With A Little Luck

By Mary Jo DiSalvo and Sara E. O’Malley

What does it take to roll out the green carpet to more than 100,000 guests? Much more than the “luck of the Irish.”

For nearly three decades, the organizers and volunteers at the Dublin Irish Festival in Ohio have been making the first weekend of August a highlight of summer for local residents, as well as for people from other states, countries, and cultures.

A Brief History
The festival began in 1988 with a small group of dancers and one band, the Irish Brigade. The dancers performed on tennis courts, illuminated by car headlights. Today, light towers have replaced the headlights, and the festival covers 38 acres, including seven stages, more than 135 performances, 185 tents, 1,700 tables, and 8,000 chairs. And the festival—funded by hotel/motel tax—has a regional economic impact of approximately $8.3 million.

In 1992, the city of Dublin became the main sponsor of the festival, an arrangement that allows organizers to rely on a small, year-round staff of event professionals who are part of the city’s Division of Parks and Recreation. The event staff is also supplemented with seasonal help and about 1,400 volunteers. Planning for each festival begins as soon as the previous one ends, with a review of lessons learned and an analysis of feedback, gleaned from surveys, input from volunteers, and social-media chatter.

Committee Cooperation
Committees are composed of staff members, festival founders, and volunteers whose passions align with the different needs of the festival. Volunteers can help plan and assist with cultural events, vendors, stage management, and many other aspects. Some committees, such as the one thinking about ways to promote the festival, gather year-round; others gear up as August draws near. With a long history of success, best practices don’t have to be reinvented every year. However, with an eye toward continuous improvement, new ideas—such as a Sustainability Committee and exciting, relevant promotions—are always being developed. In addition to as-needed committee meetings to flesh out schedules, logistics, and staffing needs, event administrators, city staff members, and committee captains meet throughout the year to discuss past performance and define goals for the upcoming festival.

Community Partnerships
Community building is the heart and soul of the festival, and partnerships are integral to its success. Sharin’ O’ the Green is a fundraising arrangement that allows community groups, such as local school sports teams, to earn money by filling a need at the festival—selling bottled water and sodas. In 2015, $131,000 went back into the community in this manner. Additionally, $11,000 and nine tons of food were collected for the local food pantry through an arrangement that allows guests to attend the festival on Sunday in exchange for providing canned goods.

A strong festival-community relationship is also evident in the importance placed on guest safety. Festival organizers work with local law enforcement to review logistics, traffic patterns, and the education of beverage servers. City staff members also prepare for and patrol the festival daily, addressing issues such as muddy walkways, garbage removal, and the identification of potential trip hazards.

One of the most critical elements of public safety during the festival is anticipating and reacting to weather events. A meteorologist is on the grounds throughout the weekend. Evacuation policies are reviewed and, should an evacuation be required, an outdoor warning system alerts guests. In addition, seven stages with public-address systems communicate the same weather-related messages.

Navigating The Grounds
With 50,000 attendees on the festival’s busiest day, and hundreds of volunteers and staff members spread throughout the grounds, communication is the key to success. More than 200 radios are used, with separate channels for city services, festival operations, beverage distribution, entertainment, and more. In addition, detailed instructions are compiled in three-ring binders for every stage and station, including entrance/exit gates and information tents. For festival guests, detailed, color-coded maps are available, with corresponding color-coded signs on the grounds.

Information about the festival—including maps, stage schedules, and parking details—is also available online, so guests can plan their weekend months in advance. Announcements about coming entertainers and exhibitors are made via social media, and subscribers are encouraged to “get social” and share their festival experiences on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, even while they’re attending the festival. In 2015, the festival’s Facebook page had 35,000 fans, making that venue an ideal way to share news about special ticket packages. Historically, increasing attendance on Sundays has been a festival goal; offering family-oriented packages that include tickets, meal vouchers, and promotional items has proven successful.

Navigating nearly 40 acres of festival grounds means lots of exercise for guests—and plenty of golf carts for the staff and volunteers. Carts are used for setup, teardown, and transporting everything from musicians to a fresh supply of beverage tokens. More than 80 golf carts are rented for the festival, which allows for the swift responses that patrons and performers expect. In the event of severe weather, golf carts are especially valuable in assisting with grounds evacuations.

But when sunny skies prevail, it’s all about eating, shopping for festival treasures, and taking in all of the jaw-dropping, foot-stomping, glass-raising performances that three days will allow. For festivalgoers, it’s an unforgettable summer highlight. For the staff and volunteers, it’s an exhilarating, exhausting whirlwind of a weekend that is the culmination of months of careful planning, thoughtful execution, and just a wee bit o’ luck.

Mary Jo DiSalvo is the Event Administrator for the City of Dublin, Ohio. Reach her at mdisalvo@dublin.oh.us.

Sara E. O’Malley is an Event Specialist for the City of Dublin. Reach her at somalley@dublin.oh.us.