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Sarah Watling already had an idea of what to expect when she took over as executive director of the Atlantic Jazz Festival only a few months ago. She had been working with the not-for-profit organization's staff and governing body for three years as the event's director of communications.

Still, when the festival's founder, Susan Hunter, retired this past winter, Ms. Watling was worried that she might be getting in over her head.

"Those were big shoes to fill," she admits. "Susan had been doing this for over 20 years and had established some strong relationships."

Ms. Watling has done quite well since stepping into the role, however.

This year's Atlantic Jazz Festival (AJF) runs from July 11 to 19, and features some 350 local, regional, national and international artists performing roughly 100 free and ticketed concerts at a variety of indoor and outdoor venues across Halifax.

An estimated audience of 35,000 to 45,000 is expected to take in the likes of acclaimed New York vocalists Sheila Jordan and Pyeng Threadgill and hometown mezzo-soprano Holly Cole.

While the diverse lineup is certainly impressive, Ms. Watling says that her goal is to build the AJF into a world class event by the time the festival celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2011.

"My wish list includes more concerts by bigger name artists at bigger venues," she says.

"However, all that is going to require much bigger bucks."

And although she has succeeded in upping the ante from both the public and private sectors this year - including $112,000 from the federal government, $40,000 from the Nova Scotia government, $25,000 from the city and almost $400,000 from corporate sponsors - Ms. Watling concedes that more money will be needed to reach those targets.

"Ideally, we would like to double our current operating budget of $750,000 within the next three to five years," she says.

A more immediate concern, she admits, is the province's uncertain summer tourism forecast.

"Even with a really strong local client base," she says, "I am worried that the numbers just aren't going to add up."

What the experts say

Alain Simard is the founder and president of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. For the past 29 years, he and his team have brought the best and biggest names in jazz to the city, building the event from 12,000 spectators in 1979 to an audience of millions each summer. Though he is less concerned about tourists, he can understand how a high Canadian dollar and rising gas prices might affect a smaller marketplace.

"The majority of their marketing should be aimed at their bread-and-butter client base," he says. "Creating a festive atmosphere with other attractions - street musicians, acrobats, jugglers, actors, mimes, face painters, portrait artists - will help to draw a larger local demographic."

He adds that partnering with various municipal and provincial tourism associations will get the word out to other parts of the region. "They would do well to link their website anywhere and everywhere they can; hotels, restaurants, tour operators and other local attractions."

All of that will help to increase audiences and revenues, setting the AJF up for future expansion. "Halifax already has some great live venues," he says. "All the AJF really needs are a few more big-name performers."

Mr. Simard believes there are a number of ways to attract top talent. "Like anyone, musicians want to feel welcome and appreciated," he says. "Along with making sure that they are well-rested and well-fed, having them speak with the media, inviting them to after-hours jam sessions and having volunteers show them around the city are great ways to get them more involved with the community."

In concert, bandleaders demand nothing short of total professionalism. "Jazz players expect the highest sound and stage quality possible for their performances," Mr. Simard says. "Hiring the best audio engineers and stage directors available will leave a lasting impression on them. And make sure that the backstage is well-stocked with all their favourite foods and beverages - those little extras don't go unnoticed."

He adds that no one is in a better position to sell the event to other potential performers than the artists themselves. "Musicians' circles are often quite small and most of these people know each other and play together regularly," Mr. Simard says. "Having a strong and credible reputation as a great and fun place to gig can sometimes appeal to an artist more than even high appearance fees."

Still, in spite of those efforts, hiring the big guns often requires big cash. "It's a numbers game," Mr. Simard admits. "And at the end of the day, you get what you pay for."

Kari Kylo agrees. The general manager of the Vancouver Fireworks Society - and organizer of the city's annual Celebration of Light - says that accessing funds has become increasingly challenging in the world of not-for-profit event management.

"There are a lot of us out there going after a limited amount of government and corporate money," she says. "The competition is stronger than it has ever been and the stakes are getting higher every year."

To that end, Ms. Kylo suggests that Ms. Watling look at redesigning her requests to both the public and private sectors. "Traditionally, organizations like ours were content to push only the cultural and community benefits of our events," she says. "Today, you need to present a solid win-win business case to potential investors."

For corporate partners who make for a good fit, that means a strong return on their investment. "Our new rule of thumb is three-to-one," she says, "meaning that for every dollar that these businesses put in, they get three dollars in advertising value back."

That visibility is invaluable for several reasons. "It is an opportunity for these companies to reach a captured audience and to anchor themselves in the community," Ms. Kylo says. "Being seen as contributors is a vital part of their marketing mix."


In a nutshell

Repositioning: Given the uncertain tourism forecast, the Atlantic Jazz Festival must refocus its marketing efforts to a local and regional client base to generate ticket and merchandise sales.

Reputation: Maritime hospitality, coupled with on- and off-stage professionalism, will leave a positive impression on performers, their management companies and booking agents, setting up the probability of a return engagement.

Big Money: Big-name artists command big-time fees - consider it an investment in credibility.

Partnerships: Redesigning sponsorship packages based on sound business cases and economic impact will increase funding opportunities from both the private and public sectors.

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