Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A bad taste in Minnesota? (unedited)

It's over, the holiday celebration known as Taste of Minnesota.

I haven't been to this "festival" since the early 1990s, as best as I can recall. Given its location in St. Paul, I've been less than interested in visiting it. Given it now charges a significant gate admission for access to the precious festival, I'm even less interested. Sound familiar? Perhaps you remember reading this.

Despite my lack of interest in attending, I've been highly interested in how the new and improved festival would be received this year. I know the festival dates back more than two decades. And I know it use to be free to attend. Last year they started forcing those attending to buy $10 worth of food tickets at the gate, thereby keeping the riff raff out of the festival grounds.

I don't know who owned the event, or how it was run in the past, but for the past couple of years it has had new ownership. One of the owners has been the face of media interviews in recent days. His argument for charging $20 to $30 per person for admission to the festival has been multi-faceted.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, he said in one interview. The festival has tried to shift from being a "fair" to a festival, he said. In the past the festival had amusement park rides as well as music stages. The emphasis on the past couple of years has definitely been on main stage entertainment. This year's four day festival, July 2-5, featured headliners each night that would have commanded $20 a ticket at a local venue, if not more.

Here's my look at the pros and cons of the fresh, new and exciting Taste of Minnesota.

• Admission charge discourages riff raff from hanging out at the festival, and there was more room to roam for those who attended.
• Food vendors, the reason the Taste was created, were increased this year, and many local restaurants offering unique foods participated.
• Big name acts performed each night, creating a legitimate music outlet that parallels Milwaukee's much bigger, better produced Summerfest. It's a good time to be booking big shows in Minnesota if acts are appearing in Milwaukee around the same time.
• A variety of entertainment was planned throughout each day.

• Tickets were $20 before 4 p.m., $30 after. If you don't value the daily entertainment, or aren't a fan of main stage entertainment each night, the cover charge is highly discouraging, considering food and beverages don't come cheap by all accounts.
• In order to buy an overpriced beer you had to pay another $3 for a wristband that granted you permission.
• Vendors accept coupons only in exchange for their product. This is not new, and proves to be problematic because beers, for example, cost more than $5 each, but tickets had to be pushed in $5 increments.
• The nightly fireworks display that capped off each night was reduced to one night, Independence Day.

You could argue there are as many pros as cons, at least according to my list. But when you weigh the factors, the 2010 Taste was a failure.

From what I could tell via media reports, those who deemed the Taste worth the price of admission were delighted with it. The lines weren't long for food, it wasn't crowded, and the main stage entertainment was a good deal. A couple of weeks ago the Star Tribune newspaper looked at what the cost of each day's entertainment would be if you paid to see each act. The flaw with the logic is that even if you're getting more than $100 worth of entertainment in a day, you're not going to take it all in, and chances are plenty of it had little appeal to you, if any, were you to be asked to pay for it.

Let's look at the final night of the festival. The main stage acts included 311 and Offspring, two bands that made it big in the 1990s. I'm not a big fan of either, but if I my friend invited me to join her at the concert, and it was free, I might indulge her, but probably not. If I'm not highly motivated to see live music from bands I'm not a fan of, I'm not paying $20 or $30 to see them, which means there's no chance I'm overpaying for food, the reason dozens of vendors were in St. Paul in the first place.

If you're a fan of the bands playing on the main stage, then $30 is a fair price for a live show. By most accounts, the evening entertainment drew plenty of people, but during the day business was rather slow, I read. And if I'm going to a concert for a few hours, I'm not that concerned with tasting local cuisine before, during or after the concert. Vendors were not pleased with the new format. Some said they did less than half the business they did last year and questioned if they'll bother to participate in 2011.

This isn't surprising. The festival brought in more food vendors, then expected people to spend $20 for access to them. The more competition you have, the fewer dollars each vendor will net, especially when you limit access to their food with a cover charge.

Festival ownership claims to be happy with the progress they made in shifting the festival from a free event to something else.

Perhaps so, but I noticed that the festival's Facebook news feed kept telling people they could buy the $20 pre-sale tickets at a local music store each day, even after the festival started, and pre-sale tickets could be ordered each morning through the festival's website. The festival smelled a bit desperate to draw attendees.

One thing they appeared to do that made a lot of sense, they didn't charge for kids 12 and under, or something like that, evidently. Initially I saw no indication that there was a discount of any kind for children, but it appears they didn't charge parents for dragging their children to the festival, a festival that was stinking hot during its first two days. The stifling heat of day 2 was blamed for the lackluster attendance on Saturday, July 3.

What was the biggest flaw in their marketing and execution this year? In my opinion they shouldn't have been selling the event as Taste of Minnesota. If they had marketed the festival as a replacement event that emphasized music and entertainment, it would have been easier to swallow. If they had marketed it as a music festival with a great variety of culinary delights, instead of as the Taste of Minnesota, perhaps they would have sold the idea better.

If they wanted to change the event, the should have changed the name. The outcome may have been the same, but they wouldn't have faced the stigma of charging for an event that use to be free, and nobody who cared would have been confused by the death of Taste of Minnesota or the birth of Minnesota's Freedom Festival.

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