When California Chrome galloped across the finish line at the Kentucky Derby, the whole world was watching what is known as the "fastest two minutes in sports." What few in the rest of the world know, but what the population of the Louisville region are not just aware of, but are eager participants in, was that the real fun ended the day before, outside of Churchill Downs.
The annual Kentucky Derby Festival, an extended, city-wide party that precedes the famed horse race, concludes on Friday. The Kentucky Derby takes place on Saturday. With increasing attendance, an expanded event roster that includes a vibrant carnival, this regional, multi-week extravaganza has come into its own as a Blue Grass State version of Mardi Gras.
"We had an excellent festival this year," said Mike Berry, President/CEO of the Kentucky Derby Festival. "In terms of exceeded expectations and we had strong attendance for all our events."
Two Distinct Crowds
In order to accommodate the Easter Holiday, the usually two-week Kentucky Derby Festival had to be extended by another week. There are about 70 events directly associated with the festival, ranging from balloon races to steam boat races. The most city-wide events are Thunder Over Louisville, one of the largest annual fireworks and air show display in North America; the Great Balloon Race; The Great Steamboat Race, The Pegasus Parade, one of the largest parades in the United States, the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon & mini-Marathon and the Kentucky Derby Festival Basketball Classic.
The actual Kentucky Derby may be the instigating event of the festival - and the regional enthusiasm for the derby is a significant factor in the festival's promotional awareness - but as Berry pointed out. "We are two separate things and we draw two distinct crowds. Between the festival and derby, the derby is a world-renowned horse race, part of the Triple Crown, and draws the VIPs and the glamour and the glitter and gets a lot of out-of-towners. The festival is more regional, but we are getting more people coming and staying in hotels for our events."
Social Media Outreach
According to Berry, the 2014 Kentucky Derby Festival was proactive in reaching young people and young families, which included revamping the Kentucky Derby Festival App, making it more user-friendly and effective and available on i-Tunes and Android platforms. More than 83,000 festival participants downloaded the App this spring.
"Two years ago, we hired a Digital Media Manager," said Berry. "All they do is online and social media, which includes three websites, two twitter accounts, four Facebook pages. We've really ramped up the social media. The social media, both in terms of people engaged and the messaging we send out. We are drawing more people to the festival, teaching them about the festival."
Berry added that besides an increase in awareness, the expanded social media presence added another dimension to the festivalgoer/festival manager relationship. "You get instantaneous feedback on our programming, and you are much more accountable to the customer. You hear the complaints, but I look it as a glass hall-full, it causes us to be on our game."
Berry said that estimates for the economic impact of the festival in 2014 was about $140 million. In fact most key metrics for the financial success of the event have been on the rises. "Our Corporate Sponsorship went over $3 million, which is a record and we never crossed that line before," said Berry. "In 2008, when the recession hit, our regional and local sponsors stayed, but we lost some national sponsors. Those national sponsors have grown as the economy recovered, and increased over 10 percent from 2013."
In 2007, the Kentucky Derby Festival introduced Kroger's Fest-a-Ville, a vast event area at Louisville's beautiful Waterfront Development on the Ohio River that runs for eight days. While the Easter accommodation extended the festival - the opening day for Kroger's Fest-a-Ville was April 11, providing a kind of 8-day count down leading up to the big race.
The entire venue encompasses approximately 900,000 square feet, with approximately 50,000 square feet devoted to a Midway that includes 24 midway rides, games and inflatables. The Midway at the Kroger's Fest-a-Ville is contracted by Concessions by Cox, and has only been part of the festival since 2010. "But in that time, the carnival has become part of the social fabric of the festival," said Berry.
The rides, food vendors and other vendors are all booked by Concessions by Cox - as Charles Cox, President/Founder says, "fence to fence." Triple Treat Shows provides the rides, "The Typhoon was the probably the most popular ride," said Cox. "Triple Treat has a great midway, one of the cleanest I've ever seen, with a lot of children's rides."
Spudz Stuffed Hash Browns
The hot new food item Cox introduced on the midway was Spudz - as in, Spudz Stuffed Hash Browns, a San Diego company. "The recipe comes up from Brazil," said Cox. "They cook five different meats and they spread out potatoes, which are chopped like hash browns, then fold it over and it holds together like a sandwich, but the potatoes act like the bread. It was very popular."
The most popular food item though was, "the corn dog, the old stand by," he added.
In the four years since the carnival has been part of the Kentucky Derby Festival, Cox said "It keeps getting better and better. The city really gets behind the organizers and for the fairgoer, it is really a bargain."
The Festival has a Pegasus Pin for $5, which not only means entry into the Kroger's Fest-a-Ville but most of the other events that make up the festival. In addition, the pin allows preferential seating for the Thunder over Louisville spectacular. "The Pegasus Pin ties the carnival to all the other areas of the festival," said Cox.
According to Cox, this year's revenue was only a few percentage points higher than last year, but he has an optimistic yet realistic evaluation of the year-to-year comparison. "There were two days of rain, and some nights the temperatures dipped into the 50s," he said. "But last year was a record year, so we were just above par from last year, how can you complain?"
Berry said that even though this year is at least equally robust revenue-wise - the final tally is not yet available - last year was a milestone. What his organization did was put most of the new revenue back into the festival, especially the entertainment component of the event. "This year we invested those added resources into bigger name acts," said Berry.
The Kroger Fest-a-Ville this year featured the Waterfront Jam, a two-day, paid-admission show - a first for the Midway - with The Fray and Scotty McCreery as headliners. Concerts that were free-with-Pegasus Pin during the Kroger-Fest-a-Ville also received a name-recognition upgrade, and included Everclear, DJ Z-Trip, Audio Adrenaline, Ohio Players and The Sam Roberts Band.
"We improved the music options on the waterfront," said Berry. "It was very well-received and so bigger and better concerts will certainly be part of next year's festival."
New Midway Traditions
By adding a carnival midway - rides, games and other concessions - to the Kroger Fest-a-Ville area, Berry has noticed a welcomed enhancement to what has been, since 1956, a continuous Kentucky tradition. "We've become more family friendly, especially in Waterfront Development area of the festival. It's not some wild party with a bunch of college kids. It very safe and the overall crowds are larger. "
In addition, with a young generation discovering the fair, "we're creating more future festival goers, and the traditions just become stronger," he said.