Create Economic Impact with your Event ... Pella Tulip Time!

November 1, 2021

We all love a good event, but do we always think about how those activities are essential to the health of a downtown and its community?

In 2022, our annual Iowa Downtown Conference (August 2-3) will be held in Pella, a community known all over the country for its expertise in hosting a big time festival….Tulip Time. The event started in 1935 and occurs annually on the first Thursday thru Saturday in May. A non-Covid year crowd size averages 250,000-270,000 for the three-day event. In 2019, Pella recorded the second-highest number of travelers (guests) in an Iowa city for those three days. The impact on the community and surrounding area is huge. Average daily spending per travel party is $401 which comes to nearly $108 million. A 2014 economic impact study done by the University of Northern Iowa showed a $3 million economic impact of Tulip Time, with nearly $2 million from retail sales. Not every community can or will have this kind of event, but even the smallest promotion in any size town can create big financial gains, not to mention the quality of life value these activities provide for residents and visitors. Pella does this annual event with a six-person steering committee and an incredibly small staff. This group manages a sprawling cast of volunteers with specific jobs; it is a volunteer-driven effort. Each of the six members of the committee has a themed focus, for example, entertainment. They serve for six years. In the first year, they go through training. In the sixth year, they train their successors….a well-oiled machine!

I had the opportunity to interview four individuals in Pella to find out exactly how they pull this off year in and year out. 

  • Jill Vandevoort, Executive Director, Visit Pella 
  • Valerie Van Kooten, Executive Director, Pella Historical Society and Museums
  • Cyndi Atkins, Executive Director, Pella Opera House, recent six-year member of Festival Steering Committee
  • Charma Vander Wert, Tulip Time Office Manager

I asked them to provide me a top 10 list of what other communities absolutely must do or must pay attention to when improving their events or starting new ones. They were so excited; they gave me 11! Hopefully, this is useful to all event organizers.

In no particular order ...
  1. Your event must have a purpose. Tulip Time preserves and promotes Pella’s Dutch heritage with many different features. The committee knows what it is and what it isn’t. Does your event make sense for your community? Don’t take that for granted.
  2. You absolutely must have good food and good entertainment. This is clearly vetted by the organizing group.
  3. Organizers must work hard to get full community buy-in and participation. This isn’t automatic even with a longstanding, successful event like Tulip Time. Organizers still must work hard at this. For example, Warm Welkoms to You (Pella’s version of Welcome Wagon) shares their leads with Pella Historical Society, and they in turn invite those newcomers to consider participating as festival volunteers.
  4. Parking, one of Tulip Time’s biggest challenges. Pay attention to this. Find it. Identify it. Promote it. Manage it.
  5. Change things up. Add a new twist. Tradition is perhaps one of the details people expect out of Tulip Time, so this may be less important to Pella than the 4th of July activities in your community, but Tulip Time organizers have had success with moderate changes in layout, events, etc. For example, the addition of Dutch Meals and a program at Central College has been a big hit and is relatively new.
  6. Have a plan for emergencies such as bad weather or other unforeseen challenges. In Pella, churches serve as standby shelter for attendees of Tulip Time.
  7. Promote the event! Times are changing. The use of social media has increased in a big way to promote Tulip Time. But, the committee still does old school promoting too, for example, brochures to motor coach tours. And, of course, a close working relationship with the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Tourism Office has been extremely important.
  8. Identify and promote lodging in your community and the region.
  9. Thank your volunteers! You will want them back. Pella does a big thank you ad in the local newspaper.
  10. Form a close relationship with the City and involve them in the planning. The City of Pella is active with sanitation, electricity, police presence and even tulip planting.
  11. Get young people involved. Get them involved in idea generation. They usually have different interests and reasons for getting involved. Pella starts early with the baby parade, Dutch dancing, marching band, etc. By the time they are grown up, Tulip Time is part of them. If they move out of town, they return for Tulip Time!

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