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Are festivals worth it?

windy city smokeout

Summer is the time of year when food and music festivals reach their peak, some combining the two. Restaurant brands are behind a few of the latter, including Chipotle and Sweetgreen. It seems like they are hosting these festivals to extend the brands’ unique culture to their fans. But how can smaller operations with smaller budgets do something similar? And is the ROI worth the expense and hassle?

Last month, I attended the Windy City Smokeout, a barbecue and country music festival in Chicago thrown by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. It featured a host of BBQ chefs, craft beers and bands—all of which made for a very satisfying way to spend a summer day. To find out how and why LEYE held this event for the third year running, I caught up with RJ and Jerrod Melman, the brothers who hatched the idea and made it grow.

How has the Smokeout evolved in the last three years?

We are always trying to improve every aspect of the experience from the lineup of headlining and up-and-coming country music talent to the barbecue teams we are adding. In 2013, the BBQ talent included Bub City, Smoque, Lillie’s Q, The Salt Lick and Myron Mixon. In 2014, we added Chicago Q, Pappy’s Smokeout and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. This year, we not only added Hogapalooza and Ubon’s, but also introduced other non-BBQ food vendors like Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Supreme Lobster, Kensington’s Waffle Fries, Doughnut Vault, Crave Bar and Summer House Bakery.

The craft beer experience has also gotten stronger every year and we have added special events like a big outdoor brunch and amateur rib contest. This year, three-day passes ranged from $99.50 to $400, with packages offering varying numbers of food and drink tickets and access hours. One-day admission ran from $40 to $145.

How do you staff the festival?

Within our own organization, we are lucky that we have so many great managers, employees and interns to pull from to work the event. It honestly has become our team’s favorite weekend work. It really brings everyone together and it has definitely boosted the culture within our company.

How is the Smokeout an effective marketing tool for LEYE?

With the Smokeout, we are focusing on the ‘Entertain You’ aspect of our company. By zeroing in on creating a great guest experience, we find that guests who came on Friday and spent the day discovering the food options, will then come back on Saturday and Sunday to hear great music. We heard this repeatedly from the crowd. It is also important that the vendors and barbecue teams have a great experience partnering with us so they continue to want to come back and help us to attract new talent from around the country.

Are you marketing the Smokeout mostly to current customers or potential customers?

This year, in year three, it was great to see people come in from neighborhoods and suburbs in and around Chicago as well as drive markets around the Midwest. We had ticket purchasers from as far as New York and Los Angeles (New York was our second top referring city next to Chicago) and our Web traffic from out of state was up 23 percent from last year.

It seems like restaurant groups are hosting festivals to promote their culture as well as their food and hospitality. Is that your intention and why is it a good idea?

There are a lot of operators who are captivated by the festival market and I think the thing that people don’t realize is how much work and infrastructure goes into it. Most festivals actually lose money and we have put a lot of time and energy into creating a very specialized team to execute the Smokeout well.

What were the results of this year’s Smokeout?

This year we saw nearly 30,000 guests, up almost 10,000 from 2014. In 2013, our first year, the guest count was 12,000.

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