The Decatur Book Festival could do what other festivals and conventions do when charged with feeding hundreds of guests. They could organize expensive group dinners or set up V.I.P. huts with large food spreads.
Instead, festival organizers decided to do something else. By giving scores of visiting authors cards with value at Decatur businesses, festival organizers now do two things at once: help authors find food they like and support downtown businesses.
“We’re trying to convince all these authors when they come to Decatur that it’s the best place in the world,” said Daren Wang, the festival’s executive director. “You would be catering something for them all the time, which would be expensive or you could leave them on their own, and they’d probably be eating at the hotel or something like that.”
Wang estimated about 40 Decatur businesses have participated in the program since it launched in 2007. Each visiting author is given five cards with $10 on each. Those cards are redeemable at participating shops such as Thumbs Up Diner or Brick House Pub. The authors typically arrive at the festival on a Friday and depart on Sunday, which is when the cards expire. For every card cashed in at a restaurant or other establishment, the book festival reimburses half.
“Authors love [the cards]. The returning authors come back and one of the first things they ask when they get here is, ‘Where are my gift cards,’” Wang said. “If we were giving them $50 in cash, I don’t think they’d be as eager about it to tell you the truth.”
The book festival benefits from being inside a substantial city’s commercial center, allowing visitors and authors to venture beyond the festival itself for meals. That’s not the case at larger, more widely-known festivals such as those in Los Angeles, Washington or Miami, Wang said.
“[The festival’s] tendrils run through the entire city so it works better than most,” he said.
The next festival will be held in September, Wang said, and about $4,000 has been earmarked for value cards. The festival has a yearly budget of about $650,000 and between 250 and 300 authors receive the card, he said.
Brick Store Pub receives a lot of them each year during the festival, said Kelley Turner, the pub’s general manager.
“We’ve probably redeemed 250 to 300 of them,” she said. “We definitely do see an increase in numbers somewhat.”
Thumbs Up Diner doesn’t usually get many of the cards but does see an increase in business during the festival, said Cassandra Lawson, one of the managers.
“Anytime there’s a downtown activity, we usually get a pretty big crowd either before or after,” she said.
Wang said he hopes the program is doing good. Many of the festival’s board members are leaders in the city’s business community, and it’s where the idea was hatched.
“It benefits the businesses, we hope,” he said. “It makes the process of taking care of our authors when they’re in town easier for us, and it shows off the best Decatur has to offer.”