How the Best Festivals Shape Their Cities — and Vice Versa

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Essence

Cities and their landmark festivals share a symbiotic relationship. When events plant their flags on downtown soil, they gain that city’s culture, infrastructure, and bustling [insert exciting tourist attraction here] scene. And the city gains a guaranteed annual influx of thousands of visitors, plus a share of their disposable income and a burgeoning international reputation. But any happy duet requires constant nurturing as both the cities and events evolve and grow.

To find out more about the special relationship between experiential tentpoles and their hometowns, we talked to some of the biggest stakeholders involved with Art Basel in Miami, Essence Festival in New Orleans, and SXSW in Austin.

A festival grows in Miami

A guest views the NFT collection on display at #0XGenesis during Art Basel Miami. Photo by Erika Goldring / Getty Images for Marshland.

The annual Art Basel Miami Beach celebration, going strong since 2002, draws 80,000 visitors annually, many of whom arrive with deep pockets and a lust for the finer things in life.

“This is an ultra luxury–focused market,” says John Copeland, director of arts and culture tourism at the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. Today’s art enthusiasts are going from the gallery to the beach to the ballet and back again. They’re also finding their way to the 20-plus art fairs — from Untitled to CHROMA to Design Miami — that pop up during what has come to be known as Miami Art Week.

“Miami’s arts industry has really grown in the span of a single generation,” John says. The number of local arts organizations has grown from just 100 thirty years ago to over 1,000 today, and much of that is directly thanks to “​​the Art Basel Miami Beach phenomenon.” Successful festivals tend to have a long shadow when it comes to the unofficial events and partnerships that pop up in their wake.

So far, the biggest downside for Miami itself is the huge influx in car traffic Art Basel brings with it. But John mentioned the city is working on a ferry system to both ease some of that traffic and highlight one of the city’s defining features: the glittering Atlantic Ocean.

The essence of New Orleans

This Independence Day, the Essence Festival of Culture will celebrate its 30th anniversary in New Orleans, a beacon of Black culture. Last year, the fest’s 170,000 daily attendees helped bring in $216 million — and that’s likely why the city’s official tourism arm creates relationships with local hotels to offer attendees attractive, pre-negotiated room rates.

Essence Festival features concerts with headliners like Missy Elliott at the Superdome, BeautyCon, a food and wine festival, and much more. But they also host an annual Family Day in Louis Armstrong Park that’s “primarily focused on the folks of New Orleans,” says Michael Barclay II, Essence’s executive vice president of experiential. He thinks this focus on community is a reason why, at least anecdotally, city crime goes down during Essence Fest.

“This is a cherished artifact for the community of New Orleans, and no one wants any excuse for Essence Festival not to come back,” Michael says.

In a post-Covid world, Essence pivoted to stay relevant to a large digital audience of 2.9 million; everything they do now is hybrid. Michael also notes that, while it’s always a real challenge to stay relevant and grow with your audience as the festival finds new fans year after year, the festival recently expanded to be more inclusive.

“Last year we fully activated the Essence Ventures family businesses, which includes not only Essence Communications but BeautyCon, Afropunk, and Essence Studios — so these are completely different audiences,” Michael says. Now Essence Fest offers something for the auntie who loves Essence Fest, her husband, and her Gen Z niece, too.

Texas, tech and tourism

Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Audible at SXSW
Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Audible at SXSW

Way down in the heart of Texas, Austin has seen a population explosion (it’s now the tenth-largest city in the United States) and become a new hub for tech companies. And SXSW may have been the first spark that lit the fire.

“A small but significant portion of the people moving here get their first taste of Central Texas by coming to SXSW,” says Hugh Forrest, SXSW’s co-president and chief programming officer (and XLISTER). “[SXSW] has certainly helped drive Austin’s status as one of the nation’s top centers for new and emerging technology.”

SXSW drew over 345,000 visitors and made an economic impact of $380.9 million in 2023 (that’s almost 75% more than its 2013 impact of $218 million), and registrants counted for 61 percent of that total — meaning SXSW’s influence goes far beyond just conference attendees to tourists (and locals) traveling in to see bands perform and check out free activations.

Austin’s near-constant stream of heavily attended events and swift population changes come with a cost for locals, too. People have been rapidly priced out of the city as average monthly rent soared 25% between 2020 and 2023. Traffic on the main highway is bumper-to-bumper after 3 p.m., much like Los Angeles. And it’s locals who suffer through the construction of yearslong infrastructure projects.

Still, the 39 percent of SXSW attendees who check the fest out even though they don’t have an official badge agree: this festival is worth it. Let’s see how the fest influences London’s scene when SXSW’s second international location (after 2023’s Sydney version) kicks off in June 2025.

Takeaways for experiential pros

  • Look for the lesser-known niche: When Art Basel began, Miami Beach was not at all known for its art scene. But the event creators saw potential, and the rest is history.
  • Track the trends: Texas wasn’t a tech frontier even a decade ago. Pay attention to what’s growing in your city, and try to get in on the ground floor.
  • Community is everything: For a festival to thrive, the city (and its residents!) need to be on board. Make sure the entertainment and financial incentives are reaching the people who make this place what it is 365 days a year.
  • Inclusivity wins: When you offer plenty to do for plenty of interests and a solid digital option for those who can’t make it in person, attendance can massively scale.
  • Infrastructure is a necessity: The easier it is for attendees to get around, the more they’re likely to love your event. Make public transportation and accessibility a priority, not an afterthought.

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Experiential Is Everything

XP Land is for experiential creatives and experience-makers, brand leaders, and IP-owners, space stewards and venue visionaries — all those in the business of epic gatherings and live, immersive storytelling.