Commentary: What I would do to improve The Wichita River Festival

How Would I Improve the Wichita River Festival?

Let’s talk about one of the most polarizing events in town, the Wichita River Festival.

It’s challenging to get a good gauge on the event because so much of the negativity comes from the naysayers online. There are still plenty of supporters, proven by how many people you see on the busier days of the festival. Public opinion is so incredibly polarizing, sometimes I’m not sure what to make of the public opinion of the city’s biggest event.

I’m a believer that the complaints can be valid and should be treated as such if the intentions behind them are because people want to see the event improve. I’ve gone year after year and despite the numerous changes, I still continue to support because I believe the city deserves a festival.

Over the last couple of weeks, I thought a lot about what I would do to improve the festival and even asked others online. I wanted to educate myself on how the festival operates and why such decisions were made. I went as far as to ask the event festival leadership for information such as detailed expense breakdown. This would educate me on why things are the way they are. As we all know, Wichita is a very price conscientious city. So when the city has seen two button price increases in recent years, it’s understandable why there’s some backlash. The Riverfest leadership did respond but said the information would not be ready for a couple of months. And for that reason, I’m going into this blog with many assumptions.

If I were tasked with improving Riverfest, here’s what I would do.

1.) Keep button prices but offer deals

In recent years, the price of the Wichita River Festival button went from $10 to $15 to $20. Prices of the button for children 6-11 is $10 while children 5 and under are free. It’s crazy to me that people still don’t realize that there are kids buttons; they just assume buttons are $20 per person regardless of age because that’s the price they see talked about the most. 

For starters, I don’t think the price is crazy given all the entertainment that one is offered. But I do wonder how many Riverfest attendees go multiple times during the 9 days to make the price of the button worth it. At the same, I understand that $60-100+ can be a lot of money for people to attend the festival when kids are involved.

What I would propose….

Keep the price of the buttons at $20 and drop kids buttons down to $5. Let the adult button prices carry the weight of the revenue brought in. But bring back early bird specials. This was the first time in for as long as I could remember, you couldn’t buy a discounted button weeks in advance. Also offer family packs that people can purchase at select outlets or the day of at the festival. For example, two adult buttons and two kids buttons for $45 instead of $50 with the new suggested pricing or buy 4 adult buttons for $70 instead of $80. These are simple things that can be done to help save just a bit of money for people.

Why keep the button prices at $20?

Without knowing how much revenue button prices brought in this year, my assumption some of that went to security. I’ve heard things were much better this year at Riverfest with more security, but cannot say that as fact. Safety is so key at an event like this and making sure the proper amount of security there is crucial and I would hope families would be OK if knowing a big reason why the button went up was for that.

Leaving the price the same now sets the standard and the festival shouldn’t have to raise the button prices again for hopefully the longest time.

I’ve read people comparing other festivals like the one in Salina, but it’s not apples to apples. I’d love to see a comparison of expenses required to run both events given that Wichita is nearly ten times the size of Salina, which means more required security and logistics.

2.) Shorten the Riverfest

It may be time to shorten the Riverfest. Often times the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons of the festival are dead to very little attendance compared to other days. Just cut the days and have the Wichita River Festival run from Thursday through Sunday. 

Shortening the days would allow for more packed schedules, lower overhead with less security, volunteers, trash service, Porto-potties, everything.

Four days are enough for the festival…. five days at most if you want to go Wednesday through Sunday

3.) Make Sunday free with no button required

There’s always that one day during the festival where people can enter Riverfest for free with a previous year button.

With Sunday being the new proposed final day of Riverfest, just make it free for everyone but limit the events and put most of the big draws on earlier days of the festival when buttons are required.

4.) Involve More Community Businesses

Speaking of community, if we could find a way to involve the local businesses more, maybe that would take away the “it’s too commercialized” complaint. 

The biggest gripe I’ve heard is, “why aren’t there local food trucks?”. For starters, I don’t know of a single food truck that would want to be open for the entire festival and remain open all weekend long all day and night. I’m not sure if they are equipped or staffed to put that many hours into a festival. Nor would a majority even want to, if so, they have not been vocal about it. Yes, fees is also a big deal on why local vendors would rather not show up. It’s not ideal, but I understand the festival has to be able to bring in some revenue to help recoup the costs, so charging vendor fees to more of the carnival style food vendors makes sense.

So, what compromises could be made to involve local businesses? Here are some ideas I had:

  • Offer a separate section maybe a bit further away from the carnival vendors and where most of the concerts take place. Lower the fees and make it to where the local food trucks just need to cover the price of simple things like required security, Porto-potties and trash cleanup. Have two food courts, the main one by the main area of Riverfest. And perhaps a second one further south where the carnival is usually at and make that a rotating schedule of food trucks who are just there in the evening. Whether that area requires a button is still up for debate.
  • See if local businesses would be willing to offer some sort of discount with a Riverfest button
    • Partner with local attractions like Exploration Place, the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita Art Museum, Tanganyika Wildlife Park, and offer discounts for entry into those establishments with a button

5.) Bring back the Block Party in some fashion

People miss the Block Party. So, here’s my compromise… turn the final Sunday of Riverfest into an Open Street Days.

Have Open Streets and Wichita River Festival work hand-in-hand to have some sort of big block party that’s focused on downtown Wichita with families walking and biking throughout the day.  

6.) Cram the hell out of the Riverfest schedule with community events

With the proposed shorten days of the Wichita River Festival, this is the festival committee’s chance to cram as much as they can into the schedule to make it a must – attend event with something for everyone. Hot air balloons, block party/Open Streets, bath tub races, car show, cornhole tournament, rubber duck races down the river, fireworks, Cajun Food Fest, Medallion Hunt, paper airplane competition, Twilight pops concerts, talent show, kids vendor market, cardboard boat rices, dog show, esports competition, celebrity egg toss with real celebrities….

The list goes on and on. Put on events that would encourage people from different backgrounds, different interests to get involved and be a part of it in some capacity.

7.) Increase the showcase of musical acts

The musical acts are a hot topic. Some people want more local acts while others want big recognizable names.

If it’s anything we learned from the recent Elsewhere Festival, people will come for the music.

Perhaps it’s time to take a page out of their playbook. Set up additional stages along the river for free shows. Invite local musical acts to play throughout the day and have shows running from start to end on the Friday and Saturday of Riverfest.

At the same time, leverage possible other venues for shows where people can get in with a Riverfest button for free.

With a shortened number of days for the Riverfest, this could open up the budget to get some bigger names. Listen, I get it. Every year, there’s going to be people who complain about the artists brought it. It’s something that won’t end.

8.) Better marketing of the festival

I believe there’s been quite a bit of turnover on the marketing side of things with Riverfest from personnel changes and different agencies being used. This year, I don’t believe there was a VP of Marketing. And there’s been at least three people taking that role over the past five years. I’m not sure what the common denominator is, but marketing is incredibly important. Moreover, they’ve relied heavily on traditional marketing, i.e., paper, radio, etc.

This year, the festival used one person to handle being the spokesperson for their social. A few years back, they leveraged two people.

It might be time to go all in on the digital age. I know there’s a budget for marketing and differentiating the mediums used even more is crucial if they want to reach a larger audience.

Instead of using just one spokesperson, why not leverage 5-10 different people to help who all have different audiences they can “influence” so to speak. Having social media takeovers on the Riverfest social platform by multiple different people in the community. It’s important to not just stick to one as that one person will never connect with everyone you’re trying to reach. By using multiple people, you’re increasing your odds and reaching even more prospects to come to the festival.

———-

These are JUST suggestions. As I mentioned, I am not privy to much information on what it takes to run Riverfest. So, many of my suggestions may not even be viable. I’m all for the Wichita River Festival succeeding. There are areas that will always be a gripe for people. Some things the event workers have no control of. Cost will always be an issue.

But even with all that, there are ways to improve what should be Wichita’s biggest party.

If you look into it, the Riverfest leadership is paid a handsome salary. So ultimately, it is on them to deliver the best festival that the city deserves.


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1 thought on “Commentary: What I would do to improve The Wichita River Festival”

  1. Shelley McKinney

    In the early stages of the festival, the director attended national festival conferences and visited successful festival cities to learn how they operate their plans. Is this still happening?
    What about two weekends in a row? Milwaukee, The City of Festivals, has one or two every weekend all year long. That’s not in the cards here but a couple of weekends in a row could give us a bit more cache and control. They’ve been at it slightly longer than we have and surely we could glean a few tips from them.
    I see some value in all of your ideas. I especially like bringing back the partnership with local entities where a button gets you a discount or free entry. Cowtown used to be the venue for The Legend of Windwagon Smith, a fun live performance roughly based on the old Disney cartoon. A perfect partnership.
    Just some thoughts off the top of my head.

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