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A sampling of folklife and cultural tourism projects in the U.S.
Case Study: Cowboy Poetry Gathering*
Western Folklife Center
The Western Folklife Center, a regional nonprofit, has been producing the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada since 1985. Deborah Fant, Cowboy Poetry Gathering Manager, notes that in much of the American west, state tourism departments, which have historically been focused on plugging recreation and the outdoors, have had very little interest in cultural tourism. Recently, however, they have become somewhat more interested in cultural tourism, especially since research has shown that "Generation X" is not as interested in outdoor tourism as Baby Boomers. The Cowboy Poetry Gathering is an event that marries a literary form with the celebration of an active outdoor lifestyle.
A 1992 survey reported that the Cowboy Poetry Gathering had an impressive impact on the economy of Elko--over 6 million dollars. And the general opinion of Elko’s townspeople has been that the Western Folklife Center makes a bundle on the Gathering. In reality, the Center relies not only on ticket sales but must also generate substantial contributions from local businesses and individuals as well as grants from foundations in order to break even. For the past couple of years, the Gathering has made money, but at most it will be self-sustaining. Charlie Seemann, the Center's Executive Director, has been working to educate locals about the realities of a nonprofit arts organization. He has been elected to the Chamber of Commerce Board and works closely with the Convention and Visitors Bureau so that the Western Folklife Center has a friendly face at local business functions. His work is bearing fruit; contributions from local businesses to the 2000 Gathering were up substantially from the year before.
Noted folklorist Jim Griffith first suggested the Gathering at a meeting of western states' folklorists at the Library of Congress in 1979. Hal Cannon, the Center’s founding director, initiated fieldwork with other western folklorists to locate and invite the first group of poets. However, the interest in the event from within the ranching community (cowboys, ranchers, and ranch families) was extraordinary and immediate, and the first year's attendance of about 800 was largely made up of individuals from those communities. In addition, the “authentic” nature of the event has in subsequent years made it more attractive to an audience outside the ranching community. The Cowboy Poetry Gathering now has an international audience of about 8,000 in addition to an estimated audience of 22,000 listeners to its internet broadcast during the event.
The Cowboy Poetry Gathering has a very small budget for marketing, which in part covers the printing and mailing of preliminary brochures to a mailing list of 25,000 as well as press releases to all media. Cannon has always felt there was a certain mystique to the event being out in the middle of nowhere, so that going to it became somewhat like a pilgrimage. Visitors could be assured that only people who went on purpose and were serious about being there would attend. As Fant commented, "people don't just accidentally show up in Elko in the middle of the winter."
The Western Folklife Center staff is aware that, first and foremost, the Gathering is for the poets and cowboys. By the mid-1990s, the motels filled up completely during the Gathering, which was scheduled for the last Wednesday through Saturday in January. In an effort to respond to the folks who could not make it to Elko for that weekend, the Center staff experimented with extending the Gathering to an entire week. In addition, extra venues were added during the Gathering weekend. The result was that the Gathering got to be too big, and many of the poets felt that the event was straying from its original purpose.
In 1998 a Steering Committee was convened, using Fund for Folk Culture monies, to review the goals and objectives of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The overwhelming consensus was that the Gathering should rein itself in and focus on cowboy poetry. As a result, the 1999 and 2000 Gatherings had fewer venues but were more successful both from the perspectives of the participants and audience (gleaned from feedback via letters and surveys).
The Gathering is limited in size to the number of audience members that local hotels and motels can accommodate. There are currently no plans to "grow" the festival, but four new motels have opened in the past year. If more hotels are built, there will need to be a reassessment of the Gathering’s structure. The Western Folklife Center plans to continue the Gathering as its main national event while continuing a year-round schedule of exhibits, workshops, educational programs, and performances that are geared to regional audiences. In addition, the Gathering has spawned over 150 other cowboy poetry gatherings throughout the country, in small towns as well as in larger cities.
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