The Tucson Festival of Books has the community reading and is an economic bonanza, paying off with cash in coffers, exposure for businesses and improving Tucson’s image.
Festival organizers project that at this year’s March 15-16 event about 120,000 participants — that’s about twice the number it takes to fill Arizona Stadium — will pile into the University of Arizona Mall and adjacent buildings. Now in its sixth year with about 300 exhibitors and 450 authors participating in literary activities, the festival had a meteoric rise and now is among the largest book festivals in the nation.
The festival is pumping an estimated $4 million into Tucson’s economy annually, said Bill Viner, a festival founder, based on a 2013 study by graduate students in the UA Eller College of Management.
The festival’s impact on Tucson’s economy is as big as or bigger than similar events, said Sam Flaim, who is with the economic consulting firm Compass/Lexecon in Tucson and is the former chief economist for the state of New Mexico.
The festival’s economic churning has local businesses and charities seeing both qualitative and quantitative results.
The volunteer-driven Festival of Books, developed to promote literacy, is a free-to-attend event that’s funded by corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, Friend of the Festival donations and exhibitor booth sales. It has donated about $900,000 in its first five years to local literacy efforts, said Viner. The Star is a major sponsor of the book festival.
LOCAL BUSINESS BENEFITS
Likewise, the book fest gives local businesses a boost.
Even though March was already one of the busiest months for Main Gate Square, “since the inception of the book festival, total sales have risen approximately 5 percent per year in March,” said Jane McCollum, general manager of the Marshall Foundation and the shopping and dining area immediately west of the UA.
“We certainly notice increased foot traffic over the weekend and breakfasts are more brisk due to the festival’s early start,” she said. And some merchants are directly involved with the festival, such as Gentle Ben’s Brewing Company, which hosts an authors dinner the Saturday night of the festival.
The long line snaking out from the Frost, A Gelato Shoppe, booth in the festival’s food court tells the tale of the till. Jeff Kaiserman, who owns Frost with Steve Ochoa, said the company, one of the original festival vendors, became involved with the festival for the exposure, to let people know Frost has a catering cart.
The added value of the festival is that customers from all over Tucson — people who didn’t know Frost existed — have come to the stores, Kaiserman said. Frost has added a second cart serving a festival exclusive — bars that are not available in Frost’s stores.
“Audience reach” is among the benefits for food vendors at the festival, said Shelby Collier, who owns Beyond Bread with his wife, Randie. The couple served on the festival’s steering committee for the first five years.
Mobilizing Beyond Bread for the festival is a lot of work — preparing food at the stores before the event so it can be served quickly at the festival, transporting the food and equipment, and staffing, Collier said. Combined with an attempt to keep prices reasonable, the festival isn’t a cash cow for Beyond Bread.
Collier said he sees the exposure to the sheer number of people, as well as the related advertising, public relations, goodwill and the marketing partnership with the event, as invaluable.
It is difficult to determine the return on investment of book festival participation, said Tricia Clapp, who has owned Mostly Books with her sister, Bobbe Arnett, since September 1988.
“We have increased the size of our booth at the festival since it started, and it is expensive,” said Clapp. “Plus, we order a ton of books and have to pay for shipping back if they don’t sell.
“Still, it is worth it for the chance to meet authors, get new customers and meet book people in general,” she said. “It is a massive marketing opportunity for us as it puts our name in front of thousands of people. After 25 years, there are still so many people that don’t know we exist, and this has helped.”
The festival gives Mostly Books staff the chance to talk with publicity people from publishing companies and bring in more out-of-town authors at the festival and in the store. The store sells signed books after the festival to its regular customers, Clapp said.
The recurring benefit of exposure also extends to the region and the state.
Events like the book festival and related television coverage bring positive attention to a state that often struggles with its national reputation and has lost conventions and meetings due to legislative actions, said Brent DeRaad, president and CEO of Visit Tucson, formerly the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The book festival is one of the events that improves the perception of sophistication of the Tucson area, especially among those who may have an outdated or unrealistic view of the region, said Laura Shaw, senior vice president for marketing and communications for the area’s industrial recruiter, Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc.
“Large events with national and international media coverage, such as the Festival of Books and Match Play, present a ‘place branding’ opportunity that we as a community could never afford to achieve with paid advertising budgets,” said Shaw.
“It means Tucson gets positive exposure to millions of viewers over a concentrated time period — that kind of earned media reach is just not available to many communities of Tucson’s size,” Shaw said.
Last month’s World Golf Championship-Accenture Match Play Championship had 405 registered media members in attendance, representing 192 outlets and 10 countries, said Judy McDermott of the Tucson Conquistadores, the local volunteer group that works with and sells the tournament. She estimated that 733 million households outside of the United States receive the broadcast of the tournament.
CNN will be taping book festival events in the Gallagher Theater.
“In addition to broadcast exposure, many authors and out-of-town attendees experience a very professional, world-class event that they typically see in much larger communities such as Los Angeles and New York City,” said Shaw. “They leave with a very good impression to return — for business or pleasure.”
POTENTIAL TO GROW
The Tucson Festival of Books is a strong asset for Tucson and Southern Arizona, said DeRaad. “It’s one of those unique events that has the capacity to really grow” and generate more economic impact.
The metrics show that the best way to grow tourism is events that get regional and national attention, DeRaad said.
Tourism-related income is considered true wealth creation to economic developers because visitors spend and leave their money here but have little impact on infrastructure or effect on permanent residents and businesses. An estimated 70 percent of what a Tucson visitor spends goes to local, sales-tax-generating businesses like restaurants and shops.
The golf tournament accounts for a minimum of 2,900 room nights for media, sponsors and TV production crews, said McDermott. Those room nights mean cha-ching for the tourism industry as a whole.
DeRaad said he would like to see the book festival’s marketing expanded to entice visitors from Phoenix and the region to spend a few days and their money in Tucson.