Bringing Athletic Vigor to the Portland Rose Festival
In the face of economic struggle, national hardships, and difficult times, special events have become vital for an increasingly fragmented society in need of solidarity and civic unity. But the task of uniting half a million citizens in the hustle and bustle of an urban setting to celebrate their community is no walk in Waterfront Park. It’s a whole new ball game that has been mastered over the past eight years by former corporate account executive of the Seattle Mariners and current CEO of the Portland Rose Festival, Jeff Curtis. Now recognized by City Hall as Portland’s Official Festival and internationally as the Best Festival in the World, Curtis hits another one out of the park as he brings the festival back and bigger than ever for its 105th year.
What brought you to the City of Roses?
I moved here to take a job with the Rose Festival in 1998. I had been working in professional baseball and got laid off in 1997 and was looking for work. I wasn’t tied to any particular city and learned about this job at the Rose Festival. So I came down here and was interviewed and hired, and as they say, the rest is history. I moved here. I learned to respect this organization instantly. Now it’s 2012, I’m the CEO of the festival, and I’m not going anywhere.
Where did you go to college?
University of the Pacific down in Stockton, California. My degree is in Sports Management, a business degree with an emphasis on sports and sports events. I thought I might deviate from that a little bit but what I quickly learned was, the Rose Festival is a collection of events, sports is a collection of individual events called games. But all the same things happen—the event management, the marketing, the sales—all that is very applicable. What I learned in that first year in 1998 is how much this community embraces the Rose Festival, appreciates it and respects it, like they do the Blazers or a top sports team in this market.
As an athlete and a businessman, how does your past involvement with the Seattle Mariners contribute to your role as the CEO of the Rose Festival?
As an athlete, I’m a very competitive individual. I like to continue to improve and compete. We compete with ourselves in some respects. In other words, how do we improve what we did and make it better? I like to look at what other people are doing and strive to make that applicable to the Rose Festival. I think the competition side of my sports background has been an asset to this organization.
How has the festival evolved along with the progressive direction of the city and its more recently developed beliefs and values?
Balancing tradition is the most important issue that we work with. Over time, how can you adapt without dramatically changing, and make adjustments to stay in tune with a changing demographic?
Last year, Darcelle XV was the Grand Marshal of the Starlight Parade. That’s a prime example of a more progressive way of seeing Portland’s fun and quirky nature, the “Portland is Weird” factor that the Festival is absolutely thinking like. In fact, we created a whole Portlandia section with Voodoo Doughnuts, and it was this very fun section of the parade.
That is our way of thinking when it comes to Tom McCall Waterfront Park, how we program the Waterfront event. We’ve changed its name to Rose Festival CityFair, and that name tells you it’s an urban setting fair. There are no real city fairs. We only found two when we did this research. It’s designed to be reflective of Portland and the people at the Waterfront event. We also have this carnival aspect, which is very popular, but we’ve adapted some things. We built a big concert stage and invited some of Portland’s best independent music to perform: Weinland, And And And—independent bands that go from club to club playing. In fact, And And And was Willamette Week’s best new band of 2011, and they performed at the Waterfront. We want to have relevant music at the CityFair.
How has the Rose Festival upheld the original spirit of Portland?
The Rose Festival was first founded on a couple of principles: Creating identity—something that the city could call its own and bring people together as a celebration. The second piece was to create economic activity through a festival. On the latter one, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon really continues that mission, because anywhere from 25-40% of the runners will come from out of town. That’s a significant economic catalyst to an already significant impact the Festival in general provides.
Named Best Festival in the World, again in 2011, the Rose Festival has visibly been experiencing a renaissance. Where in the city is the festival gaining the most support?
The Rose Festival is going through a growth period. We see stronger support now in terms of stakeholders. The first one, I would start by saying, is City Hall. In 2010 they named us Portland’s Official Festival. When we did that, there wasn’t any monetary action, it was more ceremonial. It distinguished Portland Rose Festival as the Official Festival. It was City Hall saying, “Let’s make it real, make it the proclamation in the City Council action.” It sent a message to this community that the success of the Rose Festival is really important to the city—to its quality of life and to its economic viability.
How does the Foundation fund this citywide event during these times of economic difficulties?
About 40% of our revenue stream can come from sponsorship. We’ve been very fortunate through this recession; we grew our sponsorship funding by 18% last year, which is very significant. Our largest contributors are Spirit Mountain Casino, Fred Meyer, PGE, Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon, and Alaska Airlines. They help us add event programming in addition to funding. Partner- ships like that have provided a lot of energy and have helped us sustain our festival.
What does the Rose Festival Foundation do throughout the rest of the year?
It’s a yearlong project, for sure. We throw this huge celebration for 2 million people plus. That takes coordination, some 18, 19 months to produce. Being in this building and seeing that rose lit up 365 is an important piece of that year-round strategy. We’re not out of sight out of mind. Our fundraising year round is important. As we go through the year, we can ultimately talk to people about what we’re trying to accomplish on an annual basis, not just during a festival period of time. Our intern program is a year-round program. They work extensively, whether we’re recruiting them or when they’re doing project work. Our Rose Festival Court selections and outreach into the schools happen over many months, not just during the course of the Rose Festival. Then we have our golf tournament and our auction in September and October. That’s a secondary season for us in some respects. They’re fundraising events, but they’re also designed to give some money back.
Can you talk about the development of Waterfront Park?
Over a period of time it gets worn out. Half the project is already done, but the Rose Festival is specifically distributing $100,000 of about a $300,000 price tag to get this done. Other special events are coming in at about $60,000. So over half the project will be funded by the big special event users. The project is essentially taking the first couple inches, which is all that organic material over years and years sitting underneath the grass. That’s the stuff that kills the surface. They’ve had professional firms come out, level it out, take that organic material and haul it away. It’s made a huge difference.
What is your experience on the board of the International Festivals and Events Association Foundation?
We are the Best Festival in the World by the International Festivals and Events Association Foundation. We won that honor. There’s so much respect and praise for what we’re doing in Portland. They really admire this community and how we’ve been able to grow through a recession. It’s important that the festival be represented in a leadership capacity on a world stage. It’s really important for us to embrace the message that special events provide a unique global experience. And I say, special events make Portland a better place to live and work. This stage for this foundation on the board allows us to send that message to communities all over the world, because special events can be a catalyst to go through any difficult time.
What do you say to Portlanders who feel they don’t need to attend anymore? What should drive them to come out?
As a Portlander there’s something for everybody. This is your community. If you call it home, then this is really your festival too.