(The Daily Advertiser) – For fans, Festival International de Louisiane, set for April 26-30 in downtown Lafayette, is about vacation days, sunscreen and making a schedule of must-see bands. But those good times come at a cost. And the fiscal challenges of keeping the festival free can cause sleepless nights for organizers.
It takes at least $1 million a year to produce the event. Stages, lights and signage alone cost $315,000 last year.
An average of 25 international or out-of-state bands, with many performing two shows, can cost $10,000 each in artist fees, taxes, visas, hotel rooms, meals and local transportation.
Festival organizers have been juggling those costs in a sluggish economy, filled with oilfield layoffs and wallets stiffened by historic August floods. The Heritage Stage, a prime showcase for local musicians, was cut this year for a savings of $30,000.
That cut helps, but a major obstacle persists — 300,000 people attend festival, yet fewer than 600 provide financial support. That lingering issue, along with other economic challenges, have prompted festival officials to spread the word about the actual costs of a major festival that has no admission charge. If those who love the festival understand what it takes to keep it going, organizers hope, they might be more willing to open their wallets.
“We’ve all done a good job or promoting the quote, unquote free festival,” said executive director Scott Feehan. “Our big effort now is transparency and education.
“With the transparency, we’ve already seen help. People find out and they say, ‘Gosh, I had no idea.’ Then people want to step up and do what they can.
“No single person should be expected to foot the bill for festival. It just gets down to, in my mind, an honor system – put in what you get out of festival.”
Feehan is already encouraged with the response. In January, two months after revealing the Heritage Stage was gone and all other main stages had no sponsors, festival officials held a press conference to welcome 19 corporate sponsors.
But financial challenges haven’t disappeared. This outdoor festival, which must set up its own infrastructure downtown, lives and dies by the weather.
The festival owes $550,000 for a new, permanent office downtown. But the new home promises be a financial asset, along with a new rainy day fund as its offspring.
At weather’s mercy
Based on 2015-16 financials, Festival International has an operating budget of $1.5 million. Roughly a third comes from corporate support, a third from individual donations and a third from merchandise sales, such as beverages and pins.
A good year of merchandise sales can bring in close to $300,000. But a day of thunderstorms can bring the festival to its financial knees.
The Rain Angels Circle, donors who receive VIP perks for gifts of $3,000 or more, have helped soften the weather blows. Some of their donations are now used to purchase rain insurance, which offers reimbursements for weather-related losses.
The insurance’s $20,000 price tag is now built into the budget.
“Rain insurance basically allowed us to sleep at night,” said Feehan. “That’s the one variable we have zero control of.
“It doesn’t make you hope for rain. It’s better for everybody if Festival goes on. At least, we wouldn’t have been dead in the water had we had a complete rain-out.”
Visas, fees and more fees
Music stars from throughout the French-speaking world have made Festival a major attraction. But world musicians come with price tags beyond artist fees.
Central Withholding Agreements require Festival to send 30 percent of international artist fees to the IRS. Artists can file a tax return for any reimbursement.
“We have to pay more for a group because of that withholding,” said Feehan, “or we have to get a big group that has a big agent, attorney or CPA who can deal with the IRS and the red tape so they can get their money.”
Travel visas add to the headache. Government staffs that do the paperwork have been drastically cut, which extends the waiting time for months.
Lisa Stafford, the festival’s programming director, said applications must go out five months prior to a show or face a premium processing fee, which is $1,250 per band. That doesn’t include a $250 consultation letter from a recognized music union.
Besides Consulate Office approval costs, which are $200 per band member, the fee to hire someone to do all the legal paperwork can cost up to $1,200 per band.
“It is very burdensome for a band or a festival that must do visas and pay all of these costs for an artist from another country to come to the U.S. and do one show,” said Stafford. “This is why we try to work with artists who have U.S. booking agents, who can defray these costs between several venues.”
Last week, festival officials held a ribbon cutting for its first permanent office, a renovated Lee Avenue space that was the Greyhound Bus station. Funded by the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority, the festival office has a 15-year note for $550,000.
The transaction also includes a $150,000 grant from LPTFA. Near the end of the loan, the festival will receive $30,000 a year to fulfill the grant.
The money will go into a benefactor’s fund at the Community Foundation of Acadiana. An independent board of seven people will oversee fund transactions.
“It’s essentially going to turn the building into a protected asset that ideally will serve as the rainy day fund,” said Feehan. “Once we pay it off, let’s say it’s worth $550,000, and it could be worth more. That’s our half million dollars of equity that we would use to borrow against if we run into tough times.
“The significance of this fund is huge. This is probably the biggest move in Festival’s history toward true, financial stability.”
The fund also includes $95,000 in seed money from longtime Festival donor Herb Schilling and Darrellyn Burts, founder of the Rain Angels. Schilling calls the fund “pre-paid life insurance.”
“We’re going to raise $1.1 million and pay off Lafayette Public Trust, so (LPTFA) can go do something else very valuable in the community,” Schilling said at the ribbon cutting. “We’ll have the money to operate this festival and we’ll let the board do what they do best and that is run the festival.
“It’s very hard to raise money. You have an ever-changing board, trying to go get money. You get a sponsor; board members leave. The manager leaves. A sponsor leaves. There’s too many moving parts.
“We want Scott (Feehan) to be focused on making this festival the very best it can be.”
‘Own the moment’
Appointed as director last year, Feehan remains committed to keeping the festival free. A revised Festival Pass and other small donor programs will help, along with 2,600 volunteers that run the event.
Feehan calls on fans, proud of their hometown festival, to put in what they get out of Festival.
“Our new tag line is ‘Own the Moment.’ Whatever that moment is for you during the festival — whether it’s watching a band on stage or eating your favorite dish — that moment is what we want to tap into.
“It’s starting to feel good. People are responding. We’re heading in the right direction.”
Want to help?
More details on individual, small business and corporate donations to Festival International de Louisiane are available at festivalinternational.org.