Festival Shakeup

Madison, Ind., tourism bureau
to manage festivals in house

Three festival coordinators relieved of duties;
fourth resigns

2019 Cover

(February 2019) – For years, Madison, Ind.’s three major festivals – RiverRoots Music & Folk Art Festival, Madison Ribberfest and Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art – have been managed by paid independent event coordinators who oversee volunteers and their respective committees to plan and stage the events. VisitMadison Inc., the tourism bureau, owns the festivals but does not directly oversee the day-to-day operations of them.
But that is about to change.
After spending nearly a year researching the situation, VisitMadison Inc. executive director Tawana Thomas on Jan. 8 laid out the pros and cons to the tourism board and then proposed to take the jobs in house to be performed by the creation of two new full-time positions. After careful consideration and a lively discussion, the board voted unanimously to approve the measure, opening the door to recruiting and hiring the new personnel.
“All CVBs (Convention and Visitors Bureaus) operate differently,” Thomas said. “And this current situation with using outside event coordinators has been in place here for a long, long time. Over the years, each festival has sort of gone its own way in how they do things, when their committees meet, whose on those committees and how they spend their money and pay their coordinators. We need a system that will establish some standards for operating and give me, as the executive director, more control and knowledge of what is going on because if anything bad were to happen, I would be ultimately responsible.”
As a result, RiverRoots coordinator Dan Williams and Chautauqua co-coordinators Amy Fischmer and Jenny Straub are out of a job. Ribberfest coordinator Kathy Ayers had already submitted her resignation last October and her position is still vacant. That vacancy, Thomas said in a Jan. 16 interview, created the ideal opportunity to make the change. Ayers had held the position for 16 years and just last year received a raise from $26,000 to $32,000. The two Chautauqua co-coordinators split a stipend of $30,000, while Williams was paid $12,000 a year to manage RiverRoots.

VisitMadison Inc. 2019 Board Members

• John Nyberg, president; Cara Davis Fox, vice president; Andrew Forrester, treasurer; Lindsay Bloos; Laura Hodges; Renie Stephens; Joe Craig; Dave Adams; and Dee Comstock

VisitMadison Inc. 2019 Board Members

• Tawana Thomas, executive director;
Marci Jones, special events/group sales;
Tiffini Poling, office manager/bookkeeper; Sarah Prasil, marketing director

The fourth major tourism event – the annual Nights Before Christmas Candlelight Tour of Homes, is already managed in house by full-time staff member Marci Jones. Thomas said her plan is to have the two new employees share the duties of managing the three festivals. She says it will provide many added benefits of efficiency in negotiating contracts for lights, tents, ice, sound systems, vendors, insurance and other things. It also will give her office more control over the festival finances, the Certificates of Deposit that Ribberfest and Chautauqua have accrued, and the day-to-day planning process.
“After all the research on this, it seemed to me to be a no-brainer,” said Thomas, 56, who on Nov. 6 marked her second year as executive director.  “I know this is going to be a big change for many people, but it is a change that I believe is necessary.”
Thomas said nothing will change with regard to the committees and the many volunteers who work the events. They will simply report to the new full-time event coordinators, and the meetings will be held at the tourism office.
She plans to continue paying the current event coordinators to stay on through the transition of hiring and training the two new employees.
But Straub said, “No one has talked to me about working through the transition.” Straub, who admits that she is bitter about the change, was present at the Jan. 8 meeting in which the vote to essentially fire her and the other two event coordinators was taken. She and Chautauqua co-coordinator Fischmer had given their monthly report to the tourism board earlier in the meeting. Then Fischmer had to leave the meeting. Later in the meeting, Thomas made her proposal to the board, which subsequently approved it.

Tawana Thomas

Straub said she had heard rumors that something like this might happen but she did not expect it to happen this year. “I was totally surprised,” she said.  “I’m not sure what’s going to happen now, but I want what’s good for the city and for the festival.”
Straub, 43, said it was particularly upsetting to her after she and Fischmer had worked hard the previous three years reviving the festival by adding more exhibitors, more vendors, entertainment acts and — just this past year — offering the sale of alcohol to festival-goers for the first time in the event’s 48-year history.
Straub said she is disappointed that tourism board members did not consult any festival committee members prior to the vote. “None of the board members volunteer to work at the festivals, so I think the board was not informed enough to make that decision. They should not have voted without first talking with them.”
Straub, like Fischmer and Williams, were offered the chance to apply for the full-time positions, Thomas said, but all three say they are unable to do so due to their current regular jobs.
Williams, too said he was aware that Thomas was working on a plan to replace him and the others, however, he also did not expect it to happen this year. “I think the fact that Kathy (Ayers) had already resigned, it provided the perfect opportunity for her to go ahead and do it now,” said Williams, 43, who resides in the Cincinnati area and has served as RiverRoots coordinator for the past two years.

Dan Williams

“I want what’s best for RiverRoots and for the city, and in the long run, it’s probably a good decision (to bring the event coordinator positions in house),” Williams said. “There’s always going to be pros and cons, but right now everyone is feeling a little emotional about the sudden change of leadership.” Williams, who for several years managed the camping area at RiverRoots before being hired as its coordinator, said that he planned to stay involved with the festival as a volunteer.

A hiring challenge

As for finding the right two people to manage the three uniquely different festivals, Williams said, “It may be a challenge to find the right people because each event has its own identity, and it takes a different type of person to do each festival.”
As an example, he said he would not be suited to run an arts festival because he knows very little about art. His strengths are in music. He has a band booking business in Cincinnati and also runs the Whispering Beard Folk festival each year in Friendship, Ind. The event is moving to Cincinnati’s riverfront this year.
Fischmer, 41, an art teacher at Prince of Peace Catholic Schools in Madison, said, “We were blindsided” by the vote at the early January meeting. “I didn’t even see it on the agenda. After giving our Chautauqua report, I had to leave the meeting to go back to work. Then Jenny texted me later telling me what happened.”
Fischmer has worked on the Chautauqua for 10 years – seven as a volunteer and going on her fourth year as a coordinator. She says her volunteers only know about 50 percent of what’s going in the planning stages. “The rest is in Jenny and my heads. So I don’t know how you are going to find someone able to juggle two or three different festivals.”

Amy Fischmer

Fischmer said she had heard the rumors that changes were in the works but added, “We didn’t think Chautauqua was on the table.”
She said some of her committee members want to sit down and talk with the board to get some answers before they decide to continue on working as volunteers. “They want to know why they made the decision that they did.”
Fischmer said the first Chautauqua committee planning meeting for 2019 is scheduled for February. She has not been contacted about continuing on as co-coordinator. She does not plan to apply for the full-time position because “I make more teaching at a small Catholic school than what they are planning to pay for the job.”
Meanwhile, Ayers’ resignation as Ribberfest coordinator came as a surprise to many – especially after having received a generous raise last year. But she said the time had come “for new blood and new people with some fresh ideas.”
Asked about the move to bring the event coordinator positions in house, Ayers said, “It would have been great for me to have an office and computer and telephone at the tourism office, but a lot of things that I did happened at night and on weekends – such as meeting with bands managers or vendors and committee members. So I think it may be difficult to do that day and night in 40 hours a week.”
Ayers added, “Tawana had the perfect opportunity to bring in just one person to manage Ribberfest as a trial run since I had already resigned. That way, all the leadership wouldn’t be gone. So I would have liked to see her do it with Ribberfest only and let the other event coordinators continue to do their job. Ribberfest will be fine. It will go off without a hitch because of all our great volunteers.”
Crafting a budget

Jenny Straub

To make the changes and add two new full-time employees to her staff, Thomas said she plans to request more money from the Jefferson County Board of Tourism to pay for salaries, computers and office equipment to support them.  The tourism budget is funded each with $1,500 from the county commission, $10,000 from the city of Madison and $380,000 in innkeepers tax that is collected and distributed to the tourism budget by the JCBT. Thomas said she plans to request more than $400,000 this year from the JCBT. The money in each festival’s budget to pay the event coordinators in the past also will be available to make up the salaries of the two new hires, she said.
The 2019 tourism budget was scheduled to be presented to the board for approval at its Jan. 28 meeting.
She is advertising the two new positions at a salary of between $30,000 to $35,000 and said she already has six applicants from the local area. But if the tourism budget can be increased, she wants to increase the salaries for her current staff and increase the amount of pay offered to the new hires to closer to the national average of $45,000, she said. She said she hopes to complete the hires in February – as soon as possible, since the first festival is only five months away.
Rather than divide up the festival duties between the two new event coordinators, she wants both to work on all the festivals simultaneously.
In another move to help prepare for the added staff, Thomas has spent much of the past year updating the Employee Handbook.
“It had not been updated in many years and was really out of date,” she said. “That’s because many issues we face today in the workplace did not even exist back then. And since we’re growing our staff, an updated Employee Handbook is necessary.”
Tourism board members Lindsay Bloos, Laura Hodges and John Nyberg also worked on updating the handbook, which will go into effect after the Jan. 28 board meeting, the first of 2019.
Thomas said the changes she is instituting are not quick decisions on her part. She spent her first two years as executive director studying the various aspects of how the office works and ways to improve it. Her predecessor, Linda Lytle, had held the position of executive director for 21 years, with little change to the structure of how the festivals were run. In addition to Ayers’ 16 years at the helm of Ribberfest, former Chautauqua coordinator Georgie Kelly had held her position for 18 years before retiring in 2015.
So Thomas said she is aware that making significant changes would meet some resistance. “I wanted to come into the job and give it some time to learn and research and listen to the board members and festival committee members,” said Thomas, a Texas native who is herself a former event coordinator and tourism director in her previous jobs in Elk City, Okla., and Wichita Falls, Texas.

Kathy Ayers

“I have been so impressed with the love and dedication of these committee members and volunteers who give up their vacation to work the festivals,” she continued. “These festivals are successful because of these volunteers. The event coordinators have done a great job. The decision to bring their jobs in house does not reflect on the performance of the coordinators. But I thought by doing this, it makes us more aware of what’s going on and who is doing what. They will be more accessible by working in the office and, in doing so, help support our existing staff. It will help us troubleshoot problems more immediately. And as executive director, I can support them better by having them here.”
Thomas said the tourism board “has been very supportive and did not make this vote lightly. Some of them have worked on these events and some are event sponsors. The information just made sense and the timing was right.”
Andrew Forrester, who sits on the tourism board and serves as its treasurer, said the decision to hire full-time event coordinators “will result in better efficiency and better communication. Now people can go into the Visitors Center and the event coordinator will be there in the office. There might be a few bumps along the way. Anytime you make a change like this there are going to be some bumps and discomfort because we’ve been doing it this way for quite a long time. But I think it will be better for the organization and for the events overall – especially from a legal and financial standpoint.”

Supporting role

Thomas said in addition to organizing three major festivals and a home tour each year, the office provides marketing support for many other events. She cited the annual Riverfront Run Car Show, Rockin’ on the River, the Canaan Fall Festival and the 5-to-the-5 club’s Madison Vintage Thunder hydroplane event as examples.
“These groups all look to us for advice and insight and marketing support,” she said. “Many other groups come to the tourism office seeking help in creating new events such as a 5K run or other fundraising activities.”
As a result of this, Thomas is developing an Event Planning Manual that can be provided to these groups or to anyone seeking advice on planning a new event. It will address such issues as how to obtain city permits, how to seek help from other sources such as the parks and recreation department or the local chamber. It will address such things as security, insurance, hiring vendors, fencing, staffing, recruiting volunteers and regulations involving the sale of alcohol.

“There has never been a manual like this that pulls all these issues together,” Thomas said. “I’m very excited about the Event Planning Manual because now we will all be on the same page.”

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