By Yasmin Radbod
Vegans love to eat vegan, talk about being vegan, buy vegan products, and be jolly with other vegans. And what better way to accomplish all those goals than to have a vegetarian festival in your community? We have all heard about vegetarian festivals around the nation: DC VegFest, Veggie Fest Chicago, Baltimore VegFest, Central Florida Veg Fest, Richmond Vegetarian Festival, World Vegetarian Festival in San Francisco, Indy Veg Fest, and so many others. Last year The Humane League of Maryland and UMBC Vegetarians (I am the President) created Baltimore VegFest, and it was quite a success. I had been to DC VegFest a couple of times, and always wanted to start a similar festival in Baltimore, so we did. Now that I have lived the tale I am here to tell you that with some dedicated, passionate vegetarians, some fundraising, and organization, you can start your own vegetarian festival, too. In my exploration of how to run these festivals I interviewed organizers of all the above festivals, and I came to many interesting conclusions about organizing the festival, finances, leadership, public relations, selecting vendors, special events, and choosing a location and date.
Always keep in mind that you do NOT have to run a festival alone. Of course you should have a group of people as passionate as you about the event, but co-sponsoring and co-organizing with other organizations can be highly effective, especially if you do not have the means, time, or ability to complete much of the work yourself. For Baltimore VegFest, UMBC Vegetarians (a student organization) co-created the festival with a nonprofit organization, The Humane League. This was a great balance of responsibilities because our student group was able to publicize to younger people in the area to come out, whereas The Humane League reached out to many other nonprofit organizations and vegan hubs in the area. Financially, it was a great set up as well. UMBC Vegetarians was able to request funding from UMBC’s Student Government Association (SGA). Most universities have a SGA which appropriates spending to registered student organizations. What this meant was location fees, set up, chairs and tables, food costs, and more, were all covered by UMBC. Other successful partnerships in creating festivals include Compassion Over Killing (COK) and the Vegetarian Society of DC (VSDC) who split responsibilities for DC VegFest.
If you think cosponsoring is not an option for your festival, and even if it is(!), make sure to have a committee or leadership team. No festival can succeed without clear direction. Jessica, one of the organizers of Indy Fest, says, “Our organizing committee fluctuates between 4-6 people each year. Typically one person keeps the event’s to-do list going and makes sure things are getting done on time. All committee members, even the main organizer, get their hands dirty and put time and effort into the planning by taking on a particular portion of the event, for example- raffle, volunteers, vendor care, supplies, etc.” One observation I have made about these festivals is that even if all the organizers of a festival have clear, designated roles, everyone must be willing to pick up the slack if need be and help out in areas that may not be their expertise. Brenda from the Richmond Vegetarian Festival states, “Christopher is our lead coordinator. He is extremely detail-oriented and ensures that everything runs smoothly from start to finish. Mike Ogilivie started the first iron chef-like competition at our event this year. He also does a phenomenal job at building new signage every year (think Tim Tooltime). Leslie is the master of organizational skills. She maintains our database and also corresponds with each and every vendor as contracts are received to make sure everything is in place and expectations are met. I do much of the PR. I reply to all incoming correspondence and arrange for our media interviews. I am also notorious for sending emails to folks around the country letting them know of our festival as well as other festivals that are going on around them. Eric Vrable is our newest volunteer. He helps Mike with website development and maintenance. Josie and Lauren organized the Kid’s Patch; Josie also coupled as the volunteer coordinator.” It is great to have a close knit group of organizers, such as what Brenda describes, because it makes everything run smoothly and efficiently. When delegating and choosing responsibilities for your committee members, make sure everyone enjoys what they are doing, including you!
Veggie Fest Chicago uses a great system of leadership organization, and the roles they assign everyone might be useful for you to use as well:
We have 9 team leaders:
Jonathan Kruger: Public Relations, Team Coordinator/Children’s program/signs/memorabilia/program guide/decorations/hotels
Mike Ribet: Vendor Relations/Demos/Food Court/Health Dept./Site Map/Vegetarian Challenge/Depot Manager/Purchasing
Phil Vedova: Clean up/Parking/Greening/Fire Dept./Police Dept./Security
Cathy Gallagher: Speakers/Registration/Greeters/First Aid
Tushar Mukwana: Financials/budgets/accounting/ticket sales
Jay Linksman: Legal/Compliance/communication
Babita Ribet: Volunteers/Vendor recruitment
Gaetan Charest: Infrastructure/Plumbing/Electrical/landscaping/Stage-sound/Audio Visuals
Jay Mooney: On site manager/sponsorship
Raising money, and then keeping that money organized, is no simple task. All of the vegetarian festivals I researched seek donors and sponsorships. It can be difficult first starting out to find sponsorships, but they do exist, and do not hesitate to ask around to local and national organizations. Sponsorships benefit all the parties involved: the sponsor gets plenty of free advertisement and the festival gets added revenue and publicity through the sponsor. Besides sponsors, fundraise! Fundraising can be easy and fun, especially if you have volunteers or friends who are willing to support the cause. Hold vegan bake sales, yard sales, etc. If you have a student group working with you, ask them to hold fundraising events on campus. If you are representing a nonprofit then hold potlucks, parties, poetry slams, or other lively events to raise money as well. Think about whether you want to charge people for attending your festival.
Also, when I say “donors” above, I am primarily referring to food. Many vegan or vegetarian food companies WANT to advertise their products, and vegetarian festivals are the perfect way for them to do so! Sometimes all it takes is visiting a website of a company, getting a contact, or even filling out a donation form they provide online. It is really worth it to have free samples available to people attending your festival. Everyone will be happier! At Baltimore VegFest, we had numerous companies donate food. We even had over ten boxes of vegan ice cream sandwiches shipped to us, for free. There are some clothing companies or online grocery stores which may be willing to donate stickers, pins, shirts, or the like, too. Once you have money for your festival estimate all your costs (food, renting a space, tables and chairs, publicity, sound equipment, guest speakers or other events, etc.) and begin to allot your money as needed. Cut down where you can, and assign someone the role of being in charge of food. For the Indy Fest, Jessica describes, “To keep track of our funds, we have set up a bank account under the group’s name. We have one treasurer currently who has signing privileges for the checking account. Most expenses are agreed upon by the group before they are made; however, small expenses that people make by picking up random needs are reimbursed as necessary.” This might work for you. Whatever you do, always know where your money is and how much you have!
Now you need to advertise for your event. Jon from Veggie Fest Chicago says, “We do a bit of everything but Internet marketing and social media is becoming our most effective tool. But we make up flyers, posters, radio and TV ads, articles in the papers, some display ads in key magazines, and word of mouth. We have a program called Friends of Veggie Fest which is a way for businesses to network with each other to help get the word out.” Dixie Mahy, the President of the San Francisco Vegetarian Society states, “At first we sent our Press Releases or flyers to newspapers and other media for free calendar listings. As we grew, we started placing paid ads in newspapers and magazines. Our flyers were simple but later we were able to pay for graphic artists to create eye appealing, professional looking post cards and posters. At our event, at first we just had one page description of speakers, vendors, etc. We now have a printed program with photos and bios of speakers, lists of vendors and organizations and paid ads from vendors to help pay for the printing.” This is a great strategy! If you have any friends or colleagues who design, ask them to help create a logo and flyer for your festival.
And who is going to vend at your festival? I personally think seeking vendors is one of the most enjoyable parts of running a festival because there are always such interesting and wonderful vegan businesses that deserve the spotlight! Furthermore, it is beautiful to know you are introducing non-vegans to so much vegan love! In searching for vendors, start local. If you have friends who make DIY items, ask them if they would be interested in selling their handicrafts at your festival. If you live in or nearby a big city, chances are there are restaurants close by which do offer vegan and vegetarian options. You do need to choose, however, if your festival is going to be completely vegan or only vegetarian. Some festivals encourage vegan food to be offered without making it mandatory. Also, choose whether you want all-vegan companies to vend, or if you want to allow companies that do sell non-vegan items to vend. Should you have Trader Joe’s there? What about Whole Foods? Make sure your team has reached a consensus about vending options. For example, Veggie Fest Chicago is organized by the nonprofit The Science of Spirituality. Their guidelines for vendors are as follows, “We select mostly vendors who have some value to the vegetarian way of life, healthy living, and good vegetarian food. But we do have vendors that are broad in scope – a small amount to round off the booths to make the festival more acceptable to all. The Science of Spirituality promotes the lacto vegetarian diet but at Veggie Fest we have all the different types of vegetarians: Raw, Vegan and Lacto-Vegetarian. But there is no meat, fish, fowl or eggs in any of our vendors.” Figure out what your mission is, what you support, and what you want others to be exposed to at your festival.
Most festivals feature special events in addition to vendors. Popular events include guest speakers, cooking demos, and live music. For Baltimore VegFest, a friend of mine who attends UMBC freestyled about veganism for the crowd. Being creative and finding artists who want to share their talent to vegetarians and non-vegetarians is the best way to find great acts. Erica Meier, the Executive Director of COK, and organizer of DC VegFest, describes, “It’s important to us that this event offer attendees a wide range of information about the many benefits and the ease of choosing plant-based foods – and one of the ways we can share all of this is through our speakers. Featured speakers have included best-selling authors, doctors, bodybuilders, chefs, a news anchor, professor, and a beauty queen—all of whom are vegetarian or vegan and discuss how a meat-free diet is better for our health, the planet and animals.” In 2011, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Wayne Pacelle, and Colleen Patrick-Goudreau will be speaking at DC VegFest. At the World Veg Festival, organizers create many interesting events: “We do different things each year depending on our volunteers and talent. For example, we have had three vegan fashion shows with the one last year coordinated by Karine Brighten who did a fantastic job renting a runway, spotlights, costumers, vegan clothing & accessories, vendors, etc… When we moved to our new facility, we were able to set aside in the courtyard a couple of tables for a children’s corner with books, coloring books, and other appropriate vegan activities in order to encourage families to attend and to teach children about animals and vegetarianism. A lot of activities depend on who is and what is available. As an added attraction, we have had yoga on the lawn outside our facility as we are in the Golden Gate Park and that seems to be very organic. Speed dating was suggested by one of our board members two years ago and it turned out to be quite successful.”
Lastly, you must chose a location and date for your festival. Brainstorm early! You do not want to miss out on your dream space. Figure out what regulations and prices exist for various locations, confer with your leadership, and reserve the space as early as possible. All types of different spaces have all types of benefits and negatives. For instance, in choosing an outdoor space (depending on the season), you risk bad weather hindering your festival. On the other hand, if it is outdoors, it is not as crowded as indoors, you do not have to worry about heat or air conditioning, and people can bring their companion animals. Steve, who organizes the Central Florida Veg Fest, states, “Keeping the location the same each year provides consistency for attendees and vendors, but it also makes the organizers’ jobs easier, because we don’t have to learn the details of a new park every year (i.e., learning where electricity and water are located, where the big puddles form during a rainstorm, etc).” Locating nearby bathrooms and plenty of trashcans is especially important in reserving a location as well. In picking a date, plan around other big events to ensure that people who attend yours! For Baltimore VegFest, we almost make the mistake of putting our festival on Earth Day last year. Instead, we moved the festival to a week after Earth Day to make sure we got a big crowd. If you know of a nearby festival going on the same season as yours, talk to their organizer and figure out a date that is will not interfere with their event.
I want to give you all some words of advice before I send you off! Here are some comments interviewees made that will surely help you in your endeavors:
- Want a veg fest in your city? Just get some people together and give it a try!! Take the first step and others will help, you’ll be surprised. And remember, it doesn’t have to be the biggest event ever. Growing your community and festival size is part of the fun!
- -Jessica, Indy Fest
Start planning early and get the word out. Every year organizing the event gets easier and easier as word of mouth travels. It’s important to get your sponsors and vendors committed early on (through a discounted fee) so that you have an idea of what your budget will look like.
Two years ago I sent emails to vegetarian societies across the country, in every state that had one, actually. I volunteered to pass along what we had learned to any group that was interested in beginning their own vegetarian festival in their respective city. In the past year we have had three different groups contact us about potentially starting festivals in the coming year. When we were just getting started the coordinator of the Charlottesville festival was very helpful in giving advice in getting us up and running. I wanted to pass along all that we have learned to anyone who is willing to undertake such a worthwhile commitment. I just updated a list of all the vegetarian festivals/expos in the country on my website: http://www.brendaveggie.com/Events.html. I hope that one day every state will have at least one festival.
- -Brenda, Richmond Vegetarian Festival
Since our event [World Veg Festival] has evolved over the years, it has been difficult for me to tell someone else how to start one. If I were to try to make it more concise, I would suggest the following:
- I think you might need a group of people already organized in order to draw from that group, a few dedicated people to be the Core Committee and divide up the duties – soliciting donations or vendors, flyers & publicity, treasurer, and finding speakers and demo presenters.
- You will also need some money to cover costs until you are able to get some revenue from the event. The amount of money needed would be determined by the cost of the venue, copies for flyers & mailings, although we do mostly e-mailing now, and cost of any speaker fees. If you don’t have any seed money, you will have to donate money and be reimbursed after the event that hopefully has made money.
- Find a suitable hall or venue that has reasonable rent and can accommodate tables for vendors and separate rooms for cooking demos and speakers. Assess your situation to see how much you need to charge at the door. More people will come if you can keep the door donation fairly low, especially if you are trying to get non-vegetarians to come.
- Assess your local scene for speakers and cooking demo presenters who will donate their time. It is nice to have someone well known as a main speaker who will do it for free especially if he or she has books or DVDs to sell. Some will ask for travel expenses. Add entertainment by vegan entertainers if you have the appropriate space.
- Solicit sponsors from local health food markets and other vendors.
- Publicity is very important. It is easier these days because of the internet. Compile addresses of newspapers, TV, radio, etc., for sending out PSA announcements and calendars by mail and e-mail. Get as much free publicity as you can. Later, you may want to do paid ads.
- It is helpful to have a website to promote the event.
- If you have more than one speaker or demo presenter, create a program to be handed out at the event.
- Start modest and then you can grow each year as you gain a reputation. You can add activities to your event depending on the talent.
- -Dixie, World Veg Festival
Best of luck, everyone! Questions? E-mail Yasmin at email@example.com.