special projects with Essence, says the music festival was initially set up because the staff wanted to do something special to promote the magazine’s 25th anniversary in 1995. “This didn’t start out as a sustained attempt for us to jump into the concert- planning business,” she says. “But it was such a success, and when we came back from the first event we were flooded with e-mail and letters. We realized this was more than we ever expected.”
The Essence event has several advantages over would-be competitors. For one, it has a built-in following, thanks to the magazine’s 1 million readers. And the increased recognition of the nationally televised Essence Awards has only helped solidify the brand name. In fact, the first year the event drew 142,000, despite not locking down a headline act. “We didn’t have an act we could announce and had no idea who would be playing,” recalls Thomas. “But people came out anyway because they were traveling on the strength of the brand name.”
The event has also attracted the attention of top- flight acts ranging from the old school (Patti LaBelle and Frankie Beverly) to the new (Usher, Brian McKnight.) And as a result, such major corporate sponsors as Coca-Cola, General Mills, Anheuser-Busch and Texaco have connected themselves to the program.
Unlike Sinbad’s event, Thomas says Essence had an advantage early on in that they didn’t have a hard time selling the festival during its first year. The magazine already had longstanding relationships with advertisers across the country. And through the magazine, the company gets to leverage its circulation to sponsors by offering advertising pages as part of the sponsorship package, she says.
For those looking to break into the field, Thomas says that time and careful attention must be paid to selecting a venue and identifying a niche audience. “You need to identify an attractive location that has a particular need or a time of the year when tourism is light,” she says. “You have to give people a reason to want to come to your event because there are a lot of festivals and concerts going on every summer. You need an entity that will practically sell itself.” And if you do that, says Thomas, “You could find yourself on the receiving end of a lucrative event.”