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Fairs, Festivals, & Still Dates: Southwood Entertainment's Fresh Approach to Event Promotion, Production & Management
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With a millennial attitude of honesty, multilayered thinking and social media marketing, Southwood Entertainment, has become one of the newest – and fastest growing – outdoor event production companies since its incorporation in 2017. “We're a one-stop-shop, we do it all,” said Brian Ellsworth, 32 years old. “This business is all about building relationships, knowing what has to be done and delivering what you promise.”

According to the company's website, the one-stop-shop services it provides are: Event Management, Production + Site Operation; Conceptual Event Brainstorming; Music Talent Buying; Media Buys + Social Media Management; Sponsorship Acquisition; Event Financing.

Millennial Outlook 

Ellsworth may be one of the new generation of outdoor professionals, he's been in the outdoor event and promotion business for a little more than decade, including a long stint with Universal Fairs. In some ways, the business is a simple one – the nexus point between carnival companies and other event content providers and the venues and spaces that utilize those services – with the end result being a well-attended and profitable event. 

But navigating the intricacies of the contemporary outdoor event market seems to require a fresh approach  and an exacting attention to detail. The one-stop-shop mentality Ellsworth refers to encompasses research, marketing, contracting, and the ability to create an environment of trust so all the players can be brought to the table. “We do the research that is needed, but also we treat people the way we want to be treated, with respect and honesty,” said Ellsworth. “We are a positive force for the carnival industry.

Southwood Entertainment effectively fills two distinct but related needs in the outdoor event business – localized, self-produced events and still-dates.

 The company produces about a dozen fairs and festivals that range from Broccolli City, a Washington D.C. area hip-hop, rap, and R&B weekend music festival whose 2019 edition boasted such megastars as Lil Kim to the Mid-South Fair, a southern fair tradition held since 1856. However, it's the still-dates – a weekend carnival in a parking lot – Southwood Entertainment plans to produce 30-40 of these events in 2019 – where Ellsworth has found a niche in the highly competitive marketplace of outdoor events. “I'm providing a solution to a problem that needed to be solved,” said Ellsworth, who admits that the growth of this segment  and  come as a surprise. 

Problem Solving

The problem that needed solving for midway providers was the open date during the fair season. Carnival companies are really traveling towns with dozens of employees, with relentless overhead costs that must be covered whether or not are they are at playing a fair or are in-between gigs. This situation is not new, but many ride companies can no longer afford someone whose sole responsibility is booking new dates and generating new business. The dilemma is further compounded by the fact that as carnival companies expand their routes – often extending their season – the distances of the jumps from one event to another get longer and the number of open weekend likewise grown, as has the need to create revenue during these stopgaps . It is no longer viable to remain idle. 

“The carnival companies are coming to me,” he said. “They are understaffed and are no longer able to do the research to find the still-dates. They also have second and third units and sometimes can be spread out between their big state fairs. They might have six of weeks booked and those labor costs and overhead costs mount up if they have an open date.” 

By the same token, venues with parking lots are rarely opposed to revenue opportunities. In fact, with online shopping cutting deeper and deeper into retail sales, malls especially are eager to find other ways to create revenue streams and/or attract people to their stores. 

However, many either never had a carnival company use their space for a “still-date” or had a bad experience with having a mini-weekend fair. That bad experience can range from hassles with getting proper permitting to disreputable promoters arranging the deal. For a company founded on problem solving, overcoming preconceptions is now par-for the course. “A lot of malls just haven't been approached, or they have heard that the carnival companies have a bad reputation,” he said. “Many of the malls who have had carnivals before, or who are part of a chain, have not always had the best experiences with promoters,”

Southwood Entertainment often has to acquaint retail corporations with the professionalism of today's carnival company. Ellsworth works with about 40 different carnival companies, which vary in size but also include some of the leading midway providers in the U.S., including Talley Amusements, Wade Shows and Amusements of America. Standard operating procedure for Southwood Entertainment includes sending references, website links, and other background information. 

“We're trying to educate the malls as much as possible and it is surprising how many need that education, they're surprised by things like drug testing of employees, which is standard for the companies we deal with,” said Ellsworth. “The carnival business is a wholesome business, these are family friendly events, so a lot of what we have do is change the opinions that some people have formed over the years. We show them safety records of the carnival companies, things like that, so they can evaluate each company. Other promoters haven't been doing this and it's a surprise to the mall.”

Relationship Building 

Another surprise for both the malls and the carnival companies is the millennial honesty this new generation of promoter brings to his matchmaking business. “We are very transparent in the way we do business,” he said. “But we also do it all, which includes the marketing for the event and make it a very simple process for everyone involved. People in the business appreciate our approach, especially when it comes to the corporate structure of the malls.”

Ellsworth and his staff have done the legwork necessary to find these malls, researching potential markets, contacting the malls, etc., and working with some large mall chains including Simon Malls and Tanger Island Malls. “Dealing with the malls has been very helpful, because they have the corporate offices but the individual malls live in that town and can helpful with the permitting process in that town or they already have a dumpster system in place,” said Ellsworth.

It's this attention to detail that makes the deal come alive for Southwood Entertainment, who is both catalyst and liaison. “The carnival companies come in and they do their thing, they're very self-contained,” he said. “With the malls, they may not be sure of everything that is involved, so we make the process very easy, and work with them step by step. It's important to know what questions they will ask and have the answers ready. It's a lot of problem solving.”  

Compared to the self-promoted events, the still-date business requires a shorter lead time. Ellsworth is still booking dates, with the turnaround time required being a much shorter window. Also, the still-dates are really only the carnival company, unlike the other events where Southwood Entertainment is booking not just the midway, but all the other attractions, petting zoos, grounds acts, music, other food vendors, etc. He looks for a mix of businesses he has long-term relationships with as well as local vendors to enhance the regional flavor of each event. Among the events Southwood Entertainment will produce in 2019 are the  El Paso Spring Fair, Jacksonville Spring Fair, The Smile Project, El Chuco Fair, Burgerfest Memphis, Dallas Spring Fair, and the Fort Worth Spring Fair.

In addition, this Memphis-based company has opened what he calls a high-end event consulting business for non-fair related events in its home city and surrounding environs. “There's some overlap with what we have been doing, but it still comes down to creating relationships, bringing people together and solving problems. Whether we are dealing with a big guy or a small guy, we always treat them the same.”
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