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All the fun of the festivals

Any number of destinations have become synonymous with the internationally renowned cultural events they hold — New Orleans has its genuinely iconic Mardi Gras, Cannes its glittering film festival, Venice the 120-year-old Biennale celebrating (and serving as a lucrative market for) contemporary art.

More recently an exposition like South By Southwest (SXSW) has transformed its unlikely host city of Austin, Texas into a byword for leading edge innovations in movies, music and video game technology. And San Diego's ComicCon, a boisterous jubilee for all things pop culture-related, has become the geeks' answer to Thanksgiving and draws 100,000 visitors to that California city annually.

In 2005 Chicago took out its chequebook to offer a permanent home to the Lollapooza music festival, persuading organisers to take their hugely popular show off the road and become one of the Windy City's tourism and cultural amenities. The financial incentives for the Chicago city fathers to do so were simply indisputable.

The economic benefits, both direct and indirect, of hosting a successful annual festival or exposition are staggering. An analysis of the 2013 SXSW, for instance, determined the event injected more than $218 million into the Austin economy -- $146 million in direct contributions such as hotel bookings and spending in local restaurants and shops. As more than one commentator has noted, this compares favourably to the $153 million the Super Bowl directly contributed to Indianapolis' economy the previous year. “In fact, it's like Austin hosting the Super Bowl every year,” said one pundit.

A major festival can bring sustainable, long-term net economic benefits to a community. While the events might only last for a few weeks — or a few days in some instances — they serve to burnish their host destinations' reputations on a year-round basis, generating ongoing interest and excitement in a locale.

Bermuda has, of course, long been a favourite venue for relatively small-scale business conventions. Meetings held by American companies in Bermuda are tax deductible and the Island has a long- established and enviable reputation for drawing blue-chip group events.

Attempts to branch out into other areas — to position the Island as an exotic site for cultural events — have historically been halfhearted, inconsistent or impractical.

The Bermuda Festival For The Performing Arts, the best known of these destination event undertakings, was originally established in the 1970s as a winter draw during the traditional tourism off-season. Despite boasting an exceptional array of talent, particularly during its early years, the event ended up selling most of its tickets to local residents. The festival was never broad enough in scope — nor was Bermuda's allure as a winter getaway compelling enough — to ever make it a credible alternative to, say, the winter season line-up at New York's Lincoln Center.

The one-off 1977 SummerFest, a three-day music festival headlined by reggae legend Peter Tosh and featuring other top-name international acts, was a huge popular success but such a calamitous financial disaster it was never repeated (“It's unfortunate that it is still a criminal offence here to have too much fun,” organiser Julian Hall famously and tellingly remarked after being arrested for violating the Island's antiquated noise ordinances on the opening night).

Overly dependent on nostalgia circuit acts and haphazardly marketed, the short-lived Bermuda Music Festival was never able to attract many visitors despite last-minute attempts to bolster the event's appeal by adding marquee names like Beyoncé to its bill.

With Bermuda now boasting less than 3000 hotel rooms, the Island no longer has the infrastructure to support any but the smallest and most exclusive type of destination events. But such specialised gatherings can still be lucrative and rewarding adjuncts to a community's tourism economy. For instance, a travelling electronic music festival with a small but well-heeled fan base drew attendees to Las Vegas in 2011 willing to pay more than $300 a day excluding travel expenses and ticket purchases.

There's nothing to stop Bermuda from exploring such profitable boutique events for the Island as it ponders its future in the hospitality industry. Nothing, that is, except a lack of imagination and what the late Mr. Hall identified as our time-honoured tendency to virtually criminalise anything hinting at being too much fun.

A sign reading Beyonce Blvd. adorns the wall of a newly paved footpath leading to the National Stadium between the new Aquatics Centre and the refurbished Field Hockey Pitch. (Photo by Mark Tatem) ¬

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Published May 01, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated May 01, 2014 at 10:33 am)

All the fun of the festivals

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