COVID-19 postponed many northern Illinois festivals. But some organizers found ways to keep their celebrations alive.
This would have been the 10th year for the live Screw City Beer Festival in Rockford. This event normally attracts 2,500 to 3,000 people. Aaron Sleger is the director and cofounder of the event. He said when the pandemic hit, he thought the festival would still happen because September seemed so far away.
“After a couple of months, it became apparent that, you know, it wasn't going to happen,” he explained. “So, we had to start brainstorming what we wanted to do, what kind of direction we wanted to take.”
Sleger admitted at first, organizers thought about doing some type of festival in a box. The concept was to have people purchase a box that contained a glass and a six pack of beer. But, he explained, breweries already had uncertain production schedules, so that idea didn’t seem logical.
The next idea landed the win. The festival went virtual. It took place on Sept. 12.
Sleger stated they came across a platform called Hopin. This virtual environment is specifically for events and not so much meetings like Zoom. He said the virtual audience had the option to drink beer as they interacted. He compared the set-up to a music festival where there’s a main stage and several side stages. In this case the main stage showcased interviews of several breweries.
“See what they've been up to,” he said. “See how they kind of navigated the shutdown. It’s hit a lot of breweries pretty hard and some breweries were able to make it through obviously.”
The Boone County Conservation District puts on an Autumn Pioneer Festival in Belvidere. This takes place one weekend out of the year.
“It's a two-day event for the public. But we have exhibitors, and people coming in advance for that one weekend," explained Mark Freedlund, the program coordinator for the district.
Freedlund shared that the decision to go virtual happened in June. He said organizers started planning right away because the event would now be a video production. He said most recordings for the exhibitors took place in August.
The next step was to figure out how the videos would be produced. Freedlund said they first reached out to Rock Valley Community College. The original thought was to have students help.
“And with our tight timeline and the quality that we wanted for the videos, they actually helped recommend a local production company,” he said.
Freedlund mentioned that because the district is a semi-governmental organization, a bid had to be done. The district went with a company called Vixen Productions because, he said, they were local -- and had the best price.
Much like the beer festival, organizers wanted those at home to indulge in festival favorites. The easiest for this one was popcorn. The district’s website is encouraging people to pop their own in a cast-iron pot, just like the festival does. If you want to be really authentic, Freedlund said the popcorn at the festival is made not with butter, but lard.
However, the audience will miss root beer and buffalo stew. He said people commented about that on the festival’s Facebook page.
He acknowledged there are plenty of things to look forward to. Some include blacksmiths, native American style beadwork and a gentleman who will show people how to play cricket.
“Also, some educational opportunities. A lot of times, this was talking about the history of Boone County,” he shared, “and we decided to have our natural resource director, Josh Sage, tell about the natural areas in Boone County and the landscape.”
This virtual event takes place Sept. 26 and 27th.
Rockford’s Greenwich Village Art Fair also went virtual. Proceeds from the art fair’s admission support the Rockford Art Museum. Carrie Johnson is its executive director and curator. She said planning for the virtual event started as early as May. This was done with the help of graphic designer Sarah Axelson. She created a website for the fair.
“And we kind of thought the best thing for us to do was to kind of use this platform as a marketing tool for artists,” Johnson revealed. “So, we did not take any percentage of sales, we really wanted to let the artist shine.”
Johnson expressed that’s in part because most artists’ shows were canceled this summer, and the museum wanted to help make up for that.
The site went live the weekend of Sept. 19 and 20th.
Johnson said the website is set up like the fair. The art is sectioned off by type. The web pages include links to the artists’ e-commerce sites. Facebook and Instagram were used to engage spectators.
“So, we had artists’ studio visits that the artist sent videos into us. A big part of our fair every year too is the Point Bar and we've got the Love Lemon Martinis,” she said. “So, we went and saw Doc and Jerry at Kortman Gallery. And they were the ones that came up with a recipe for the Love Lemon Martinis.”
A Facebook video shows instructions for this.
Johnson said the virtual event saved money on overhead, but the museum lost more than half of the funds they would have gotten from admissions and other proceeds. For example, there were no booths, so no artists’ booth fees.
Aaron Sleger and Mark Freedlund share that assessment about their own festivals.
Johnson said the museum looked at the silver lining of having a virtual art fair. She said the website had 25,000 page views. And she said next year they will possibly continue some type of virtual element even if a physical fair is possible.
Still, successful or not, Johnson, Sleger and Freedlund agree that for that true festive feeling, nothing takes the place of physical human interaction.
- Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.