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Austin during the 2011 SXSW Festival. Credit: James Buchan/SXSW

Starting this week, well over 100,000 people will be picking up their laminated badges, concert tickets and drink tokens to take part in the annual SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.

On a related note, in Grand Rapids, Mich., where I live, more than one thousand people will come out in the next few weeks for Gilda’s LaughFest (don’t make fun, I’m super excited about it).

LaughFest and SXSW really don’t have anything in common, except that they both represent how cities can create economic development through events. In Grand Rapids, this idea has become a bit of a thing, with LaughFest in the Spring, and ArtPrize in the fall.

Events like this may start small, but they can have a big economic impact. SXSW is estimated to have a $167 million impact on Austin. ArtPrize, in only its third year, had an estimated $15 million impact. The numbers for these events aren’t nearly as big as they are for the Super Bowl, or maybe even the G-8 and NATO summits, but those events move from place to place (even at the last minute).

The real problem is that lots of cities have events. How do you take yours to the next level, where you get national attention and big money? We’ve put together some tips.

We picked up these tips from three major annual events in the U.S. Each one defines its city, in a way. And each draws people from across the country. The events are SXSW, the Sundance Film Festival and Comic-Con.

There are probably other events we could have chosen to include. Mardi Gras or Burning Man, for example. Those don’t seem as replicable. The World Economic Forum also comes to mind, but, to do an event like that, you need princes and billionaires. The following tips all assume that you do not have princes and billionaires.

Here, then are the five tips to create a major national event:

1. Don’t limit yourself You might be tempted to look for something that your city is already good at. But if you’re in, say, Dayton, Ohio, you’re not going to get very far with a tire convention. The good news is, you really can do anything. What connection did San Diego have to comic books before Comic-Con? Not much. Park City, Utah was barely anything before Robert Redford showed up with his buddies to start the Sundance Institute. Good events are really more about people than place.

2. Appeal to a small, but fiercely passionate audience To build big appeal, the best events have always started small. They appealed to distinct subcultures. Sundance had film buffs. SXSW had music fans. Comic-Con had comic nerds. People who are passionate are willing to travel for the right kind of event. Most importantly, they’re constantly trying to find others who are interested in the things they love. They invite friends. They make new friends. The event grows.

2. Don’t make a fun event. Make a “must attend” event You want people in the targeted subculture to feel like they’re not complete unless they make it to this event. One way events have accomplished this in the past is by programming a seizure-inducing amount of activities. The one thing that SXSW, Sundance and Comic-Con have in common is that no human could ever hope to see even half the things going on at each event. Another thing that helps is star-power. Comic-Con had Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury on the same stage. Sundance had Robert Redford. You’ll need the biggest stars for whatever subculture you’re trying to reach.

4. Give up control You’ve got passionate people. They’re going to have ideas for how to change the event. Let them. Comic-Con started out as an event for comic book nerds. Those nerds love movies. So Comic-Con became about movies, too. This is how your event begins to expand outside of the original subculture, and becomes something truly huge.

5. Sell out. Big. You’ll know your event is on the right track when your original audience starts to complain about how big it’s gotten, and how it’s become all about the money. But anyone can sell-out their core audience. Sundance, Comic-Con and SXSW have taken it to the next level. Each one started for the outsiders. And each one is now essentially run by industry publicity machines. That’s important because the industry publicity machine is what gets the attention of the national media. And we’re not talking about landing the occasional Good Morning America spot that says, “Hey look, someone in Somewheresville is doing something interesting this weekend.” We’re talking about the attention that will leave you wondering where to park all the satellite trucks.

Not every major event in this country follows these tips (a case could be made that ArtPrize organizers skipped right to step 4, and they seem to be doing all right, for now). The best and the biggest events, though, they’ve stuck to this formula pretty well.

The only question left is what kind of event do you want to see in your city?

Looking forward to Startup Weekend Cleveland Nov. 20-22. It is going to be a fun-can-do-action-packed event. Get your tixs:

Can’t make the whole event? Buy a Sunday Night Demo Ticket for only $20 and join us Sunday evening around 5pm for drinks and final presentations.

My friend Di is co-charing this event: IPM’s 2009 Annual Luncheon featuring Hina Shah of India’s International Centre for Entrepreneurship & Career Development. A great op to support IPM’s work while learning how ICECD is creating “a new cadre of Entrepreneurs, Managers and Specialized Professionals to foster the process of non-reversible socio-economic development on the global map.”

mom-enjoying-the-breeze“Amazing Grace” Memorial & Celebration Service for Barbara Craver
Sunday, August 9, 2009

1:30pm – 2:30pm
First United Methodist Church of Cleveland
3000 Euclid Avenue (East 30th & Euclid)
Cleveland, OH

Join us to Celebrate the life of Barbara Ann Craver (2/2/33-7/7/09). As the Founder and the Executive Director of UMACC, Inc., from 1976 through the late 1990’s Barbara and the agency directly helped over 5,000 individuals and their families on their road to recovery from chemical dependency.

Barbara Craver was one of the first, if not the first, to bring the now common technique of Intervention to Ohio. She also was a pioneer in including the family in the recovery process. A National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC) and member of the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), she was frequently written about and quoted in The Plain Dealer and a regular guest authority on local TV such as the “Morning Exchange” and radio stations.

In lieu of flowers please make donations to:

First United Methodist Church
3000 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44115
Include in MEMO: Barbara Craver Memorial Social Intervention Fund

We are compiling a memory book for the service to handout so please comment on Facebook here or send an email to and it will be included.

As if you need another reason to be at the WAF:

After much deliberation and much Stroh’s, I’m proud to announce the formation of the greatest dj team since the Buzzard Morning Zoo: Drive Time Radio with Kid Flamingo and the 185th St. Shuffle. We (Myself and Jeff Sierputowski) will be making our debut at Blue Arrow Records on Saturday, June 27th from 3:30 to 5:30 as part of the Waterloo Arts Fest. We’ll be spinning what I like to refer to as “All Things Rock” — a mix of classic rock, garage, punk, psych, indie from the ’60s through modern times…

via I Rock Cleveland: Introducing Drive Time Radio with Kid Flamingo and The 185th St. Shuffle.

Got plans Fri night? Care to join us on the ‘loo?

Enjoy food, drink, music, art, and more in one festive evening on Waterloo Road, in Cleveland’s hoppin’ new arts district. With great nosh and live music in multiple locations, gallery exhibits and happenings throughout the street, and great prize drawings for freebies from some of the city’s coolest restaurants and shops, there’s something for everyone and tons of value for just $30 per person or $50 per couple. Come early from work, and spend your cocktail hour with us, or make this the first stop in a night out in our great entertainment district – but be sure to be there at 8:00pm for the unveiling of the very first artwork created for the innovative Waterloo Walls community mural project.

All proceeds benefit both the Waterloo Arts Fest, Cleveland’s fastest-growing, grassroots, arts-centric community festival, and Waterloo Walls, an initiative spearheaded by Marlee Brown of Shoparooni.

via Great Night on Waterloo to Benefit Waterloo Arts Fest and Waterloo Walls Mural Project : Arts Collinwood.