why Sinbad, with a thriving stand-up comedy act and a budding film career, might venture into the music festival business, the actor/comedian says it was a natural progression.
“I never looked at this as a typical business opportunity,” says Sinbad. “It started with me playing music onstage as part of my act, and people really getting into it. That’s when I had this idea of building an event around ’70s music.” His first thought was to do the show locally in Chicago, but he was concerned about the youth factor. “I was trying to limit the audience to people who had grown up listening to this music. So we decided on the Caribbean because I wanted it to cost just enough that you’d behave and wouldn’t be trying to get tossed out and sent back home.”
Rest assured, with travel packages (hotel and air) ranging from $750-$1,500 per person, no one was trying to go home early. Approximately 9,200 tourists descended on Aruba to attend this year’s five-day festival. More important, they came with money to spend. Soulfest organizers estimate the average attendee spent an average of $2,000 over the length of their stay on hotel, airfare, food, drink and souvenirs and .other personal expenses. All told, the total economic impact of the event topped $18.4 million.
While the event has major corporate backing today, Sinbad says the money for the initial project came mostly out of his own pocket. The only prominent sponsors that first year were AT&T and Polaroid, companies that Sinbad had already done commercials for. Others were wary of jumping on board, and it was nearly impossible to sell the project to corporate advertisers during its conception.
“No one believed that blacks had money to spend when we started looking at the islands. No one thought our people would show up,” Sinbad says. “Even the corporate sponsors who were targeting that audience didn’t want to get in.” But four years later, the attendance at the event has more than doubled from its inaugural 4,000 participants. As recognition of the festival has been spurred because of the HBO telecast, the sponsor list now includes the likes of Kmart, Mobil Oil and Kellogg’s.
It’s been lucrative as well. The 1998 festival generated revenues close to $5 million for Soul Music Festival Productions, says Mark Adkins, Sinbad’s brother and personal manager/executive producer. “A lot of his advisors told him he should steer clear. But he took a leap of faith.” Buoyed by good word of mouth and the success of the HBO specials, corporate America finally saw the cross-promotional tie-ins.
One sponsor that caught on was Kmart. “We get a lot of proposals, but this is a huge event that gets great exposure in the States and Aruba,” says Deborah Musselman, director of agency relations and ethnic marketing with Kmart. “It’s one of the biggest music festivals of its kind targeted to the African American consumer market. Through it, we’re making a focused effort to reinvite these consumers back to our stores.”
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