Charging admission would hurt American Folk Festival

Posted Nov. 04, 2009, at 4:30 p.m.

Festivals are great celebrations of culture that can be powerful tourist attractions as well as opportunities for the local population to celebrate their own culture. Like the Common Ground Fair in Unity, the Blueberry Festival in Machias, the Lobster Festival in Rockland and other fairs and festivals in the state, the American Folk Festival celebrates Maine’s culture. Unlike these other festivals it brings cultures from around the world to Bangor for us to appreciate. And unlike these other festivals, the American Folk Festival is free for everyone to enjoy. It is a great gift to all Mainers and visitors. However, the “free” part of this gift may be in jeopardy. We argue, however, for careful consideration before abandoning the features that contributed to such a great experience.

The University of Maine System Center for Tourism Research and Outreach, or CenTRO, has conducted research at the American Folk Festival for the past two years. We share the community’s concern for maintaining the continuity of the festival expressed by an editorial and news stories in this paper. We were dismayed by 2009’s budget shortfall resulting from Saturday’s monsoon-like downpour. We have been equally concerned about one of the possible remedies being considered for closing the budget gap, imposing an admission fee.

Besides celebrating Maine’s culture, the American Folk Festival is an important part of the Bangor economy. In 2008, nearly $10 million was contributed to the local economy in its three-day run. While most attendees come from Maine, the festival draws visitors to Bangor from across the country. Over the years since the first National Folk Festival, a large loyal core of attendees has been generated. Thirty percent of visitors surveyed claimed to have attended every folk festival, while 78 percent reported having attended more than one. Ninety-five percent of all surveyed planned to return in 2009, a testament to the folk festival’s powerful experience.

CenTRO research has shown that free admission to the festival is one of the major reasons for attending. Rated an average 4.2 on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 representing very important), the lack of an admission fee is considered a very important feature of the event by festival patrons when deciding to attend. Patrons of the festival are as sensitive to the imposition of an admission fee as they would be to changes in the quality of the cultural experience (4.2), cleanliness of the festival grounds (4.4), the waterfront setting (4.5) and the quality of the music (4.5). In all fairness, this measurement alone does not directly reflect the potential reaction of festival patrons to an admission fee. It does signal a need for caution.

It seems that those advocating imposition of an admission fee may have failed to consider the implications of such a fee for the festival. Besides altering the quality of the experience, would instituting an admission fee threaten philanthropic donations? Would visitors continue to donate via the “bucket brigade”? Would corporate sponsors continue their generous support for the event? It seems likely that both would reconsider their generosity if this important feature is compromised.

The implementation of an admission fee is likely to increase festival costs at the current waterfront site, requiring the construction of fences and barricades to restrict entry to the festival grounds and may require organizers to hire security personnel to police the fence. Even that may not be sufficiently restrictive since the Railroad Stage can be seen and heard without entering the festival grounds. Increased costs would increase upward pressure on ticket prices. Moving to a more secure site is also worthy of caution. The site is also one of the most important features of the event.

Is an admission fee the only solution? Suppose the organizers permitted paid advertising on site. Suppose organizers permitted local resorts, restaurants and tourist attractions to promote their products for a fee. Would any of these options compromise the experience as much as charging admission? These alternatives deserve thoughtful consideration.

The entire report for the 2008 festival and a longer version of this column is available on our web site at http://www.umaine.edu/centro.

Harold Daniel is the director of the University of Maine System Center for Tourism Research and Outreach (CenTRO) and an associate professor of marketing at the University of Maine Business School.

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