Food and wine festivals, national speaker series and magazine-sponsored houses are not new ideas, but they are usually the domain of mass consumer magazines with deep pockets. However, 12,000-circ. regional magazine Inside Columbia, which serves the 90,000-population city of Columbia, Missouri, has managed to tailor those big ideas to its own market and staff limitations, generating more than $400,000 in event revenue (which is 30 percent of the magazine’s overall revenue).

That’s especially impressive considering Inside Columbia is not only in a small market but one in which local media pricing is driven down by the local j-school. “This is a university market where much of the available media is university-owned and subsidized,” says publisher Fred Parry. “They don’t have the overhead we do and the ad rates in this market are very low, relatively speaking. We sell ads for $1,000 a page. Springfield, Missouri has a great magazine called 417 and even though we print 1,000 more copies than they do, their ad rates are nearly three times my page rate. It’s a shoe-string operation for the most part.”

Making Do With Limited Resources

Out of a 14-person staff, Inside Columbia has one full-time special events manager, while Parry and the marketing director also devote much of their time to the events. “We will spend six or seven months planning events like the Wine and Food Festival,” says Parry. “It takes a tremendous amount of coordination. Anytime you’re working with chefs and wine makers, they’re all artists, and it probably takes three times the number of normal calls than with anybody else.”

In 2008, Inside Columbia sold 2,500 tickets to its first Wine and Food Festival. This year, Parry says attendance should top 4,000. “This year was easier because we had a database of previous attendees,” he adds. “Last year we did a post-festival survey and 98.3 percent of attendees said they’d be back for 2009 even though we hadn’t announced it yet.” While the most expensive dinner at the festival is $125 per person, that has been the best-selling option for the 2009 event, Parry says.

The National Speaker Series and Culinary Adventures package are not big money-makers but build affinity with readers, according to Parry. The Inspiration Homes—luxury homes which Inside Columbia offer as live promotional vehicles for advertisers—produce good returns, provided the magazine can sell the homes (it shares risk and revenue with the builder and developer) at the end of the promotion. “We built an $800,000 home and kept it open for nine months,” says Parry. “It took a year and a half to sell and it was no fun writing that interest check.” The sale closed in June.

Sponsors sign on once they see a quality event. “For example, at our Best of Columbia party in April, we had 1,700 people show and 60 or 70 exhibit booths,” says Parry. “It was one of the largest crowds ever in the expo hall. The message was, ‘Wow, this magazine knows how to move people and attract a crowd.’”

Sponsorships and 12x Commitments

Sponsorships for the Wine and Food festival range from $5,000 is $15,000. For the Culinary Adventures, sponsorships range from $1,500 to $2,500. “It’s hard for me to draw a connection between what the customer is paying and what they get,” says Parry. “It’s perceived value and much of it is based on what the market will tolerate. Something we sell for $15,000, somebody else in another market might sell for $50,000.”

The Inspiration Homes sell sponsorships ranging from $500 to $1,500 and can range from the local Anheuser Busch distributor stocking the fridge to a BMW dealership putting a car in the driveway to a local flower shop decorating the interior. Advertisers can also sponsor their own private events at the home. And while the sponsorship itself is relatively inexpensive, participants are required to sign a 12x contract with the magazine.

“In a year like 2009, I’m going to have a mediocre June and July in the magazine but the Wine and Food Festival will make up for a couple months of revenue,” says Parry. “These events are critical and I have to remind my editors of that every now and then. They don’t like to be very promotional about our events but the nice thing is the event creates an instant reaction and an opportunity for them to get face-to-face with the readers.”

Deferring Costs

Parry says none of the events have a set budget but the magazine has developed tactics for sharing the burden.  For its National Speaker Series, Inside Columbia tries to avoid the speaker’s bureau or talent agency and negotiates directly with the talent. The magazine also looks to partner with local mega-churches that have both capacity and great A/V capabilities.

“I think every big idea can be modeled to fit any market size,” says Parry. “Most of stuff we’ve done has been a gamble. You can accomplish a lot in a small market if the readers have an affinity for your publication. If you make sure everything you do is a first class experience, they will support you. We discovered on our Culinary Adventures trip to New York City with some of the best restaurants in America, that these restaurants are happy a magazine is bringing in people. Readers know that by going to events associated with the magazine they, in turn, will get red carpet treatment. Our readers like that treatment and advertisers love access to it.”


Inside Columbia Event Descriptions

Culinary Adventures
• Guided four-day trips with groups of 40-to-60 readers to a destination well-known for restaurants (New York City, New Orleans, Sonoma, Tuscanny).
• Price point is $995 per person, which includes airfare, hotel, ground transport, cooking class and one culinary adventure.
• Sponsors include travel agencies, wine shops, gourmet shops.
• Magazine gets four seats to use for incentives and client application.

National Speaker Series
• Features a Wall Street Journal or New York Times best selling author.
• General session followed by invite-only CEO lunch or breakfast.
• Sponsors pay for speaker ($15,000-$20,000), magazine keeps ticket revenue and lunch proceeds.

Wine and Food Festival
• Eight-day event featuring wine dinners at local restaurants, art events, concerts, VIP dinners.
• Magazine works with local wine distributors to have all wine donated.
• 270 wineries participated with nine restaurants.
• Sponsors included banks, wine industry groups, wine distributors, beef industry council, car dealers.

Inspiration Home
• Built two homes in last three years.
• Sell sponsorships for furnishing and decorating of the home.
• House is open daily for nine months.
• Customers allowed to sponsor private events.
• Magazine shares risk with the builder and developer.
• Magazine sells house at end of promotion, splits revenue with builder and developer.

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