Photos by Robin May
Last November, Festival International’s executive director nervously stood before a crowd of TV cameras and reporters. Unfortunately, the purpose of this press conference wasn’t to announce any big-name musical headliners, or the new theatrical additions to this year’s Festival, or shower praise on community partners for Lafayette’s biggest public event — then just six months away. Rather, Scott Feehan had a much more somber message. Over the past six months, Festival had been unable to renew any of its corporate sponsors from the previous year and, despite approaching more than 100 companies, no major sponsor had yet signed on. A resounding chorus from the business community lamented the dire straits of Lafayette’s sluggish oil and gas-dependent economy.
Festival was axing Scène Heritage for 2017, Feehan said, and more cuts could be forthcoming if financial support didn’t pick up. Refusing to single out any businesses by name or succumb to grousing, Feehan kept the briefing matter-of-fact. He noted it wasn’t uncommon for Festival to be lacking one or two stage sponsors this time of year, but that to not have any was somewhat unprecedented. Still, he expressed confidence in both Festival organizers and the community’s ability to pull together another successful event.
In the days and weeks that followed, that faith was vindicated. Suddenly, the Festival office was fielding dozens of phone calls from both individuals and institutions pledging support and solidarity. “It was a real turning point,” Feehan now says, “because people did perk up.”
New sponsorships emerged. Existing business partners stepped up involvement. Even some former sponsors came back in the fold.
“After six months of ‘no’s’,” Feehan recalls, “and us not having any clue how we were gonna pull this off, organically everybody kind of stepped up; within a two-month period of time, our corporate bucket just filled up, and it was incredible.”
For Feehan, it was the latest turn in what has been a harrowing roller coaster ride as Festival’s executive director. It began in August 2015 when Feehan, then president of Festival’s board of directors, stepped in as interim executive director following the resignation of Missy Paschke-Wood, whose tenure as Festival E.D. lasted just two years.
“Everybody did their part to figure out how to make last year happen,” Feehan says.
Always a unique model, Festival International, with a 34-member board of directors and humble staff of seven, also relies on scores of volunteers and community partners who collectively will the non-ticketed, open-air cultural showcase into existence each year in Downtown Lafayette. Attracting some 300,000 attendees, and with an estimated overall economic impact of $49 million to Lafayette, it is the single largest internationally themed music and arts festival in the U.S.
While born of a bold vision, Festival began — and has remained — a grassroots operation. It debuted in 1986, in the midst of Lafayette’s last major oil bust, in what was a much more dormant and vacant Downtown. Its budget was $150,000, half of which was provided by the city of Lafayette. (Currently, Lafayette contributes $52,000 to Festival’s budget, in addition to many in-kind services that include security and utilities). Rootsy and eclectic, for many years Festival was Lafayette’s best-kept secret — the time of year when Downtown transformed into an urban village run by a restless native arts community. As Jefferson Street re-established and revitalized, Festival’s popularity soared, along with the cost of putting it on. Budget expenses nearly tripled over the past 15 years, rising from just over $500,000 in 1999 to just under $1.5 million in 2015.
Revenue, on the other hand, couldn’t always keep up. Organizers struggled to keep the Festival true to its original mission of being both open and free to attend. They pushed sales of decorative pins as a “ticket” and faced a slew of new brick-and-mortar bars and restaurants competing with their pop-up beer and beverage sale tents. (Beer and beverage sales currently generate about $300,000 a year for Festival.) In some years, Festival enjoyed record-breaking attendance and revenue, yet a budget that still ended in the red.
“Last year we had a cash problem,” recalls Feehan, who began serving on Festival’s board in 2010. “And that was at least the third time in Festival’s history where we did not know if we were going to make it to Festival [with any money left in the bank]. This year without sponsors we had a revenue problem.”
To keep Festival afloat last year, Feehan and company went through the budget line by line and managed to cut expenses by approximately $400,000, leveraging their human resources and community connections. Tech-savvy board members helped move the website onto a new cost-saving server plan. Board member and Parish Ink co-owner Tom Brown took over T-shirt and sign printing at cost (a move that alone saved Festival almost $10,000). As interim E.D., Feehan didn’t take a salary, (he still maintains a second job as an I.T. project manager). And Programming Director Lisa Stafford continued to prove proficient, booking Festival’s music stages with a shoestring budget.
“Lisa works wonders,” says Sami Parbhoo, a veteran volunteer who served three years as vice president of Festival’s programming committee. “The bands and agents really trust her.”
The challenge of booking international acts has been compounded in recent years. First came an I.R.S. requirement to withhold 30 percent of payment to all foreign entertainers (unless the artist is able to negotiate a Central Withholding Agreement ahead of time.)
“Every year there’s a new restriction,” Feehan says, “a new piece of red tape going into bringing in international artists and what that effectively does for us is just bump up that cost.” More recently, staffing cuts and processing delays at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have threatened to force international events like Festival to pay expedited processing fees to obtain visas on time. Visa attorneys have also just begun warning of U.S. plans to intensify security screenings and interviews through foreign consulates. The foreign consulates have ultimate veto power over any pending visa, regardless of the time and money already spent domestically on securing it.
In addition to Stafford, who has now been with Festival International 19 years, other essential veterans on the team include Production Director Diane Harris and volunteers like Parbhoo and Jimmie Duhon, who helps coordinate both electrical setup and artist hospitality. Newer staff members, Development Director Candace Gulotta-Haggert and Marketing Director April Courville, have had an immediate impact.
“We have an unbelievable staff,” Feehan says, “and I feel like what I try to do is stay out of the way as much as possible and just try to keep things going in the right way.”
It’s somewhat of a familiar role for the enterprising director, who brings to the table a modern business sense and old school D.I.Y. ethic that complements the organization well. At Comeaux High School and later UL Lafayette, Feehan was in marching band, wind ensemble and a couple of garage bands. He was the stereotypical drummer, organizing practices and serving as de facto roadie. “I used to think I was a drummer,” he says, “but really I was the organizer and the business side, that’s where my head was. There are a whole lot of way better drummers than me, but my head worked in the business sense and I opened the drum shop so I could still be around good drummers.”
After dropping out of his first stint at UL, Feehan launched Scott’s Drums on April 1, 1998. “Everybody thought I was joking,” he says, referencing the April Fool’s opening date. “I did that for a year and a half and said oh man, I better go get a back-up plan; this isn’t all the glory I thought it was going to be.” While keeping the shop going, Feehan went back to UL, majoring in information technology and freelancing I.T. projects. He also co-founded and helped open Acadiana School of the Arts in 2004. (Feehan sold his remaining interest in Scott’s Drums this year).
Feehan met his now wife, Peggy Somers, a visiting French teacher from Canada, at Festival in 2001. “Festival is in my blood and has been forever,” he says. He holds a reverence for the Festival founders — a group he has actively courted and that Festival paid homage to during last year’s 30th anniversary. The founders are now actively involved again through a newly formed special exhibits committee.
Festival is also taking steps to secure its financial stability into the future. This includes a new Downtown office on the corner of Lee Avenue and Clinton Street; obtained through assistance from the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority, it’s the first major asset Festival will own. Last year, organizers also purchased rain insurance for the first time to guard against the possibility of thunder storms wreaking havoc on attendance and revenue.
“[Festival’s financial issues] are being addressed better than they’ve ever been addressed before,” says Stafford, who is accustomed to entering every year with an uncertain budget. “We’re moving in the right direction.” In 2013, statistics showed that of the 300,000 people who attend Festival, only some 10 percent actively supported it, either through the purchase of Festival pins or Festival passes that come with some V.I.P. perks. That number has since doubled. “It’s great to be able to go to a festival for free,” Stafford adds, “but that does not mean it is free to put on the Festival. It’s very expensive to put on. I think the more that people understand that, the more supportive they’re going to be, and we already see a turnaround in that.”
Last month also marked the announcement of a Festival Benefactors Fund through the Community Foundation of Acadiana. Seeded with nearly $100,000 from Herbert and Renee Schilling and Darrellyn and Don Burts, the protected fund will serve as a true reserve for Festival to be able to draw from in times of need.
“The benefactors fund is set up to perpetuate the Festival forever,” says Herb Schilling, a founder and benefactor who helped launch the event 31 years ago. The dedicated fund will be managed by its own board, which will include Mr. Schilling, Darrellyn Burts, and Festival’s executive director and board president, as well as three other yet-to-be named members. Schilling hopes to raise $1.1 million for the fund — enough to pay off Festival’s office building and establish a solid reserve.
“The name international says it all,” asserts Schilling, stressing the role the event plays in putting Lafayette on the map. “We expose the world to Lafayette, and it’s amazing what this Festival does to expose Lafayette to the world.”
Keeping Festival a truly international affair — and representative of the full spectrum of cultures in Lafayette — is a priority for Feehan and the board.
But French influence is still predominant. Last year Festival featured Charlélie Couture, known as the “French Bob Dylan,” and this year the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana will be running poetry and other French language programming out of the former Scène Heritage space. (Festival also managed to sell some of the real estate for corporate hospitality tents.)
“We pay homage to our Francophone roots,” Feehan says. “We’re not going to get away from that, but we want to welcome the other communities to the table.”
A successful fundraiser last year featured an Indian Bollywood theme. This year Festival is touting GuGu Drum Group, from Shanghi, as one of its headliners.
Having been a Festival patron, board member and now executive director — no matter the vantage point — Feehan describes seeing all the elements of the event come together each year as a mind-blowing experience and something worth preserving.
“It’s way bigger than the party in the streets that a lot of people think about,” he says. “It is an unbelievable economic driver. To be part of something like that, especially right now — it’s pretty cool.”