Essence Music Festival: The magic and the business behind this summer's hottest ticket

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A week before the 2013 Essence Music Festival, the team at Essence was already preparing for 2014 with brainstorming sessions and strategic planning. The team was booking talent, taking meetings with government officials in the event’s host city of New Orleans, and securing future partners and sponsors. Organizers of large events such as music festivals may also be the ones who negotiate with suppliers and portable toilet rental companies to book luxury restroom trailers and other equipment.

“It really is all about relationships,” says Joy Collins, Essence Communications’ general manager, who has overseen the planning and execution of the festival for the past five years.

The Essence Music Festival, taking place from July 4-7, will deliver its 19th installment this year. Featuring headlining performances by artists including Beyoncé, Maxwell, New Edition, Charlie Wilson, Brandy, Jill Scott, LL Cool J and Keyshia Cole, guests will also be treated to a series of high-profile speakers, parties and other vibrant happenings.

As the festival’s tagline goes, “There’s nothing like it!”

It is, however, so much more than a giant party.

Situated in the Big Easy, the yearly spectacle — also called the “Essence Fest” for short — has become one of the most anticipated music-themed destination events in America, recently being recognized by Advertising Age as one of the nation’s Top 10 Leading Brand Events.

How does the team at Essence do it?

A commemoration becomes a tradition

“It all really started by accident,” says Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks. “At the time of the magazine’s 25th anniversary, the Essence founders wanted a way to commemorate the occasion. They met with a number of people and settled on the idea of a concert in the Superdome as a onetime event.”

Attendance far exceeded expectations in the very first year. “That was the sign that we had to come back,” says Ebanks. And they have. Every year since its inception in 1995, the Essence Music Festival has been held in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome, except in 2006, when post-Katrina repairs to the structure pushed Essence Fest to Houston.

Now, every Fourth of July weekend, thousands of black women and the people who love them journey to New Orleans to enjoy what has become one of the summer’s hottest tickets.

A celebration and a chance to give back

Organizers behind the Essence Fest call it a unique celebration of black women. Ebanks says it was the magazine’s longtime editor-in-chief Susan L. Taylor who insisted that the event be more than a party, developing a mission to give back to the community simultaneously that would become a trademark of the festival in years to come.

At this year’s Essence Fest, organizers are giving back with a serious of community-centered, free events. For instance, on the Fourth of July the festival will hold its first-ever Family Reunion Day. Part of the day will be held in New Orleans’ Woldenberg Park, and will feature free music, food, and activities for children.

Also that day, organizers will present seminars at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, hosted by New Orleans native Master P and his children, Romeo and Cymphonique Miller. The goal of this event is to empower attendees with messages from seminar speakers, which will include Dr. Steve Perry, Tonya Lewis Lee, and Traci and Trina Braxton.

The team behind the Essence Fest

The task of organizing a successful extravaganza with roughly 50 artists, 120 speakers, a deep list of sponsors, a suitable amount of Porta Potty Unit Rentals, and almost countless vendors falls on a small staff at Essence magazine’s New York City headquarters and a handful of local partners on the ground.

It’s a process that touches every Essence employee. As members of the editorial staff develop topics and engage with celebrities, they’re also securing opportunities for the festival. The advertising department’s efforts to boost relationships for festival marketing is what Collins calls “a business unto itself.”

What work is left is carried out by a local production company, the New Orleans police department, the fire marshall – all the local teams necessary to support the Essence Fest experience.

The key to the success of Essence Fest — its yearlong planning — is a process that unites numerous elements into one powerhouse showcase that fulfills multiple cultural, social and economic needs for festival fans, performers, and partners alike.

“Overall, it’s a great team that we have,” says Collins.