Festival Planning 101 — Part Three: Size, Venue, and Pricing

Image courtesy of Jaime Lopes at Unsplash

Welcome to the part of festival planning in which your budget starts to take shape!

Your venue costs will be among the largest costs for your event, most likely (followed closely by sanitation). The only line item that has the potential of outreaching venue costs is “presenter/performer expenses,” which we’ll cover in our next article. Even presenters/performers might be relatively inexpensive, though, in comparison to venue fees, depending on whether or not you are filling your lineup with local talent or internationally-sought  authors and musicians.

So, brace yourself: land usage, venue rental, and associated fees will be a big chunk of what you will need to pay to host your in-the-flesh event.

(Note: I’m not covering online events as part of this series because they are very different creatures. If there is interest in “How to Host a Webinar” — or online retreat, even — I can do that. But those are just different critters than in-person fests and retreats.)

Public Venues

Okay, there is an exception. Public spaces (city, county, state, and national parks, as a primary example) may be a less expensive option. You’ll have to consider a few things when determining if you want to use a public venue, though:

  • Gate control — You may not have any, to be blunt. Public spaces are, by definition, open to the public, and depending on the layout of the space, what you’ll be given access to, and the venue’s rules, you may not have permission to limit access to your event to select attendees. For events that aren’t charging an entry fee or that have public outreach and education as part of their goal, this could be an ideal arrangement. But if you are trying to recoup costs through ticket sales, limit the number of attendees, or be more selective in your admission process for any reason, you may have limited options in public parks.
  • Privacy — There are a dozen or more reasons why you might want to protect the privacy of attendees at your Pagan event, all of them equally valid. But it’s important to remember that there is no assumption of privacy (from a legal standpoint) within public spaces. Inside the rented buildings/cabins, you can assume a level of privacy. But outside in the open spaces, not so much. (If you’ve ever attended an event that was protested or known a witchy friend who was battling for their parenting rights, you might have some idea why private spaces will be a comfort for many within our community.)
  • Restrictions — Both private and public venues can have restrictions regarding what you can bring or do on the property, but my experience is that public parks have more restrictions that directly impact our events. Alcohol is often prohibited in parks, which limits choices for offerings. Bladed weapons are also very frequently prohibited, which can pose problems for all the practitioners who routinely use knives, swords, and even axes as part of their ritual work. Full nudity is always prohibited in public spaces in the US, and partial nudity (toplessness, specifically) varies by state.  While all of these might be prohibited in a private venue, as well, your chances of having them as options are great when you are paying fees for the space — particularly if that space already accommodates similar events and finds nothing out of the ordinary about a naked person dipping an unsheathed blade into a cup of wine.

Private Venues

When we’re talking about private venues, what sorts of spaces are we even considering?

Again, the size and duration of the event, along with some of your thematic specifics (which we discussed in May’s article), are going to play a huge role in determining what type of spaces you might use. Private spaces most often used for Pagan-flavored events include:

Someone’s Farm

Rental Cabins

Retreat Center

Witchy Store (with attached space)

Conference/Convention Center

Pagan Event Venue

I’ve hosted events in most of these spaces, and I have attended events in all of them. Here are some insights I can share.

Someone’s Farm/Land — This type of space might not be developed into a Pagan utopia, but if the Someone is Pagan and already supportive of your concept, you might be able to implement a lot of your concepts. Parking will likely be one of your biggest concerns in this landscape. (Vehicles getting stuck in the mud in a makeshift parking lot is a bummer, my friends. And the bummer becomes your problem really fast.) You’ll also have to figure out how you’re handling showers, wash stations, potties, and water access, in general. Potties are the easiest, as you can have portolets brought in. But for the rest? You’ll have to understand what the land can reasonably offer versus what you will need to tell your guests to bring for themselves. (In some areas, you can rent portable showers and handwashing stations, but it’ll cost you.) 

Fire access is the other major consideration. This will impact individual cookfires and campfires as well as group bonfires. You and the Someone whose land it is both need to be clear about what is allowed, where, at what intensity, and for how long. (Does cooking need to be confined to portable grills and camp kitchens? Is there a bonfire circle with a fire break? How late is that allowed to run? How loud can it acceptably be? Where is firewood coming from?) 

The Someone will also need to understand the wear and tear that a crowd can have on their pastures and woodlands. Thirty, three-hundred, and three-thousand people all have different impacts, but make no mistake that even thirty people are going to leave a mark. Grass will get flattened. Ruts will get dug. Trash will be left (even with dirt-worshipping tree huggers like us).

I’ve seen “someone’s farm” used for both festivals (mid- to large-sized events) and retreats (small gatherings). 

Rental Cabins — I love using rental cabins for retreats and initiations. When I lived in California, I was involved with two groups that rented groups of rental cabins clustered together in the mountains. If you can find the right setup, you can have a section of the facility more or less to yourselves. (Again, there is no assumption of privacy in the outside spaces, but you might have a good amount of it, all the same.) 

This sort of arrangement works well when the cabins either offer bunk beds or when your attendees don’t mind sharing a Queen-sized bed with another attendee, as you’ll find many of these cabins furnished in this way. 

Cabins like this can be pricier than many of the other options, but they are often fully furnished, stocked with all the kitchen gear you need, and have a decent supply of bed and bath linens. They also have heat, sometimes A/C, indoor plumbing with hot water, and parking.

Retreat Centers are not always rentable, as they often host their own events and aren’t open for utilization by others. But this isn’t always the case. It’s worth checking what is in your region to know your options. These can offer a lot of the benefits of both a conference center and a rental cabin — amenities associated with presentations and group gatherings but in a woodsy, coastal,  pastoral, or otherwise remote location. They might already have a yoga dome or drum circle as part of the facility.

Witchy Store (with Attached Space) — There are some amazing stores out there. Some are more like community centers, in a  lot of ways. One that I was involved with in North Hollywood circa 2000 (Raven’s Flight) had an indoor ritual and classroom space that was separate from the shop itself. That space was large enough to hold 50-75 people, at least, and had its own kitchen. And then there was an exterior space that backed both the shop and the adjacent space. This backlot had two or three separate covered patios, an outdoor kitchen, and a privacy fence that enclosed it all. I attended rituals there with upwards of 200 people.

A space like this, if one exists or could be developed in your area, may not be suitable for overnight events, but it could certainly work for both single- and multi-day fests without the camping/sleeping component. Badges, wristbands, or some other visual ticketing could be used to allow participants to come and go, with guests utilizing the services of nearby hotels, homes, and restaurants for the types of amenities not covered by the event itself.

A setup like this allows the organizers to focus primarily on programming (classes, lectures, workshops, rituals, performances, social mixers, etc) and a few secondary issues (like security, first aid, maybe a group meal).

Conference/Convention Center — The biggest, longest-running, and most well-known Pagan gatherings happen at the last two types of venues. The “con”-style events are the way to go if your event is being planned for the more inhospitable winter months, or if your audience doesn’t favor camping. It is a more urban experience centered around hotel facilities and amenities, which means you won’t have to worry about the strategics of weather, potties, bonfires, or wildlife. However, you’ll have to find ways (including high ticket prices and vendor/merchant fees) to offset the costs of room rental, set-up fees, and inclusions (like catering and wait staff). The venue alone is likely to cost in the neighborhood of $1000/hour of the event.

Some conference packages will include a certain number of guest rooms in the deal, while others don’t. Most offer “blocks” of rooms at a discounted rate for conference guests. If you decide to go this route, be sure to do a thorough price comparison

My other suggestion here is to start small (and potentially sell out your event) rather than aiming for a giant Con at the start (which could leave you and/or your group in significant debt). 

Pagan Event Venues come in a variety of sizes, flavors, and under a plethora of banners. Some call themselves nature sanctuaries. Others are cultural centers. Some are festival and event camps. Most US states have at least one, and many have several. (I’m a founder and Board member for Camp Midian in Southern Indiana in a county that boasts 3 such locations — and there are 2 more in nearby counties!)

Sizes vary. Circle Sanctuary (home to Pagan Spirit Gathering) in Wisconsin is about 200 acres, and Brushwood Folklore Center (home to Sirius Rising) in New York is close to that with 180 acres. Wisteria (which hosts Starwood Festival) in Ohio is about 80 acres. My own beloved Camp Midian in Indiana, by comparison, is a dainty 25-ish acres. Wisteria’s 80 acres comfortably accommodates the 3,000+ folks who flock to it in July each year for Starwood, giving you some indication of the relative capacity of the larger venues. Camp Midian, on the other hand, taps out at about 500 attendees. That is simply all we can manage with the way our heavily wooded land is laid out.

Pricing structures vary, as well. Some venues price their land usage based on which areas and amenities you wish to access. Others offer pricing based on a head count. A few have a flat rate per day. While others utilize some combination.

Practical Example

I know Camp Midian’s pricing structure the best, since my husband and I have been the festival coordinators there since the space opened in 2014. To give you a concrete idea, let’s look at a sample event happening in this space. We’ll call our event the Great Sample Fest.

For a 2+ day event, Midian charges a base rate of $500, which is paid as a deposit prior to the start of the event. The final land usage fee, though, is based on a rate of $20/person (and a few types of attendees are “waived” so the event doesn’t have to pay anything for them being there). 

Let’s say our Great Sample Fest is going to be Thursday through Sunday. We pay $500 and start advertising and selling tickets. Our $500 includes the first 25 “non-waivered” folks. (Midian waivers the costs for first aid, security, and fire safety personnel, and we also offer 5 waivered entries for  every 50 paid entries — as a way to help fests account for part of their administrative staff.) 

If our Great Sample Fest ended up being small, say 53 total people, here’s one way that could be broken down:

Paid attendees  = 27

First Aid volunteers = 3

Security volunteers = 3

Fire Safety volunteers = 6

Other volunteers (presenters, admin, maintenance, gate, etc) = 14

We know that we paid for 25 of those folks already with our $500 deposit. Another 12 of them are in the “waivered” category, and we don’t owe anything for them. That leaves 16 attendees that we need to account for. But Midian also waives the fee for 5 of every 50 in that “non-waivered” category. There were only 41 total “non-waivered,” so we get to subtract just 5 people (we call them “contract waivers” from our 16, leaving us with 11 people that our little fest needs to pay $20/each to Midian in land usage. That’s $220, bringing our total land venue rental to $720 for a 53 person, 4 day event.

What if our event had 235 people? We paid the same $500 deposit at the beginning, and we held the same 4-day Great Sample Fest.

Paid attendees  = 93

First Aid volunteers = 9

Security volunteers = 8

Fire Safety volunteers = 14

Other volunteers (presenters, performers, admin, maintenance, gate, etc) = 111

In this example, we still only paid for 25 folks with our deposit, and now we have 31 who are “safety waivers.” That leaves us with 179 “non-waivered” folks to account for. Since that’s 4 sets of 50, we’ll get to subtract 20 “contract waivers.” (Clarification: as soon as we cross into that next group of 50, we get the next 5 “contract waivers.”) So, when all is said and done, we owe $20/ each for 159 people, which is an additional $3,180. Added to the $500 we paid at the beginning, and our total venue rental was $3,680 for a 235 person, 4 day event.

Offsetting the Costs

As an event, you have so many options for recouping your costs. Most venues are unconcerned with the overall revenue you might bring in or with the specifics of your ticket sales. They just want to make sure they are receiving fair compensation for the use of their space and the wear and tear on their facilities.

Your “volunteers” might not be working entirely for free, for example. Maybe they pay on a sliding scale that varies by how many work shifts they sign up for. Maybe most of them cover the per-person cost that you’ve estimated for them (which could include not just venue fees but other supplies and expenses, as well). Within the Midian community, we tend to refer to all of our helpers as “barters” because they have bartered their time and effort in exchange for festival entry — either in whole or in part. And we reserve the term “staff” for the handful of folks who have a formal relationship with the venue for its continued care and upkeep.

You can charge for vending. Most larger events charge for booth space on their Merchant’s Row/Room along a scale based on booth size and location, while many smaller events hope to entice vendors with free options (with purchase of admission) and the promise of new crowds. 

Selling sponsorships to organizations and merchants is another great way to defray operating expenses. Sponsors can be advertised in program booklets, on websites, and social media leading up to the event, and their logos can be added to event swag (badges, tickets, wristbands, promo items, etc), if you have them.

Events and Useful Links

Conference Cost Estimator — https://www.socialtables.com/blog/event-planning/conference-cost-estimator/

Camp Midian Festivals and Events — http://campmidian.com

Brushwood Folklore Center — https://www.brushwood.com/

Circle Sanctuary — https://www.circlesanctuary.org/

Wisteria event Site and Campground — https://www.wisteria.org/ 

Pagan Spirit Gathering — https://www.circlesanctuary.org/index.php/pagan-spirit-gathering/pagan-spirit-gathering

Sirius Rising — https://www.brushwood.com/sirius-anthology/

Starwood Festival — https://www.starwoodfestival.com/

PaganiCon — https://paganicon.org/

ConVocation — http://www.convocation.org/

[Written by Laurelei Black.]

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