This is the second story in a series featuring local tech and Internet businesses based in Western North Carolina.
Be it a folk artist in search of an art festival or a state fair in search of a fried Snickers-bar vendor, FestivalNet.com has it covered. The Asheville-based website has the largest database of craft shows, fairs and music and art festivals in the United States and Canada, featuring 25,000 events.
The site works by connecting festival promoters with professional vendors and artists who want to sell their wares, as well as performers who want to be featured acts.
“I wasn’t a tech geek, but I was an entrepreneur and I recognized the opportunity,” says Kurt Irmiter. He and his wife, Connie Morris, co-founded Festival Network Online in 1996. At the time, the website was just a way for members to download a PDF version of the quarterly publication the couple had started printing two years prior.
Irmiter says he first started by messing around with a bulletin board system (BBS), a rudimentary precursor to the Internet, which allowed users with a dial-up modem to tap into a local server and download information. “It was hugely cumbersome and not at all user-friendly,” he recalls. “But that was my first attempt to distribute the information electronically.”
The idea for the website service came to Irmiter and Morris while they were working as concession vendors, including several years serving at the Lake Eden Arts Festival. As the couple traveled the event circuit, they saw the need for a centralized and organized way for festivals to coordinate with potential sellers.
“It was in ‘01 — after many hours teaching myself how to program an online database — that we had live online data where the festivals could come in and update their information, and [pro-level] members … could view that information,” Irmiter explains. “That was very novel in this market at that time, because everything was printed guides.”
Morris says she worked nonstop out of their basement to cultivate an event list that grew from 2,000 in the mid-’90s to more than 10,000 by the time they launched the fully functional online database in 2001. In fact, the couple was so confident of the Internet’s growing popularity that they discontinued the printed guide altogether that same year.
Julie Cochrane, Festival’s marketing director, says the website has a current membership of 150,000 — that includes festival promoters, vendors and festival attendees — and the site attracts about 750,000 unique visitors monthly.
According to Cochrane, promoters can list their events for free, though they can also purchase memberships for an annual cost of $49 to $89, which adds access to promoter contact info, fees and other information, such as deadlines, attendance, music genres and performer's pay.
Since its humble beginnings, Festival has grown, now employing eight people, mostly locals, and most of whom have been with the company for years. Two years ago, Morris and Irmiter decided to ditch the office they’d rented for about a decade and go virtual. Morris says the switch allows her employees the flexibility to work from home and rarely worry about calling in sick.
“It was a big change,” says Cochrane. “But we get together every December for our annual holiday party, and it is the best party. It is sort of like our reunion.”
Asked how the company gives back to the community, Morris mentions Festival’s Giving Tree program: Each month, an employee picks a charity for a donation equal to 1 percent of the site’s monthly revenue. Morris also divides her time to run a rescue site for lost dogs and cats — lostpetswnc.org, a service that her husband built as a birthday present.
The company has been growing at 10 percent a year, says Morris. On the horizon, the couple may develop a mobile app. Irmiter says he’s particularly interested in developing apps catered to individual festivals, so attendees could use their phones as a navigation tool as opposed to having to rely on an event map.
The duo says the site will continue to evolve, much as the technology has. Although Festival Network Online may have started as just a source of event information, Morris says it has grown into a way for event participants to network, or as she termed it, a “Facebook for festival biz folks.”
“We’re not corporation-sized, but we don’t want to be,” says Morris. “We’re very happy with how its grown and developed.”
For more information on the company, check out FestivalNet.com.
— julia Ritchey can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 122, or firstname.lastname@example.org