Highland Chamber Director Looks Back at 61st Maple Festival
Josh Umar stopped by the studio this week, not to discuss radio, even though he serves as president of the AMR Board of Directors, but to review the recently held Maple Festival from his view as Executive Director of the Highland County Chamber of Commerce.
“I feel like it went very well. The 61st Annual Maple Festival was a success in my book.”
He was quick to spread the praise for that success.
“Well, as much as I would love to take the credit, we really live in a place where the whole community pulls together to keep the tradition of the Festival going. So, you’ve got your syrup producers, obviously; civic clubs, churches, VDOT to keep the roads clear; your first responders; all your vendors – food, drinks, arts, crafts, school, government, the lodging people. You know, it’s a whole community effort to make the festival what it is every year, and I don’t think this year was any different. We did have an increased sponsor presence this year, so I really want to thank those folks for putting some money behind the Festival. And, of course, we had great volunteers. But really, at the end of the day, it’s the visitors that come and spend their money, and learn what we have to offer in Highland, that really makes it go.”
I asked his estimates on attendance.
“Our best guess, and it is a guess, about how many people attend – the nutshell, I would say, is that we probably had, over the course of the two weekends, a little bit under where we came out last year, but the people who came seemed to be interested in spending money, and buying arts and crafts and buying food. And so, I think most folks ended up doing okay.”
This being his first year at the helm, I wondered if there were any surprising moments.
“Well, we had a bus take the front end off of a car at the school parking lot, but thanks to the state troopers and other first responders, that was quickly cleared up.
“I would actually say that I was quite surprised at just how much we need to educate people about the Festival truly being countywide. I feel that a lot of phone calls in the Chamber office of people saying ‘what’s the address of the Festival?’, and you know, you say,’ well, that’s not quite how it works’ because the Festival’s all over the county and there’s sugar camps all over, and there’s vendors, and people have a lot of trouble really internalizing the idea that there isn’t just one place that the Festival is, especially if they’ve never been here before. You know, when you’re reaching new visitors, they don’t know what it is, and they’re learning everything they’ve learned from radio or Facebook or whatever. And it is hard for people to understand that you can have a big county, with as small a number of people as we do, but have a festival that is truly county wide. And so, I think if we can educate people in that regard, and you know, it seems so obvious to those of us who have been in Highland for years that it is a countywide festival, and that there are a lot of different things to do and places to be. – but I think if we can continue to educate people on that, and get them in the habit of doing more than one thing -if we can clear that hurdle, that’ll do a lot for the Festival, but it definitely is a hurdle that we need to clear.
“Going through my first one, I’d say I definitely learned a lot. I was pleased with how it went, but you know, I’m the guy that’s walking around with a list of 200 things in my phone that I want to improve on. And I’d say that there are things we can improve on – there’s some things we’re doing really well, but there’s a lot of things that I want to tweak moving ahead.
“I would say that we, probably what we want to do is be sure to be as proactive as we can about continuing to market the Festival. You know, Maple Festival is one of those things that, it’s been going on for a long time, and you can kind of convince yourself that, you know, it happens automatically. But that’s not at all the case. A lot of the marketing that we did this year with radio ads in the Valley and places like that was really helpful to drive attendance, and I think we’ll continue to explore new ways to market the Festival in the future, and to find new visitors. We want to get that next generation of folks to come out here so that they can bring their kids, and their kids can bring their kids, and we can keep the Festival going for a long time. And I think that proactive attitude is really important because we’re starting to see that in some other regions, other states, there’s a little bit of competition popping up. And it’s going to be my job as the Chamber director to make sure that our Maple Festival stays the preeminent Maple Festival, and then when people are making memories at a maple festival, they’re making those memories at our Festival.”