By the numbers: What it takes to put on Richmond’s biggest festivals

We get an education on how much work it really takes to plan some of the city’s largest crowd drawers. The short answer: A lot.

Photo by: adamwilliams4405

As a child, I had something of an entrepreneurial spirit. If there was a buck–or even a nickel–to be made, I wanted in on it. One of my biggest ventures was a neighborhood-wide combination yard sale, lemonade stand, and kiddie craft fair. Unfortunately, my planning left something to be desired. By the time we had our first attendee hours into the programming, my best friend Leigh and I had already beat it to Barbie kingdom. These days, I leave the event planning to the folks with more grown-up attention spans.

So when RVANews asked me to get to the bottom of what it takes to put on a successful festival in Richmond, I knew I’d need to call in some help. Luckily, Stephen Lecky, Festival Manager for Venture Richmond, and Megan Schultz of Sports Backers (Venture Richmond’s partner for Dominion Riverrock) were kind enough to give me a primer on what their teams go through to put on some of the city’s biggest crowd drawers. In addition to summer staples like Friday Cheers and Dominion Riverrock, the team at Venture Richmond oversees the Second Street Festival, Easter on Parade, and Richmond Folk Festival, which brings around 200,000 visitors to Brown’s Island every October.

1. So, where do we get started?

Before the first note is played or the first canine launches, there’s some seriously impressive (and kind of easy to take for granted) groundwork that needs to be laid: signage, water, electricity, and lighting all need to be brought onto Brown’s Island. And that’s just the basic infrastructure that precedes the main work of bringing in tents and constructing stages. Stephen describes the task as “essentially setting up a mini-city for a weekend that can accommodate a few hundred thousand people.” You know, the kind of thing that most of us handle in our average work week.

With all this prep work to undertake, the crew is out on Brown’s Island marking tent sites and beginning to set up two weeks in advance of Richmond Folk Festival. For Dominion Riverrock, Sports Backers puts in 11 full days of set-up and break down to transform the space from tame city park into the sort of thing that must keep orthopedic surgeons awake at night.

Probably the most interesting thing I learned about the set-up for Riverrock from Megan, though, is the fact that they bring in over 15 dump truck loads of dirt onto what is, as far as I can tell, something already made of dirt. According to Megan, most of the dirt brought in actually gets put to use after the festival to build and improve on local trail assets like the bike skills park on Belle Isle. Cool, right? Right?!

2. OK, level with me. How much work is it really?

Your average Richmond Folk Festival involves bringing in more than 30 food vendors, 117 tents, 7 stages, 400 tables, and 5,000 chairs and is led by roughly 30 staff members and 1,500 volunteers (really, 1,500, I double checked with Stephen).

3. No, but how much work is it really?

For the Folk Festival, Stephen’s crew brings 3,500 feet of power cable alone to Brown’s Island. For some perspective, here are some other things 3,500 feet of power cable can do (although we really recommend against them):

  • Wrap around the perimeter of a football field more than three times
  • Provide you enough cordage to repel down the Empire State Building stacked on top of the Eiffel Tower, stacked on top of the Seattle Space Needle…with 500 feet to spare (weird visual?)
  • Act as lane dividers for two-and-half Olympic-sized swimming pools

3. What about…you know?

Yes, I know. Luckily the City of Richmond has developed this handy chart for calculating the number of port-a-johns needed per attendee, per hour of event.

Yes. You read that right. There’s a chart for that.


4. How far out does planning begin?

Programming for Richmond Folk Festival begins in December and is usually wrapped up by mid-May (you can check out the first batch of 2016 performers here). The planning process for Dominion Riverrock kicks off in early fall, with the team beginning to book bands around October. For Friday Cheers, the process actually starts a bit earlier. Stephen says the key to getting a great line-up for that is booking acts early, while they’re still within price range. Typically, they’re bringing acts on board for Friday Cheers in September, with most of the booking wrapped up by December.

In another sense, though, planning is a year-round activity. Following the Folk Festival or Riverrock, Stephen, Megan and their teams meet for a post-festival wrap-up and systematic review of the good, the bad, and the ugly, thus kicking off the planning process for next year’s event. That’s right, while you’re rubbing aloe your sunburn and trying to figure out where exactly you left your sunglasses, Stephen and Megan are already thinking about next year.

5. If I plan a festival all of my friends and I will just get to chill in the best spots, right?

Uh…sort of? While Stephen says that he does get to enjoy the festivals, he also spends a lot of his time there putting out fires…anything from blowing leaves off of the paths to fixing a backed up toilet.

I didn’t press him for any horror stories, but I have some ideas.

6. With so much going on, how do you even know if the festival was a success?

Apparently a lot of different ways. Attendance is one of them. So is the experience of the volunteers and performers. Drawing a representative sampling of the city in terms of age, race, and background is something the planners look for, as well as getting good exposure for their sponsors. From the perspective of one member of Stephen’s production staff, a job well done also means that all the crazy logistics going on behind the scenes are totally invisible to festival goers. Sounds about right.

Megan offered an interesting take on what makes Dominion Riverrock, in particular, a success. For her, “seeing the increased usage of the trails, more people in kayaks or on SUPs on a random day and just more people out being active as a result of the event is a huge indicator of [the festival’s] success.” She also believes that Riverrock has played a role in garnering national recognition for Richmond as a great place for outdoor lovers, including Outside Magazine’s designation of the city as Best River Town in 2012.

7. I feel bad for what I said earlier. How can I help?

Appreciate being able to attend a world-class event like Richmond Folk Festival in your backyard for no admission cost? (I’ll give you a minute) Then one of the biggest–and simplest–things you can do is make a $10, $20, or $100 (if you’re feeling flush) drop in the donation bucket. Really, if you’re not doing that you might also be someone who thinks tipping is optional or that trash picks itself up. I know you! You’re better than that!

You might also want to sign up to volunteer. According to Stephen, many of their volunteers have been with them since the festival’s inception, which is probably a pretty good indicator of a worthwhile volunteer experience.

8. Anything else you want to get off your chest?

Stephen was quick to tell me that amid all the labor and chaos that can go into a big festival, one thing that’s a constant is the great volunteers they get. “AMAZING. Seriously,” was how he put it. So give yourself a large, sweaty pat on the back, RVA.

At RVANews we think Stephen, Megan, and their crews are amazing. Seriously.

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Elizabeth Ferris

Elizabeth Ferris has not seen Game of Thrones. Really! Stop asking her!

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