The organizers of the Boots and Hearts country music festival were facing an enviable problem: their product was too popular. The annual camping concert event had been held at MoSport Speedway for three years, but could only sell 30,000 tickets per day of the festival because of capacity restrictions.

So Boots and Hearts bought a home, purchasing the Burl’s Creek Event Grounds in Oro-Medonte, Ont. Burl’s Creek is a multi-use facility, which in addition to concerts and other large happenings will also host “small events like farmers’ markets, soccer leagues, high school groups, pow wows, family reunions, and weddings,” according to Vice-President of Venue Operations and Business Development Ryan Howes. But the venue’s main events are the new WayHome Music & Arts festival on July 24–26 and the expanded Boots and Hearts on August 6–9.

Howes has plenty of experience in the music business, having begun his career at a very young age at the Molson Park festival career in Barrie. He’s also worked for promoter Live Nation Canada, and managed major facilities like Echo Beach and the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre.

Festival venues are a seasonal business, with months of preparations required to pull off a single three-day event. Here’s how the 700-acre Burl’s Creek is building a viable business.

Vertically integrate

Capacity issues may have forced Boots and Hearts out of it’s last venue, but there’s no danger of that happening here. “There’s very few pieces of land like Burl’s Creek that exist in Ontario, so the owner of Boots and Hearts made a good offer and purchased it,” says Howes, who was brought on after the venue acquisition.

As with many other businesses, location is crucial. “A lot of people think big and think they can go out and buy 300 acres somewhere and set up shop and sell a lot of tickets,” Howes suggests. But without access to the music-loving Toronto market, Burl’s Creek would have a hard time selling tickets for one big-budget festival, let alone two.

To ensure the site can accommodate it’s users, the business also purchased an additional 350 acres of neighbouring property. “We’re currently in the process of re-zoning and re-developing the lands,” explains Howes. “Basically 80% of the grounds are under construction and they have been since late October, so it’s been a huge undertaking.”

Get the community on board

Not everyone is thrilled at the idea of living near a festival site, and Howes says noise and traffic are the chief concerns raised. “There’s ways you can be a fly-by-night promoter, where you just set up shop, make a whack of money, and then you leave town,” he notes. “Or you can do it the proper way.”

The proper way for Burl’s Creek involves working with sound engineers to position speakers and the PA system appropriately and with bylaw enforcement teams to ensure sound levels meet regulations. The venue also works with big-event traffic experts to manage the influx of attendee vehicles. “Congestion is an issue in these small townships,” Howes admits. “They have farm roads, which were never built to handle 40,000–50,000 people and 12,000–15,000 cars coming in and out in a short amount of time.”

Recruit locally

When a big festival comes to a small town, the population of the area triples or quadruples overnight. Putting up temporary infrastructure to accommodate the influx and serve attendees takes a lot of planning, and a lot of people.  “When you do these massive festivals for 40,000–60,000 people, you’re building small cities within these very small townships,” Howes says.

The venue has 30–40 full-time staffers, including contractors, who work year-round. The actual festivals themselves cause the workforce to grow by an additional 350–400 jobs. “We’d be hiring [in the] Oro-Medonte, Orillia, Barrie areas; everyone from college students to high school students to retired residents of the area,” Howes says. “In some of those small communities, those paycheques at a certain period in the summer seasons go a long way.”

Hone your business model

Just because you’ve got people coming through the turnstiles doesn’t mean your event is profitable. “The majority of your ticket sales money is going to the actual artist and the guarantees that you’re paying them,” Howes says. “How you make money during festivals and even during concerts is through bar sales and sponsorship.”

Finding enough sponsorship to make a festival viable is tricky, because very few brands have the correct combination of resources and audience alignment to justify spending on a music event. “Every festival wants top the last festival that played out,” Howes says. “It’s very competitive trying to lock in those dollars, because the pool of sponsors that are available for big-ticket events like that is very small.”

The standard margin for the industry is something like 4% according to Howes, which means keeping a very close eye on budgets. “It’s very costly to build staging and festival sites—those costs can get out of control very easily if you’re not tracking your budgets,” he says. The goal is to grow revenues and attendee count over the years, but keep costs as close to year-one expenditures as possible.

To hear more about running a huge event like WayHome or Boots and Hearts, listen to this week’s BusinessCast by clicking the button above or download by clicking on the iTunes logo below:

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