Way back in 1893, the Chicago World’s Fair saw 27 million visitors pour into downtown. Skip forward a century to 1991 to witness the birth of Lollapalooza, a festival that now brings massive money to our Windy City. Cities have long used fairs and festivals as economic engines, driving growth and investment, but the practice is not limited to City Hall. Neighborhoods around Chicago throw over 400 festivals every year and small businesses reap the rewards – if they properly position themselves to do so.
Economic Impact on the Community
Street fairs provide a welcome diversion from the daily drudgery that most of us endure, but neighborhoods also enjoy several concrete benefits. The chain of financial impact is simple:
Step 1: Plan.
Step 2: Advertise.
Step 3: Profit!
When local organizations and Chambers of Commerce throw these festivals, they draw new visitors to the high streets and fortify community pride, injecting fresh economic energy from elsewhere in the city and strengthening sustainable, neighborhood-based commerce.
However, street fairs also bring their share of complications. In addition to the financial expenses to the organizers (hiring bands, renting equipment, printing pamphlets, etc.), there are hidden costs to account for. To make room for the amusements, streets must close. To accommodate the extra bodies, public facilities must be made available and extra attention must be given to sanitation. An increased police presence may be necessary. The time, labor, money, and thought invested in preparation often goes unseen and underappreciated, as with many rewarding enterprises, but the payoff is absolutely worth the price.
Benefits to Businesses
So how do street fairs benefit local stores? First and foremost, the businesses do more business. The curious crowd (according to the organizers, Ravenswood on Tap, which showcases the many small breweries in the area, drew 18,000+ people this year!) will need places to eat, drink, sit, and cool down. Extra foot traffic means extra sales – sometimes a lot of extra sales. The exact amount is nigh impossible to calculate, but patios are packed and brewrooms bubble to bursting during Ravenswood On Tap. We doubt that’s a coincidence.
On a more sentimental note, many street fairs pay homage to what makes a neighborhood unique. We talked to Gene Wagendorf, Associate Director of the Greater Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce, about the origins of Ravenswood On Tap:
“Ravenswood On Tap specifically relates to growing “Malt Row.” Several years ago we worked with members of the neighborhood’s vibrant craft beverage community to launch a branding campaign designed to pool together our resources and drive neighborhood focused tourism. The result was Malt Row, promoted as a one-and-a-half-mile stretch boasting 8 breweries and the city’s oldest post-prohibition distillery.
For several years now we’ve been publishing Malt Row guides, hosting media visits, partnering on marketing with Choose Chicago, and coordinating promotions and events in and effort to make Ravenswood a destination neighborhood.”
You can also look at Midsommerfest, born from Andersonville’s Swedish roots, or Pilsen Fest, a celebration of the community’s Hispanic population. These special neighborhood events draw homebodies out of their hovels to explore the festivities and share in the fun. Wandering through the tents and booths, they find new treasures and rediscover old favorites. After being reminded why they moved to the neighborhood in the first place, locals will be moved to spend a little more freely and proudly.
How to Make the Most of Street Fairs
Special Offers: The festival has brought people to your doorstep – the trick now is to get their money. Promotions and specials that tie into the event can draw passers-by into your business in pursuit of a complete experience. Take, for example, the abundance of glogg during Midsommarfest, with many local restaurants offering the traditional Swedish beverage for the festival’s run.
Not every business naturally takes to theming (what, will your Ravenswood credit union hand out IPAs for opening an account?), but generic promos will still lure bodies inside. Weigh the pros and cons for yourself, but it’s definitely worth consideration.
Put Yourself Out There: With more people on the streets, a little additional advertising goes farther than normal. The sandwich board broadcasting your brand will reach an otherwise inaccessible clientele, so spare some thought and make sure they remember your name! Visitors from far afield will return to businesses that make an impression.
Get Involved! Businesses off the beaten path have a harder time benefiting from the extra eyes, but street fairs offer other chances to participate, from reserving a booth to inclusion in marketing materials. Partnering with the organizers of your fair is an excellent way to promote your brand. We reached out to some local Chambers for an inside scoop, and here’s what they had to say:
“We partner with small businesses… through opportunities to be a merchant or food vendor at the festival. We also have a volunteer opportunity at the beer tents where local businesses can volunteer for a few hours and gain some marketing benefits at the event, such as logo inclusion on the beer tent Thank You banners.”
~Lakeview Taco Fest
“It is our literal purpose to support small businesses whenever possible. We’re extremely proud to work with local production companies, record labels, vendors, printers, restaurants, musicians, artists, entertainers, and community groups…
We offer a ‘Community Sponsor’ level exclusively for local small businesses… Even if a business isn’t sponsoring or participating on-site, it’s still worth considering other ways to connect. A nearby bar or restaurant may attract attendees because they offer shade or air conditioning, but there are creative ways to promote to festival attended directly and make attractive offers that will draw more than just luck.
That said, direct investment is better than going fishing. If I owned a small business and knew someone was going to be bringing 20,000 people to the neighborhood, I’d be trying to figure out how to get involved.”
~Ravenswood On Tap
From the South Side to the North and into the suburbs, Chicago’s street fairs are good times and good for business. Our city’s diverse neighborhoods make for an equally varied slate of street fairs, a bazaar of business-boosting blessings for bodegas and brokers and everyone in between. Chances are, there’s one on your doorstep. The fruit is ripe for the picking; with an ounce of forethought and a little investment, you can turn the event’s economic energy into concrete profit. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood – won’t you be my neighbor?
You can find a full list of Chicago’s street fairs here.
Special thanks to the Greater Ravenswood and Lakeview Chambers of Commerce for speaking to us for this story. Ravenswood On Tap happens at the end of every June, and the Lakeview Taco Fest runs September 21st and 22nd.