ABCs of success at the Festival of Words

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Lisa Goudy
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Annual festival sets new attendance records

The buzz quieted as people left the conference room.

Saskatchewan mystery author Anthony Bidulka (left) answers a question at the Landscape as Character panel at Mosaic Place on July 20, 2014 at the last event of the 2014 Saskatchewan Festival of Words. Authors Gail Bowen, Mary-Ann Kirkby, Kim McCullough and Mark Medley, the panel moderator and National Post book editor, listen attentively.

Donna Lee Howes sat at a table with a glass of water, reflecting on this year’s Festival of Words.

“The experience for the writers is, I think, exceptional here. At least that’s what they tell me is that they enjoy the experience here because they get a chance to talk with each other, sit in on each other’s sessions,” said Howes, executive director of the Saskatchewan Festival of Words.

She looked to her left. “Good work. Nice shirt.”

Anthony Bidulka, a Saskatchewan mystery author, came up beside her. He chuckled and uttered his thanks. He was one of the last to leave from Sunday’s final panel on landscape as a character at Mosaic Place.

“Good job. Thank you for this event,” said Bidulka. “It’s been wonderful. You should be really proud.”

Howes couldn’t wipe a smile off her face. This year’s festival was, after all, in many ways bigger than any other year. Many events set new attendance records in the festival’s 18-year history, such as Saturday’s concert with Rosie and the Riveters.

Sunday was filled with a morning of new events, beginning with a Saskatchewan-themed breakfast and followed by two panels moderated by Mark Medley, The National Post book editor.

“I knew there was some nervousness about it. Some people said, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to like it. I’m letting you know right now,’ but I’ve heard nothing but great stuff this morning,” said Howes. “People seemed to really like it.”

In previous years, Sunday was comprised of entertainment, thanks and farewells. This was also the first year the festival brought someone in to moderate the panels on Sunday. Howes was pleased how that turned out.

When people provide feedback for the festival, oftentimes the comments will extend out of the margins and write on the back as people “write essays,” she said. That feedback in turn plays a big part in planning for next year’s festival.

“It tells us what to adjust. It’s always the small details that make an event successful. Some of that has to do with timing. You’ll notice at the festival all of our events start and end on time,” said Howes.

“We always give an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. We use microphones so everybody can hear what the questions are.”

Anyone who bought full passes and flex passes get priority seating. Usually when people arrive, they’ll go to the buffet and come in to find their seat. This was not the case this year.

“(Sunday) morning we asked all the full festival pass holders to come in and be seated before we sold a single extra ticket just to make sure that we had enough seats for our loyal fans and that’s the first time we’ve ever had to do that in 18 years,” said Howes.

“If anything, this year we were so close to being sold out of some of our events that we are thinking about bigger venues perhaps for next year.”

Planning for next year is already underway. There are four confirmed authors for the 2015 Festival of Words — Andrew Pyper, Audrey Thomas, Greg Simison and Terry Fallis. By November, a tentative line-up will be ready and typically by January, most authors will have accepted the invitation.

“Word of mouth is the best advertising for a festival like ours,” said Howes. “People feel very loyal to the festival, loyal and possessive. It really is their festival.”

Follow Lisa Goudy on Twitter @lisagoudy.

Organizations: National Post

Geographic location: Saskatchewan

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