Planners of large annual public events agree that preparations for the following year’ s shindig usually begin while the current one is still going on. It takes a good 365 days of hard work and attention to detail, they say, to make their future activity the best it can possibly be.
We ventured behind the scenes with five Michigan money-makers that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year to learn what it takes to succeed.
The 2019 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), which celebrated its 30th anniversary in January at Cobo Center, was the last one to be presented by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association (DADA) in the winter.
“The 2019 show was a transformational show because it was the show that was going to breach between our traditional January shows to the June 2020 show,” says this year’s NAIAS chairman Bill Golling of Golling Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Bloomfield Township.
“Manufacturers today are looking at different ways to introduce products and get customers in touch with those products as well as technology and all the other things we’re seeing in the industry,” he says.
“With the change to June, we have 14 acres outside of Cobo Center. We have a whole idea of outside exhibitions where participants could put up things like autonomous vehicles, all of the things that could happen in 2020 because of the time of year. We also won’t have to worry about coat checks.”
When it comes to logistics, Golling says more than 1,500 people install and then tear down the show. “The event takes 1,800 semitrucks to move in. It takes eight weeks to build the show and two weeks to dismantle it. We had 5,100 members of the media from 16 countries at the 2018 show. It’s a wonderful thing for our city,” he adds.
“We’re very fortunate to have a great show staff. They handle all of the details and the day-to-day stuff and help organize things, for instance, with the moving in of the vendors. We had 2,200 companies participating in last year’s show. There are numerous revisions to the floor layout. We go and visit the participants of the previous year’s show to make sure that we’re doing the things they like to see and to try to see what we can do better,” Golling says.
Longtime DADA Executive Director Rod Alberts, who oversees the staff, says, “It’s amazing how many people are working the show from a unionlabor side and how much carpet and how much display activity go into it.”
Like with anything, problems always arise. “But because I have such a seasoned staff and a committee—it’s a very creative and entrepreneurial type committee—we’re always able to solve the issues,” says Alberts.
“Typically, it takes about six weeks for the buildup of the event, but we’re going to make that more efficient when we go to June,” Alberts says. “We’ll probably get it down to two to three weeks in 2020."
Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race
This weeklong event is an annual tradition for sailboat racers and partygoers dating back to the 1920s.
The actual Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race takes over Port Huron for three days in late July. This year’s 95th consecutive race will begin on the morning of July 20 in Port Huron north of where Lake Huron meets the St. Clair River. But the party begins along the Black River running through downtown several days earlier.
“Depending on the wind, the participants can finish as early as the afternoon of July 21 or as late as July 23,” says administrator Melissa Wenzler. “The boats have navigational equipment on board that allows them to sail safely through the night.”
The race ends at Mackinac Island. It covers approximately 280 miles and attracts sailors from across the United States and around the globe, including Australia, New Zealand and China.
There are two different courses—one that runs along the shoreline of Lake Huron and a longer one for the larger boats that runs around a buoy in the northeast corner of Lake Huron.
Race coordinators work closely with contacts at the Port Huron Yacht Club, Port Huron and Mackinac Island.
The Mackinac Race Committee meets monthly to plan the race. There are more than 165 volunteers. “The Notice of Race and the Sailing Instructions are two documents which contain the rules that govern the race,” Wenzler says. “Those rules are reviewed and updated annually. There are regulations and safety equipment requirements for the participants. We also work very closely with the Coast Guard, which follows the fleet all the way to the finish line at Mackinac Island.
“We also utilize a GPS tracking system so that race officials and spectators can follow each boat’s progress online.”
Besides Bell’s Beer, there are numerous other race sponsors. “They’re all recognized in all of our communications when we release information about the race,” says Wenzler. “We also have a media day in June to discuss the race.”
According to chairman Bob Nutter, the race costs greater than five figures to manage. “At the end of the day,” he says, “the primary function is to make sure you set up budgets for each of your categories—such as advertising, promotions, safety—and keep people within those budgets so you know how to allocate the funds from your individual sponsors.”
Nutter says that honesty is always the best policy when it comes to working with people. “Always present your product in a way,” he says, “that’s going to promote their activity within the race as well as your activity within the race so the three partners—the race committee, sponsor and customer—get 100 percent results out of their joint participation.”
During the past 10 years, ArtPrize has grown into one of the world’s largest art competitions.
A 19-day event from late September to early October, ArtPrize is a huge art show that takes over Grand Rapids with indoor and outdoor displays of artwork representing all mediums by artists from around the world.
“We have one of the biggest prize purses out there. There are $500,000 in cash awards to artists at the conclusion of the event,” says Executive Director Jori Bennett. “Half of that money is determined by a public vote, so anyone can vote on the art through our smartphone application."
An expert jury determines the other half. What the general public thinks is good art and what the experts think is good art creates the natural tension and plotlines for the event, the way it unfolds and ultimately who is selected.
“The prize money that we award and the way it’s determined make us very unique to any other event out there,” Bennett adds. “Because of that large cash purse, we’ve attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the event every year.
"The other thing that makes the event unique is that we use downtown as the ArtPrize district. So any venue within that district can participate as a venue and display art.”
As a nonprofit organization, balancing the ArtPrize budget can be challenging. “Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions about what we can do and what we can’t do,” Bennett says. “But I think that challenge always affords us an interesting opportunity to be highly creative and inventive in our solutions. The city is highly involved in the event and its success. The fun part about it is that we get to corroborate with the city and private corporations and companies to imagine the event every year and also showcase the city in its best light.”
Staff members and volunteers are critical to the success of ArtPrize. “We have more than 800 volunteers in a given year,” says Bennett. “They help us welcome and engage our visitors. We’ve had 10-15 full-time staff members who work year-round. We add about 25 seasonal employees and interns as we get closer to the event.”
According to Director of Operations and Production Derek Call, people might be surprised to learn that the majority of ArtPrize’s revenue comes from corporate sponsorships. “Another thing that may surprise people,” he says, “is that ArtPrize does not assign where the art goes. That’s up to the venues and artists.”
After 10 seasons as an annual event, ArtPrize will move to an every-otheryear schedule, with a new Project 1 event filling in the alternating years, beginning in late September and running through early October.
“Project 1 is shifting our organizing principle for the exhibitions from a competition level to a commission level,” Bennett says. “In Project 1, we’re going to be selecting three to five artists and commissioning them to do large-scale outdoor art installations in specific locations around the city.”
National Cherry Festival
This annual summer tradition celebrates cherries, one of northern Michigan's top fruit crops.
“It’s also a celebration of tourism in the Grand Traverse region,” says Kat Paye, executive director of the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City. “The region produces 70 percent of the nation’s tart cherries. Guests can find hundreds of different cherry products at our festival. This is Northern Michigan’s biggest event and runs for more than a week with dozens of special events to herald the cherry harvest throughout the region.”
This year’s festival, the 93rd, will run from June 29 to July 6. The festival typically draws 500,000 visitors.
The festival offers guests a souvenir tent, food and beverage concessions and a concert venue. There is also a festival of races with four different competitions—a 5K, 10K, 15K and half marathon.
“We have six full-time staff members and a 14-member volunteer board of directors,” Paye says. “We have more than 2,000 volunteers, 150 of whom are event directors. The event directors manage every one of our events. Our volunteers help set the budget and run the actual festival. They set it up and tear it down. It’s amazing what they do.”
According to Paye, the festival usually runs pretty smoothly. “We don’t really have trouble with our planning and execution,” she says. “The biggest thing we’re facing right now is having more accessibility for parking and being a more accessible event to the general public. We’re always striving to do more.”
When a problem arises, Paye says she and her staff just have to roll with the punches. “Last year was the first time in 25 years where we had to cancel a concert due to weather,” she says.
“When lightning rolls in, you don’t really have a choice with an outdoor venue. We adapt as best we can. We put it out to the public immediately when we have to cancel something. And then we work with our policies and procedures on giving refunds and so on to see how we can best handle our clients.”
Says Operations Director/Volunteer Coordinator Alexis Bremer, “The inclement weather last year was definitely an obstacle, but I think we handled it very well, and it’s going to help prepare us for the future.”
The Ally Challenge
Presented by McLaren Grand Blanc
Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club in Grand Blanc hosted the Buick Open PGA Tour event for many years. It now hosts the PGA Tour Champions event the Ally Challenge presented by McLaren. The first Ally tournament was held last September. This year’s tournament will be held Sept. 9-15.
According to Tournament Director Chris Coffman of HNS Sports Group (that also used to plan the Buick Open), putting on a big event like the Ally Challenge takes a lot of work.
“Like any sporting event where you have thousands of people coming to it, it’s all about logistics that you have to work through,” he says. “You start with security and safety and then kind of work backwards all the way from parking to concessions to simple things like bathrooms. We have three full-time staff members and 17 part-time staff members. We were very fortunate to have more than 900 volunteers who helped to make sure that all these different areas worked appropriately at last year’s tournament.
“The staffing and volunteers are huge,” he says. “The volunteers were phenomenal. We’re very fortunate that Grand Blanc is a golf-centric community. The people understand professional golf. We’re very fortunate to partner with Grand Blanc Schools, as our parking partner to make our parking seamless and convenient.
“We manage other professional golf tournaments, so we have a pretty good idea what it costs to run an event like this. We also have a very good idea what revenue should be in the different areas. And you build the budget around all of that.”
Coffman and his staff conduct surveys with its sponsors. “We get all of this information and look for trends and areas that need modified,” he says. “Also, we probably work with 100 vendors and suppliers. My advice is to get ahead of this stuff as much as you possibly can. Having good partners is very important. Treat them well, and it will pay off.”