Cities want to attract visitors and residents through free events

Leaders in Tomball and Magnolia are looking to increase tourism efforts through new annual events and festivals. Tomball recently dedicated $57,500 of its annual $350,000 hotel occupancy tax fund to bring a city mascot and a batch of new tourist-friendly events to the city.

Meanwhile, Magnolia is looking to build on the notoriety it gained from becoming the host city for the annual Texas Renaissance Festival by introducing a three-day festival in June. Both cities hope to grow in a way that will excite locals just as much as travelers from the Greater Houston area and beyond.

"[The purpose is] to increase awareness of Tomball as a destination for fun," said Mike Baxter, Tomball's marketing director.

New Tomball events

Tomball's effort to rebrand itself as a destination city can be seen in its new slogan: "Tomball, Texan for fun."

The slogan was coined by Baxter, who became Tomball's first marketing director in May 2011. Baxter is also the idea man behind four new events coming to Tomball this spring: the Tomball Honky Tonk Music Festival; Art Walk, Tomball!; Rails & Tails Mudbug Festival; and the Memorial Day Weekend Chili Challenge.

Baxter's proposals for the events were approved in January by Tomball's tourism advisory committee, which makes recommendations to City Council on how hotel occupancy funds should be spent. Tomball City Council gave the go-ahead at its Feb. 6 meeting. Since the blueprints for each event were formed as a part of the proposal, the planning and groundwork is more or less done, according to Baxter.

"The overall concepts are in place," Baxter said. "That doesn't mean there can't be some changes, but the core events are there."

Baxter's job now is to nail down vendors and sponsors who want to participate in the events and finalize contracts with the entertainers and performers involved.

"A lot of the local businesses in Tomball have said that they really want to get involved with some of our events, whether it's just an on-site presence with a booth or a full-blown sponsorship," he said.

Baxter is also designing the marketing strategy, which will involve print ads, radio support and online promotions, in addition to what he called "guerilla marketing"—calendar listings, press releases, posters and newsletters.

Promoting businesses

The main objective of these events, according to Baxter, is not to raise money by charging for admission. Instead, the events will be free to the public and focus on marketing the city.

"We want festival-goers to become accustomed to quality entertainment in Tomball before we consider an admission fee," Baxter said.

Holly Cook, president of the tourism advisory committee, said she sees a lot of potential for these events to bring new consumers into the area.

"Anytime you can bring people to town and put Tomball on the tip of their tongues, we're gong to increase business," she said.

Downtown business owners, like Matt Davis, owner of Main Street Crossing, find the city's efforts to involve local businesses encouraging.

"So far with these events, the focus has been on local shops and restaurants as opposed to bringing in vendors from outside. I like that approach and I'm hoping for good numbers," Davis said.

Chris Barton, owner of Magnolia Tree House of Tea, participated in last fall's Artwalk and is eager for the next one. Her business picked up by around 20 percent because of the event, she said.

"We saw lots of new faces and people who didn't even know we were here," she said.

Magnolia's Love Bug

In Magnolia, the desire to bring more visitors to the area has led to plans for a three-day Love Bug Fest at Unity Park. The festival, which will run from June 8–10, will feature an outdoor movie, live music, dancing, fireworks, games and contests centering on the celebration of love bugs.

The idea for a love bug–themed event came from Mickey Mapes, a teacher at Magnolia High School who is also involved with planning the event. Mapes, who has been pitching the love bug idea to officials for years, said he wanted to give people something they could not get elsewhere.

"Everyone's got a heritage festival. Every town that has a railroad running through it has a depot festival," he said. "I wanted something that people would come out for just to see what it was about."

The event was inspired by other bug celebrations, like mosquito festivals, he said.

The upfront costs for the event will be paid for entirely through sponsorships and fundraisers, which include T-shirt sales, said Deborah Rose Miller, Magnolia's economic development coordinator. Vendor space is also available at the cost of $100 for all three days. She said they hope to attract about 5,000 attendees.

"It's just one more example showing the community that they can enjoy themselves here," she said. "It also helps to put us on the map. We have to have a reason for tourists to want to come here other than to visit relatives."

Supporting nonprofits

Besides bringing in tourists, the festival will raise money for local nonprofits. Each nonprofit involved will take on a different piece of running the show—from parking to concessions to clean-up—and will receive a percentage of the overall revenue raised. Some of the nonprofits involved include local Boy Scouts groups and parent teacher organizations.

Keep Montgomery County Beautiful is in charge of cleaning up and will use the Love Bug Fest as an example of how to have an environmentally friendly event.

"I think it's an innovative way for the community to provide an opportunity to nonprofit groups to be involved in an event for the benefit of everyone," said Charlotte Harris, president of KMCB.

Miller said she hopes the event can grow to the point that all funding comes from the money raised at the previous year's event. She is aiming to raise around $30,000 this year, with $10,000 each going to the nonprofit groups, the planned recreation center at Unity Park and money to help fund next year's event.

"It's all going back into the community," she said.