It is Memorial Day weekend, and there are only a few public events, compared to a typical weekend in April or October or, for that matter, most weekends in October, November, February, March and April, when planning calendars run out of space and some residents resort to flipping coins or throwing darts to determine where to go.
The calendar clustering, the apparent inability to evenly distribute events, is largely a result of when potential audiences are in town and when the weather is more likely to be optimum, according to Waco tourism officials. Take the months when Baylor University and area school districts are in session, with students and families in town, and remove months when weather is too hot or too cold, and you have October, November, February, March and April, sort of.
The events calendar maintained by the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, at wacoheartoftexas.com/events and filled with concerts, plays, festivals, exhibits, fundraisers, art shows, live music and more, provides a rough idea of how busy Waco weekends can be. Fridays and Saturdays this month have had about 20 listings each. Last month, the average was about 30.
“Our calendar is crazy to keep up with,” said Susan Morton, tourism sales manager of the Waco Convention Center and Visitors Bureau.
City use permits offer another metric of event counts. The permits cover use of city public spaces including parks and cover street closures for races, parades and other events.
Interim Parks Director Jonathan Cook said the annual number of permitted events has held steady at about 200 for the last few years, but the size of events has grown. Major new ones, including the Silo District Marathon and its thousands of participants, have been added to the calendar.
City officials updated procedures and requirements for use permits last fall, increasing the lead time for some permits to 45 days or more to facilitate planning and make demand on city resources more predictable, Cook said.
“From September to October and April to May, we’re completely full,” Cook said. “There used to be a defined event season: March, April, May and September-October, but June has become extremely busy and November is becoming busy.”
Waco’s swelling tourist traffic, boosted in large part by the attraction of Magnolia Market at the Silos, is starting to shape some attitudes about events planning.
Where planners sometimes steered clear of other major events, including Baylor University football games and the Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo weekends, some are finding there is room for multiple activities.
This spring, for instance, the Texas Food Truck Showdown overlapped with Spring at the Silos several blocks over.
“(Tourists) tend to visit two or more events,” Cook said. “When you’re coming from out of town, the more the merrier sometimes.”
Though visitor attendance tends to show up at festivals, outdoor activities and restaurants more than live performances and concerts, he said.
Cultural Arts of Waco President Doreen Ravenscroft said the early years of the Cultural Arts Festival saw different approaches to scheduling. Dates with Baylor home football games were avoided, only to see last-minute television-driven changes in time and schedules. Efforts to align with the Waco Wild West Century bicycle ride and its hundreds of out-of-town riders had mixed results.
Splitting the festival into several sub-festivals, each with a dedicated following, and a consistent location on the calendar has tended to stabilize turnout, she said, although weather, as it is with so many outdoor events, remains the joker in the deck.
The advantage of consistent scheduling leads Wes Allison, president and CEO of the Heart O’ Texas Fair, to protect the weekend of the Margarita & Salsa Festival and the October run of the fair when promoters come calling.
Outside of that, there are a few rules of thumb for event scheduling at the Extraco Events Center and its facilities, Allison said. Big names such as the Beach Boys, who performed March 27, work whenever they can route a tour through Waco. Concerts work better when colleges and schools are in session. Family events like children’s stage shows, ice skating and the circus do well in the summer. And anything with Disney attached sells at any time of year.
The expansion of online ticketing also has allowed some performers and programs to sell tickets months in advance, enabling promoters to sidestep the uncertainty of walk-up box office sales occasionally affected by late summer back-to-school spending.
The number of major annual events like the HOT Fair and Margarita & Salsa Festival have made it harder to find the less-used weekend. Consider a typical year of standing Waco-area events: Brazos Nights, December’s Waco Wonderland, HOT Fair and Rodeo, Fourth on the Brazos, Westfest, the Heart Of Texas Air Show, Waco Cultural Arts Festival, Silobration, the Bowen Musicfest, Pints in the Park, Art On Elm, Deep in the Heart Film Festival, Spring at the Silos, RiverSounds, the Margarita & Salsa Festival, Homestead Heritage Labor Day Sorghum Festival and Thanksgiving weekend Homestead Fair, Ironman triathlon and the Silo District Marathon.
Waco nonprofits are also paying more attention to scheduling conflicts and complements for their fundraising events, Ravenscroft said.
Though avoidance of major events once drove planners’ date decisions, some now aim to piggyback on their drawing power, planning a benefit or fundraiser for a weekend that may attract thousands of visitors. A similar strategy is in place for downtown Waco’s First Fridays, when multiple activities play out on the same night in the same general area, creating a collective experience and pull greater than for any one event.
More Fridays and Saturdays with more than two dozen Waco events to consider may mean residents and visitors have to pick among their options, but it is also a sign of a vibrant city, Cook said.
“There may be some hard choices for consumers, but like everyone, we’re riding the wave,” he said.