With Scott Shepard from SDG Events (Wing-A-Rama)
In this episode we chat to Scott Shepard from SDG Events, who talks about coordinating the multi-city food festival Wing-A-Rama. Scott discusses the importance of ensuring the event offers value to his three key stakeholder groups; restaurant vendors, sponsors and event attendees. He also shares his experience growing from a single city to multi-city event, and the challenges of expanding into new markets.
- About Wing-a-rama
- Attracting Restaurant Participation: What’s in it for them?
- The Challenges of Rebranding and Launching Into New Markets
- When and Where?
- Know your Customer
- Evolving the Event
- Event Sponsorships
Full show notes available on our blog.
Wing-A-Rama: The 3rd Annual Austin Chicken Wing Festival
Date: Sunday, June 30, 2019
Time: 12:00 PM – 05:00 PM
Location: Republic Square Park, 422 Guadalupe Street, Austin, TX, USA
Kayhan: Welcome to Tidbits at Ticketbud! My name is Kayhan, CEO of Ticketbud.
Today, I have Scott Shepard, the event producer, event creator of Wing-A-Rama, formerly Austin Wing Fest. Scott, thanks so much for joining us today!
Scott: Thanks for having me!
Kayhan: Scott, we’ve been working with you guys for two years. This is the fourth chicken wing festival that we’ve helped you helped you guys for the ticketing with. Tell us a little bit about what we have in store for 2019 here in Austin, for Wing-A-Rama.
I’m really, really excited, because you guys have locked in an awesome, awesome location. I think an underutilized location, as well. It is Republic Square Park, here in downtown Austin.
Scott: Yeah. This is the third iteration of what was – Wing-A-Rama now was previously the Austin Chicken Wing Fest. We are doing it in Republic Square Park this year, which I think has all of the makings to really be an iconic Austin event space; recently under construction, redeveloped, but it’s a great spot in the heart of downtown, and they’ve been really incredible to work with.
Kayhan: Yeah. The group behind Republic Square Park, they do a farmer’s market every weekend. It draws a great audience, a great walk-up crowd. But it’s such a downtown central location, it’s so accessible, it’s so walkable. I’m really excited you guys were able to secure that location.
Can you tell our audience a little bit about Wing-A-Rama? When is it? What can they expect?
Scott: Yeah, sure. Wing-A-Rama is on June 30th. It’s a Sunday, at Republic Square Park. The event runs from 1:00 to 5:00 PM, although we have a few different tiers of tickets. GA, General Admission, will get in from 1:00 to 5:00 PM, for all you can eat wings.
We also have a VIP and Early Bird ticket skew, which allows folks an hour early entry to the festival. That’s always been a crowd favorite. Get in, kind of beat the crowds, beat the heat. Try all of the different wings, and then you can spend the rest of your day just drinking cool beverages and circling back, to try vendors that you really liked.
Kayhan: So, all you can eat wings?
Scott: All you can eat wings.
Kayhan: You buy a ticket, you come in, whatever you want.
Scott: That’s it! We also, in addition to just chicken wings, something that we’ve expanded in the past year or two is a wing-inspired category. So, that allows us to have some restaurants that maybe don’t have chicken wings on their menu, or even vegan/vegetarian restaurants to come out, and kind of display their best dish to the crowd.
For instance, we had last year, an Austin restaurant called Beer Plant. They’re a vegan restaurant, did a buffalo fried cauliflower.
Kayhan: I had that! That was actually really good.
Scott: A personal favorite. I really liked that one. So, it’s kind of nice to be able to not just have wings. It allows – you can bring your siblings, your mom, your girlfriend, whoever, that might not be a big wing eater, out to the fest, and still enjoy themselves.
Kayhan: Wing-A-Rama originally started out as Austin Wing Fest. It’s evolved, and it’s something that internally, we think of it as kind of a boutique food festival. It’s a food festival specific to a specific type of food. You’re engaging the local community.
One of the things that you guys do well is you bring a lot of great restaurants to the event, to kind of share their wings, share their part. Tell us a little bit about what you have in store for 2019.
Scott: We’ll have about 20 different restaurants come out. That seems to be the sweet spot. And again, they’ll be cooking either chicken wings or chicken wing-inspired dishes.
I think in terms of bringing the restaurants out, we always do a competition. Every attendee at the festival gets two tickets to cast their vote for Best Wing and Best Wing-Inspired Dish. We also have some local dignitaries and media that will also form a judge’s panel, and they will judge the restaurants.
At the end of the day, we kind of crown the Peoples Champ and the Judges Champ, so a really great way to get the restaurants involved, get them engaged, and kind of get this competitive fervor going.
Kayhan: If you’re a restaurant, it’s not necessarily easy to deploy all of these resources. You know, restaurants have high labor costs, high food costs, all these things. But you’re trying to, as an event organizer, you want this restaurant participation, and you want them to get value out of this event.
So for them, is it the bragging rights? Is it the exposure? What is the restaurant getting out of participating? Because the participation of the restaurants really has been critical to the success of this brand.
Scott: I think the value to the restaurants is a couple of things. One, just customer acquisition, through foot traffic at the event. Plus, just the marketing pre-event, that we do. And of course, the bragging rights are huge. To be able to tell patrons and the Austin community that you were voted Best Chicken Wing in Austin by 2,000 people who attended a chicken wing festival is huge.
So, I think that’s the real return on investment for these restaurants. We know it’s a long, hard day for them.
In addition to that, we also try to make it as easy for them up front, as possible. We have no entrance fees, as some food festivals do for their participants. We take care of a lot of their licensure fees, and really kind of handhold through the permitting process.
We really want to make sure that it’s as low impact as possible for them, with as much return on the back end.
Kayhan: So, a lot of shepherding of these restaurants that you’re bringing into the door.
Scott: Yeah. We want to make this as fun for the restaurants as it is for the event attendees. Let Wing-A-Rama handle the work and the back end stuff that’s less sexy and less fun.
Kayhan: So Wing-A-Rama, you guys always had great attendance. As long as we’ve been working with you, all of your events have sold out. And this isn’t just an Austin thing. It started out as the Austin Chicken Wing Fest, but then you guys realized that hey, there’s a great opportunity to take this festival, and take it to other markets in Texas.
That’s when the kind of rebrand came in. You shifted away from Austin Wing Fest, and now it lives and breathes as Wing-A-Rama. What have been some of the challenges that, as an event organizer, you’ve had in taking a property, rebranding it, develop it, and launching it into a different market?
Scott: One of the big ones is just understanding the customer base in a different market. We did Houston last fall, and I think we were all a little surprised at just the difference in buying habits there. Because the weather in Houston tends to turn on a dime, for outdoor events, people are really, really last minute about buying tickets.
That gave us a lot of heartburn, in the week leading up to the Houston Wing-A-Rama. But then, in the last 36 hours or so before the event, we completely sold out. So, I think one of the big learnings there is just to gather as much information as you can about kind of the demographic in the city you’re going to, what their habits are in terms of ticket buying, so that you can kind of plan for that accordingly.
Then of course, every city, every municipality has different local rules, laws, regulations that you have to follow. Since we’re cooking with fire, and we have a lot of people at our festivals, we always want to make sure that we stay ahead of that and keep our patrons safe, and then aren’t violating a fire code or what have you.
Kayhan: Fire code, food safety code, departments codes; get all of your homework done. Do as much shepherding as you can for the restaurants. Because if you acquire one restaurant and they have a great experience, chances are subsequent years, subsequent markets, if you have multiple locations, it allows you to have a real desire for restaurant participation at the event.
Kayhan: Let’s switch gears a little bit. We’ve been talking about restaurants. I’m really excited about this location. I’m really excited about the venue, Republic Square Park. When you’re starting out with a festival, you don’t have, if it’s your first year, you might not have as much brand equity, or as much momentum. This year, you guys are fairly established, recognizable in the space.
Tell us about the evolution of your earlier venues, to where you are today. And what were your challenges, getting a really top tier A-list venue locked in, like Republic Square Park?
Scott: I think one of the challenges, at least in Austin, is just availability. We have so many good food festivals and outdoor events going on here, that when you look at the calendar, it’s just sometimes impossible even to find a space and a date that works. Weather is something that we’ve unfortunately always had to contend with, so we’ve moved the event back to June 30th this year, instead of doing it in April or May.
It will be hot out, but frankly, I think that’s easier to control for. This Austin community is a lot more heat tolerant. There’s a lot of great shade at Republic Square Park. We’re going to have some tenting.
Kayhan: There’s great facilities, too.
Scott: Great facilities.
Kayhan: They have, like not gross bathrooms and stuff like that.
Scott: Yeah, exactly. So, weather is something that’s always been a little bit of a challenge for us. Just space. And the thing that I’m really excited about, with Republic Square Park, is it’s just such a beautiful space.
We really want attendees to come and eat wings, and feel like they want to stick around for a while and hang out, because they’re in a good place to be. And I think that’s what we really have with Republic Square Park.
Kayhan: One of the things that’s really cool about Austin Wing Fest, that I think is underpublicized, is you guys actually have a wing eating competition that takes place at the event. So, there’s a couple of levels of competition. The restaurants are competing for best wing, most innovative wing dish. But attendees, there’s a competition for them, as well.
Scott: Yeah. We kind of do an open call for any attendee who just is a glutton for punishment, to sign up for a hot wing eating contest. Then, toward the end of the day, we’ll call about 12 brave souls up, and it’s a race. The first to eat 12 hot wings – and the wings are really, really hot. It’s always fun to see some folks get up there and fight through tears, to finish their wings.
In the past, for the winner, it’s really just been about bragging rights.
Kayhan: This year, however, we’re getting something really cool. We’re bringing in a wrestling, boxing-style championship Wing Fest belt, like mega, mega bragging rights.
Scott: Yeah. We want to do something cool for the winner this year. I think the wrestling belt will really be that, something that they can wear around the rest of the festival. I’ll probably just open a bar tab for them, or something. That will just be their drink ticket, is the wrestling belt.
Kayhan: For the rest of their lives! As they walk around, and wear this on a daily basis!
Kayhan: When you guys started, there were a bunch of – not kinks, but just growing pains, learnings. What are some of the learnings that you’ve really valued, as an event organizer. What can you share with other event organizers out there, who are developing their brand, have started their event, or are about to start their event series?
Scott: I think the big thing is just to always, always, always put yourself in the mind of your customer. For us, we have two customers. We have the event attendees, and we also have the restaurants who are participants.
But with regard to the customers at food festivals, lines just seem to always be an issue. So, we’re constantly thinking through ways that we can eliminate bottlenecks, reduce lines, and just make the customer experience that much better, so that they feel like they came, they got their fill of unlimited wings, but they didn’t spend all day kind of standing in the heat, waiting on them. So, that’s something we’re always working on.
And the same for the restaurants; just putting yourself in their shoes, making sure that you can eliminate as many of the pressure points as possible, leading up to the event. And then, really giving them a huge ROI on the back end.
Kayhan: Where do you see Wing-A-Rama evolving into? What components in future events do you want to start developing, that you’re thinking about now, that you want to get a better understanding of, that you think can add value or a more rich experience for attendees, down the line?
Scott: There’s a number of things. I think we’re actually looking to do a podcast at the festival this year. There’s a couple of famous podcasts out there who have expressed interest. Just some areas where there’s more things for people to interact with, besides just the food.
Then, an idea that we’re working on for this year is, because people are just going to be waiting in line for wings, actually having beer cart people serving them beer while they’re in line, so they don’t have to waste any additional time in line for beer.
Kayhan: Do you have like a vendor that’s helping you guys out?
Scott: Yeah, we do. We have a local bar vendor. We’re going to do kind of like a ballgame beer-style thing, where you really feel like – if you’re there to get your money’s worth, which is chicken wings, we don’t want you to have to wait in line for anything else.
Kayhan: One of the challenges that a lot of event organizers have is they can understand the product offering; the ticketing, the pricing, what the patron is getting. They can understand how to engage with vendors.
But one of the big challenges is sponsors, right? As an event organizer, if you can frontload your sponsorships, they cut checks. It gives you more room to try to innovate. It gives you more budget. It kind of de-risks it.
This is something that a lot of event organizers struggle with. What have been some of your learnings, regarding developing sponsorship programs? What kinds of metrics or output are sponsors looking for?
Scott: I think the biggest thing is just lead time. Many times, these sponsors, their budgets will be spoken for 12 months in advance. So, we’re working now, to bring sponsors out to our event, show them what it’s about, and we’re looking to 2020. So, lead time is vitally important.
Also, they’re looking for engagement, not just online audience. Brands are really looking for a way for the patrons at the event to interact with them. So, executing on and coming up with creative ideas for brand activations is huge.
If you can sell them an idea, a creative idea for how to get their brand on the ground at your event, you’re already adding more value than just saying “Hey, we’ll slap your name on a banner.” I think those are some biggies.
Kayhan: Austin Wing-A-Rama is June 30th, Republic Square Park, from 1:00 to 5:00. Early entry gets in an hour early, at noon. I’m looking forward to it! Thanks so much, Scott. Any parting thoughts?
Scott: No. I’m just excited to see everybody out there!
Kayhan: Alright, thanks so much! I appreciate you coming in!
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