly can be dangerous to attendees. It is often dark, and having people running around between buses is not a good plan. So be sure to give this one plenty of thought. One idea is to keep buses off site at a “staging area” until they are needed. For example, if you have more than one bus going to Location A, and another bus going to Location B at the same time or within a half hour of the A bus, keep the second Location A bus off site unfil the first one has left, then radio the second to come in to pick up the rest of the Location A group.

10. Hospitality

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

4 months:
  • Send out letters inviting selected businesses to display information (coupons, fliers, menus, etc.) on a hospitality table.
1 month:
  • Study physical location beforehand and recommend any safety precautions to be taken to executive committee.
  • Provide hotel front desk clerks with information on the festival.
1 week:
  • Contact taxi companies and car rental agencies to advise that there may be a large number of people requiring their services.
  • Find a doctor and dentist willing to be on call during the festival for out-of-town attendees.
  • Gather items to be displayed on the hospitality table.
  • Display names and numbers of doctor and dentist who have agreed to be on call.
  • Display any pertinent information attendees may need: taxi company numbers, names of restaurants open early to accommodate field trip participants, etc.
  • Brief hotel workers and provide events schedules.
  • Letter to hospitality table potential participants
  • The idea of offering a table for community involvement is especially attractive to a member Chamber of Commerce or CVB.
  • When getting information to hotels, ask your contacts how to get the information to the proper people most effectively. It will be the front desk clerks who will need the information, not the sales staff.

11. Communications

10 months:
  • Develop and distribute a newsletter several months before the festival to whet the appetite of interested persons you have identified.
2 months:
  • Design and distribute publicity posters.
  • Develop internal signage for the festival.
  • Consider any exposure available to you (library or school displays, for instance).
  • Posters
  • Newsletter
  • List of contacts at libraries, schools, etc.

12. Signage:

1 month:
  • Develop posters for individual seminars and presentations.
  • Develop sponsorship signage.
  • Develop any special signage- concessions area, hospitality table, novelty sales signs, etc.
  • Prepare slides to use before seminars thanking individual sponsors. Deliver to technical chair.
  • Oversee all signage updates.

13. Sponsorships

11 months:
  • Develop sponsorship package: include mission statement and goals, anticipated economic impact information, program details, any publicity, resolutions, letters of support, list of sponsors already committed, list of sponsorship levels and what they receive.
  • Contact potential sponsors and procure commitments
1 month:
  • Invite to any VIP events
  • Track receipts of funds; re-invoice as necesssary
  • Organize receipt of any gifts (T-shirts, posters, etc.)
  • Send thank you notes
  • Plan and execute any public thank-yours, newspaper ad, etc.
  • Sponsorship package
  • Make your sponsorship package as professional in presentation as possible. Personalize each one with the name of the potential donor and business name.
  • Set appointments and visit potential sponsors. My experience has been that two people- one community liaison and one birding specialist- make the most effective sponsorship team.

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:
  • Work with seminar committee to ascertain needs of speakers.
  • Begin procuring and/or reserving necessary equipment.
1 week:
  • Reconfirm that all equipment will be available as promised.
  • Gather equipment.
  • Work with venue staff to prepare equipment
  • Assist speakers as necessary with equipment
  • This committee should be very responsible and able to spend long hours at the festival during the presentations, running the slide projectors and any other necessary equipment. It would be a good idea to have at least one helper for the chair so that they can divide duties. If the festival is to be held in more than one building, this person would obviously need extra assistance.
  • Plan on the worst case scenario. Have extra projector bulbs, extra markers, extra everything.

15. Education

12 months:
  • Decide on what kind of involvement you hope for from children. Decide on age parameters.
  • Consider developing a children’s program during the festival for elementary-aged children. Consider including games, songs, crafts, planting a tree, feeding birds, anything kids with short attention spans would enjoy. Keep ages fairly uniform or you will either bore the older kids or the younger ones. Invite special guests with experience working with the various age groups. Decide if you will include a meal.
  • Consider developing a program before the festival geared to older students. Ideas could include native planting on school property, volunteering for cleanup or other planting around town, art, essay, sculpture, photography competitions, creative writing. Award winners in various categories during festival. Again, involve a teacher who knows how to work the school system. This is the best way to get to the greatest number of children.
1 week:
  • Hold judging for competitions.
  • Award each participant a certificate. Award ribbons, trophies, other donated awards (nature organization memberships, binoculars, local field trips, etc.).
  • Have artwork displayed. Have written entries published in local newspaper or other environmental newsletter or publication.
  • Award winners at festival. Have their picture taken for the newspaper. Contact their schools so the schools can also recognize the students.
  • Thank judges
  • Awards
  • Participation certificates
  • Judging forms
  • Individual program agenda

16. Planting

6 months:
  • Develop a planting guide that lists trees, shrubs, flowers and groundcover that is attractive to indigenous birds. This is excellent for establishing the credibility of the festival and positioning it as a leader in environmental concerns.
  • Develop a list of individuals and organizations that can be of assistance to people interested in doing native planting.
  • Encourage individuals, businesses (start with sponsors), city, schools to plant native habitat. Arrange media coverage (with representation for the festival) for any plantings.

17. Historian

1 month:
  • Assign photographers to field trips, seminars, trade show, general.
  • Sell duplicate photos as a moneymaker.
  • Collect all publicity generated by the festival.
  • Documentation can help in soliciting sponsors and in providing publicity photos, so consider taking some photos and some slides.
  • Keep all festival information on the Internet updated. Pull off any related entries daily and post them, along with other newspaper or other publicity generated before and during the event.

18. City Signage

9 months:
  • Decide before the festival where directional signage needs to be displayed.
  • Procure necessary permission from property owners.
6 months:
  • Procure permission from the city to hang banners at areas of high traffic. Have banners made. Again, use as few words as possible, possibly just the name of the festival and dates.
  • Have banners made welcoming birders for the entrance to the festival.
2 months:
  • Construct signs. They should be large and brightly colored, with few words. Simple is better.
Day before:
  • Erect signs the day before the festival.
  • Remove and store signs immediately following the festival.
  • When creating the signs, remember to make the letters thick as well as tall. Think of the most effective billboards you’ve seen: they contain very few words, and the words are large. There’s a reason for both.

19. VIP

3 months:
  • Select restaurants for meals for visiting speakers and guides
  • Set menu for VIP Room
1 month:
  • Make reservations at restaurants for meals
  • Prepare schedule for welcoming VIP’s as they arrive
1 week:
  • Prepare welcome baskets for VIP’s
Day before:
  • Deliver welcome baskets to hotels
  • Reconfirm with restaurants
  • Purchase supplies for VIP Room; set up room. Include information on telephone numbers of key contacts, schedule of events; any special information
  • Host VIP meals
  • Be on site as necessary in VIP Room to keep it well stocked and assist VIP’s

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