How to Plan Community Events and Food Festivals

2015 Taste Of Chicago - Day 4
Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images North America/Getty Images

The Taste of Chicago is one of the biggest food festivals in the United States. It first began in 1980 as an idea among several Chicago restaurant owners and the city held its first food festival as a one-day event with 36 food vendors that year. About 275,000 people showed up for the outdoor event. Since then, it has grown to an attendance in excess of 3.5 million and more than $12 million in revenue over several days.

The Mayor’s Office of Special Events in Chicago and the Illinois Restaurant Association work together to plan and execute this annual food festival.

Planning a Community Food Festival

Whether a large food festival like the Taste of Chicago or a smaller version of the same, planning community festivals is a significant responsibility for local government and municipal event planners. The Taste of Chicago serves as a great case study for any community considering a similar program. The primary functional areas of any community food festival will include the following:

  • Operations
  • Food Vendors
  • Programming
  • Sponsorship
  • Marketing/Public Relations
  • Accounting/Contract Management

We'll dig deeper into each area, but first, let's get a feel for the timeline and general management of such an event using the actual planning of the Taste of Chicago.

Community Food Festival Planning Timeline

For anyone approaching this type of event for the first time or those considering an expansion to an existing festival, it’s important to begin planning at least one year before your event.

For a tangible example, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events follows the following rough schedule for each year's Taste of Chicago:

  • 12 Months: Identify location, dates, and rough sketch of the festival map. Involve relevant city agencies every step of the way
  • 9 Months: Update festival map and begin functional area RFPs
  • 6 Months: Confirm vendors, sponsors, programming, and suppliers
  • 4 Months: Finalize entertainment and re-confirm functional area
  • 3 Months: Produce festival marketing materials
  • 1 Week: Manage operations load-in
  • 1 Day: Manage vendor load-in
  • Event Conclusion: Manage operations load-out
  • 1 Week After: Hold wrap-up meeting and make recommendations

General Community Festival Management

As a government agency, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events is in charge of the Taste of Chicago and a long list of other events along Chicago’s lakefront, neighborhood festivals, and other areas. The Taste is unique in Chicago because it’s a free event, but revenue from the Taste pays for the majority of all other events managed by the office.

With food festival management experience that dates back to 1980, most of the functional teams in the Mayor’s Office of Special Events and Illinois Restaurant Association are highly experienced in their areas. This allows the general manager for the Taste of Chicago to focus on planning and execution efforts of all parties involved and keep the event on track.

In addition to members of the office, the general manager works with at least 20 different city offices and agencies, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Police Department
  • Fire Department
  • Department of Health
  • Streets and Sanitation
  • Park District
  • Office of Emergency Management Communications

Another important functional area part of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events is accounting/contract management. Being a government event, it is highly structured procurement process and all agreements must follow city guidelines.

With an event planning timeline in place and general event management secured, we can now look into each of the primary functional areas of the event.

Having been introduced to the history of the Taste of Chicago event and using its planning and execution as a case study, we're ready to dig a little deeper into each of the primary functional areas of the event.

Operations

The operations area is responsible for site preparation, stage and production, event support, security, and more.

Operations require many pre-event meetings, and the operations team is closely tied to the layout of the event map.

It makes a big difference to involve all of the city agencies early in the process, according to the operations manager for the Taste of Chicago. The operations team manages processes for the following:

  • Pre-event load-in (setup)
  • Operations during the event
  • Post-event load-out (tear down)

These processes include street closures, building tents, forklift operators, carpenters, electricians, maintenance equipment and staff, security, logistics for supplier trucks, management trailers, and more. Consider what your operations team will handle themselves and what they will contract out for your event. What other agencies will your team need to work with? Contact them as soon as possible.

Restaurants/Vendors

Given the complexity and size of food festivals like the Taste of Chicago, the Illinois Restaurant Association takes the lead on managing the food vendors that participate in the annual event. For the 2015 Taste of Chicago, the event partnered with 60+ food vendors, including 19+ new restaurants that represented many of Chicago’s distinct neighborhoods. Of course, in Chicago, certain items will always be found at food vendors selected for the event, including pizza, ribs, ice cream, and cheesecake. Your community food festival will likely have its traditional foods as well.

It’s a coveted spot to be selected as a restaurant vendor that participates in this particular food festival and criteria requires that participants be local restaurants that reflect Chicago’s neighborhoods. Additionally, they must be able to handle the volume and have a completely clean status with the city. Participating restaurants undergo the following courses and checks:

  • Complete the Illinois Restaurant Association Summer Festival Sanitation Certificate Course
  • Chicago Department of Public Health visits booths three times daily
  • Manage the flow of inventory between their booths and refrigerated trucks

When it comes to your community event, think about what criteria you might require of participating food vendors and how many you would like to have. The first year can be tough, but with each year's success, you will likely find that you have more and more willing participants.

Programming

The Taste of Chicago is a general community event. That means that while “food” is what draws the crowds, it’s the other activities that keep people there. Over the years, the programming team has incorporated many of the following elements into the overall program:

  • Free concerts on multiple stages (national and local entertainers)
  • Cooking demonstrations pavilion with top chefs and cookbook authors
  • Family village including a children’s stage
  • Environmental tent for “green” education
  • Sports pavilion with fitness tips
  • International pavilion (shopping)
  • 2-mile walk
  • Food suppliers
  • Budweiser Clydesdales and their Dalmatian companions
  • Amusement rides
  • Fireworks program
  • Opening ceremony

Consider what other programs and activities you may want to include in your food festival.

Sponsorship

The Taste of Chicago involves several categories for sponsorships, which is a major source of funding and in-kind support. Corporate marketers and corporate event planners tend to participate in community events like the Taste to reinforce their brand and gain exposure.

Hospitality is an element that some of the sponsors include in their packages, allowing those sponsors to receive favorable access to some seating areas and private tents to host their own client events.

Types of sponsor at the Taste included the following:

  • Cellular communications
  • Grocery store chain
  • Beverage companies
  • Retail stores and banks
  • Airline and hotels
  • Media
  • Automakers
  • Food suppliers
  • Restaurants
  • Fitness and health care organizations
  • City Park District and Public Transportation

Consider what local corporate sponsors may be interested in funding your community event, and think about what kinds of packages and perks you might provide to those sponsors.

Marketing/Public Relations

Marketers who work on the Taste of Chicago are in an enviable position because it is the type of event that automatically draws media attention in Chicago and elsewhere. Better yet, media sponsors also help promote the Taste. That means that the Mayor’s Office of Special Events doesn’t have to spend too much on traditional forms of advertising to spread the word and promote the event.

Marketers promote the event by writing dedicated press releases to each area of the event, maintaining the event website, and producing the event brochure. These items require working closely with all the other functional areas to document scheduling and content change as they occur.

In the beginning, it can be difficult for community food festivals to obtain the kind of exposure that large and well-known events like the Taste of Chicago garner. But consider what media outlets you might be able to reach out to for free press and start planning for those marketing materials your marketing team will handle like a website, flyers, and brochures.