Impact: Implementing festivals and events in communities to encourage social and economic sustainability

By the early 2000s, anecdotal stories had emerged of a few select rural places where festivals and events had played an important role in changing economic fortunes.

However, no systematic research had examined how widespread the transformative phenomenon was, with what kinds of social, economic and cultural significance for the rural and regional places involved.

UOW’s Professor Chris Gibson and Professor Gordon Waitt set out to find out. Using teams of student interns, honours students and PhD candidates, the researchers built a database of 2,856 festivals in non-metropolitan parts of three Australian states, and surveyed 480 festival organisers about their aims, history, and social and economic impact.

Partnering with festivals in rural NSW and Victoria, the team undertook longitudinal studies, surveying visitors and examining impacts on the broader social fabric of the case study towns – the largest ever empirical study of festivals and events of this type undertaken to date.

Their research found that festivals are ubiquitous, impressively diverse, and strongly connected to local communities through employment, volunteerism, and participation.

Despite cultural festivals being mostly small-scale, economically modest affairs, geared around community goals, the regional proliferation of festivals produces enormous direct and indirect economic benefits.

Seemingly inconsequential, the sheer number and eclectic mix of festivals acted as a kind of 'glue' for regional economies and cumulatively they are more significant than big, commercial ticketed events that come to town only once a year.

Based on their study, the research team found that the social and economic benefits from a year-long ‘ecology’ of small, varied community events is far more meaningful, and sustainable, than one-off 'blockbusters'. These findings were tabled in NSW Parliament and formed the basis of two motions supporting rural festivals, passed by the NSW State Government in 2009.

From Parkes to Inverell, Tasmania to the far north coast of NSW, this UOW project has helped inform better planning and management of festivals and events, for the benefit of Australian rural communities.

    Professor Chris Gibson
    Professor Gordon Waitt
    Dr Chris Brennan-Horley
    Elyse Stanes