Special events face sponsorship, cost-control challenges

It was Friday night in Reno, the first day of August 1986. Quite warm as usual, but there was something markedly different about this evening, one that would spawn what has become a legacy special event throughout northern Nevada.

Gathered that evening at the Reno Sparks Convention Center were 10,000 baby boomers for an evening of nostalgia with music front and center. On stage were the Righteous Brothers and surfing music duo Jan and Dean. Adding to the excitement was Robert Weston Smith, better known to the throng as nighttime rock 'n' roll radio disc jockey Wolfman Jack.

There were also a lot of classic '40s, '50s and '60s automobiles in the parking lot whose owners had spent the afternoon putting layer upon layer of wax, showing off their wheels while rockin' and rollin' to the sounds that came out of the solid gold oldies era. After the performers left stage, engines were fired up and the classic automobiles began what has become a tourist favorite event the long cruise down Virginia Street.

Hot August Nights was born that evening.

Now in its 24th year, the event pulls in some 5,000 classic cars, their proud owners, and several hundred thousand fans paying homage to another era when rock 'n' roll music, glass pack mufflers, and cruising main street was king.

Reno's largest special event, however, may be leaving for Long Beach. HAN has signed a five-year agreement with the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau to host the event there. HAN officials have denied the event will leave northern Nevada for good, though.

Hot August Nights ranks up there with the National Championship Air Races, the Reno Rodeo, and Reno's Great Balloon Race as primary tourist draws that fills hotels throughout the Truckee Meadows, and generally benefits the region's economy.

But tough economic times are providing challenges for the organizers of a host of special events that also includes Street Vibrations, the Reno-Tahoe Open golf tournament, and street fairs such as the Nugget Rib Cook-off and Eldorado's BBQ Brews and Blues festival to mention but a few.

Marlene Olsen is executive director of The Great Reno Balloon Race which occurs the weekend following Labor Day and one week ahead of the air races held in Stead. Attendance is not a problem for the balloon race, she says; keeping sponsors on board is, however.

"We've lost $35,000 worth of sponsors this year which may not seem like a lot, but on an operating budget of $350,000, that's a chunk," Olsen says.

Unlike the air races, the balloon race and the classic car extravaganza are open events. There is no fee for admission. Such special events must, therefore, rely on corporate sponsors and fees from vendors at each event.

"Businesses throughout northern Nevada are suffering and we understand that," Olsen says. "But expenses continue to rise and all event managers have been working more closely with each other to find ways to pare costs without harming the event."

Mike Houghton is chief executive officer of this year's 47th annual air race event. It is a gated event which means everyone who attends pays at the gate to watch the five-day event from the grandstand. And if they want to get a closer look at some of the vintage aircraft assembled, they can purchase a pit pass. Last year, says Houghton, attendance was down about 4 percent.

"Actually, this was better than we feared. We still generated between 200,000 and 210,000 visitors for the week," he says. "We think our numbers will be the same this year, but, last year, people didn't spend as much as they had in the past."

While people came for the air show experience, Houghton says they did not buy the shirts, hats, beer, and food in quantities as they had in previous years. As a result, he says management has had to find ways to reduce expenses. With one vendor, he says by renegotiating the contract, the air races saved $60,000.

"Our insurance bill is $500,000 for one week of activity," he says. "Our biggest liability is not the racing of airplanes, but the crowds. They fall, get hurt and need medical help. All of us those who put on special events here have the same crowd liability."

This year, Houghton and his team brought in a number of travel writers to hawk not only the air races, but other special events that have made Reno a special place for many tourists over the years. His group is also looking at some of his sponsors to see if there are unique opportunities for them to partner with other special events. "We may be able to use some of the rodeo resources, for example, to throw western barbecue for our sponsors and their guests here at the air races," he says. "We need to realize we are all non-profits. We hire non-profits to assist, and we generate revenues back into the community that helps non-profits.

"I learned one thing when I was in sales. It is cheaper to retain a customer than it is to acquire a new one, and it is cheaper for all of us working together to keep all our events strong and running than it is to start up a new event and try to cover the loss."

Jill Stockton, spokeswoman for the Reno/Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, says from a visitor perspective, the RSCVA actively promotes the area's affordable room rates and the fact many of the special events are free. But the organization has beefed up efforts to work with special events managers to help see all are successful.

"When the special events work together and share best practices, learn from one another, those are the things that benefit everyone," says Stockton. She says the RSCVA spreads the word via sponsors or social media connections that events held here during the summer are "unique and of great value for visitors. When we look at travel patterns, we are seeing people planning shorter trips or shorter flights. And many make last minute decisions. The fact that many of our events are free, or, may cost $10 or $20, that's an easy sell. Travelers today are seeking a value component."

Olsen agrees. "These specialized events are great for marketing this community," she says. "You get a great experience and have a date specific reason to come to Reno, because no two events are the same."


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