VegFests have taken the planet by storm, with dozens held in all corners of the world, from Alaska to Taiwan. These festivals celebrating cruelty-free living typically see thousands of attendees come together to indulge in spectacular plant-based food, learn about innovative companies, and connect with new nonprofits. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Chicago VeganMania (an event I co-founded) on October 13, I’m sharing my top ten tips for planning your own fest.
1.Value your volunteers
Volunteers are the backbone of any successful event. They stand between you and a crushing, embarrassing public failure. Just kidding. Sort of. Often, I see organizations treat volunteers just one step up from how Dr. Frankenstein treated Igor: not very well. At Chicago VeganMania, we demand a lot from our volunteers, so we show them we value them by treating them with respect and offering special perks including t-shirts, swag bags, and extra products.
2. Pursue your vision
If you want to have an event that is primarily focused on food and sampling, go for it. If you want your fest to emphasize education and activism, do it. But I recommend not trying to be all things to everyone, or you’ll risk hosting a forgettable event that doesn’t make much of an impression. Figure out what kind of festival you want to have and develop your event with that goal as your driving force.
3. Curate wisely
Even if it means fewer tables, I’d rather have an interesting and diverse array of vendors at an event than a bunch of chiropractors and supplement-sellers (nothing against these professionals; we just don’t want too many of them). Think like a curator: What would contribute most to an engaging experience for attendees? Similarly, if you have 20 food vendors, with 15 of them selling tacos, it could make for a less interesting culinary experience. Cultivate variety!
4. Tune into your community
We made the decision early on to use the word “vegan” in our name. Despite those who disagreed, we stuck to our instincts because we felt Chicago was more than ready for an expressly vegan event. We were right! This may not be the answer for every community, though. If veganism is on the fringe in your area, you may want to use “veg.” Trust that you understand your community best.
5. Amplify voices
If your event includes speakers, panels, and/or cooking demos, create a program featuring people who have less visibility. For example: people of color and those with disabilities are often not given as much of a platform as others. How can you use your event to amplify the voices of those who are often pushed to the margins?
6. Be a good steward
Chicago VeganMania organizers take our role as stewards seriously, insisting on compostable plates, cups, and utensils, and banning plastic water bottles. Our dedicated Green Team sorts the trash so that 95 percent of it is composted or recycled. We have generated approximately one bag of garbage per 1,000 people, and look forward to shaving that down even more.
7. Promote, promote, promote
We print out postcards, leaving them around town (coffee shops, bookstores, and libraries are good places for them), and we table at events, but our primary promotional tool is social media. Don’t be shy about asking for help. Remember that the best way to get someone to support your promotional efforts is to also share theirs.
8. Bring your core values
Whether your planning team is large or small, it is essential that people get along and respect one another. Personality clashes can be a real challenge when you’re already volunteering your time. Foster an environment of transparent communication and respect for each other. I have seen many otherwise great events implode over personality conflicts.
9. Set yourself apart
Even if your fest is free, you still want to deliver value. We have always strived to make Chicago VeganMania something with lots of value added, from the immersive experience of having our own currency (called V-Bucks), to the coveted swag bags for the first 100 people in line.
10. Expect an energy crash
Expect that after all your months of planning and working hard, you will be a little adrift after your big event. Many of my fellow organizers describe a depression, or at least fatigue, afterwards. Practice self-care and be gentle with yourself, understanding that you created something very ambitious and it’s normal to feel a little down after so much effort. Like a sand mandala, a lot of work went into something very temporary, but it was beautiful while it lasted and the memory lives on until the next time.
Marla Rose is co-founder of VeganStreet.com and Chicago VeganMania.
Photo courtesy of Vegandale Food and Drink Festival