Expert Q/A

Downtown Events Present Unique Challenges

Interviewer: Maria King
Expert: Peter Bellas, All Access Entertainment
Date: January 26, 2016
Photo 1
Today I am speaking with Peter Bellas. Peter is an event promoter from California. He began his career as head of the promotions department for Hollywood Park Race Track in Inglewood. Through opportunities with the L.A. Aztec professional soccer team, Peter became active in Spanish-language television. There he recognized the potential of the Hispanic market and its profound impact on Los Angeles. All the while Peter established strong relationships with the major forces in Hispanic media – including Univision, La Opinion (L.A.’s largest Spanish-language newspaper), and the SBS radio network. In 1993, Peter created All Access Entertainment for the sole purpose of developing and producing major Latino-themed concerts and cultural festivals in downtown Los Angeles – the largest called FIESTA BROADWAY. In its 27th year, Fiesta Broadway attracts over half a million people annually in April through the streets of downtown and hosts major Spanish-language recording artists. Fiesta Broadway has also been telecast regularly on NBC and Telemundo as well as the MundoFox network.

I am so glad that you took the time to discuss your Fiesta Broadway festival today. Planning and executing an event of this size can be an overwhelming task especially a street festival in a major metropolitan area. Can you elaborate on some of the elements that make a “street” venue event more challenging than one at a fixed site venue?

Staging a successful street festival is like putting the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle together. All the pieces, from stage locations and sizes to fencing, portable bathroom placements, booths, etc… all must fit perfectly into your festival footprint, even though they may not be installed at the same time. For example, the music stage may be built after 12 midnight during the dark of night while other event elements may not be integrated until later that morning when vendors and sponsors start arriving during check-in hours. But a street festival in a major US city adds even more excitement due to the obvious challenges. I don’t think people realize that we are limited to 6 hours set up and strike before the streets need to be open to vehicular traffic. To say the least, it is a lot of moving parts!

Knowing all of that why did you decide to hold Fiesta Broadway on the streets of LA rather than in a fixed site venue? (Besides the event having the street name in the name of the event, of course.)

Fiesta Broadway was modeled after another successful street festival in the Miami market called “Calle Ocho” We copied their success story of being a street block party, open to the public. Keeping both our audience and sponsors in mind, a festival like ours had to capture the essence of the market, in our case a Latino and urban setting in the heart of Latino L.A. – which is basically the Capital of the Hispanic U.S. We wanted Fiesta Broadway to be the largest “Cinco de Mayo” musical street party in the world. I think we got it right

Your event is well established now, but take us back to the first year that you produced the event? Walk us through the process from the day you decided to hold the event and what sort of challenges you faced. For instance, how many different departments within the city did you need to get permits/approvals. Was there a liaison office that helped handle all of the arrangements back then, like many major cities now seem to have available?

The first years were definitely challenging. We worked with the city’s Cultural Affairs Department who helped guide us to work seamlessly with other city departments like the LAPD, LAFD, Dept. of Transportation and other departments like Sanitation, Building and Safety, MTA, Parks and Recreation and the Bureau of Street Services. A whole orchestra of departments is necessary so that the event will run as smooth as possible when closing down a major street in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles on a Sunday. Not to mention inviting 500,000 people to come celebrate their Latino heritage. Oh yes… political permissions, actual city authorized permits and a host of other community goodwill were needed then and are still required prior to the event.

So now you have all of the necessary approvals and permits and you are ready to begin the actual event planning. That first year, where did you begin? How were the pieces assembled that first year?

Our first year was a very short timeline of six (6) months. My partners and I took a jump into the deep end of the pool and challenged ourselves to do a Fiesta… to swim – or sink. So we pulled it together quickly in retrospect. We lived through it, we got a little wet and coughed up some water but we learned from our mistakes. Which, fortunately, were the kind that were survivable. And that’s the most important lesson and it still applies to this day even as we head into year 27 for Fiesta Broadway. It’s not all science. There’s an art to it as well. Because of our success right out of the gate that first year, one unexpected issue that we were faced with was getting the musical talent from the hotel to the performing stages. The traffic congestion was a by-product of the success. All the planning in the world only goes so far because there is always a last minute unexpected issue that arises. I remember one time when a performer arrived at LAX and refused to be transported in a “black” limo to the event because of her superstitions. Eventually we did pick her up in a “white” town car. It all worked out but who saw that one coming? Every year presents some different challenges, from re-routing the footprint due to construction or community requests, to new sponsors with special exhibit needs, new government administrations, new codes, different performing talent each year with their sometimes complicated “requests”. It's a ton of moving parts. While we always strive for perfection the overall goal is to get it done and keep Fiesta successful and entertaining so we do it again the following year. The lesson is… don’t get killed!

I know first hand that regulations and requirements can stem from food handling to on-site police and emergency personnel. I think many non-promoters would be very surprised by the amount of emergency personnel required by cities for these types of events in the downtown area. Can you give us a sense of what Los Angeles requires to be “boots on the ground” during the event?

Besides the LAPD presence at the event, we are required to deploy a large number of private security as well; On-site we are required to have 2 EMT ambulances and at least 4 First Aid stations and a stand-by Ambulance are also required. These must be accounted for in the Event Operations Plan that we must present to our City department Task Force meeting prior to the event. If we don’t have those covered we don’t get our Special event Permit from the city to stage Fiesta Broadway.

After the first year, what changes did you feel were absolutely necessary? How did you arrive at what changes would be necessary? Was it surveys, vendor interviews, exit polling, etc?

After the first year we worked with the city to expand the event to include side streets that flow into Broadway to give the event much needed “breathing room.” Fiesta Broadway is always rooted on Broadway -- especially with key headliner stages in the shadows of City Hall, but by necessity the event footprint changes a little each year. You’ll always find us on Broadway but we add and drop streets all the time. As for crowds and sponsor happiness we easily passed the eyeball test right off the bat. Everyone was happy so moving forward we really didn’t make major content changes since the success was based on the unforgettable music performances, flavorful Mexican cuisine, and interactive sponsor exhibits. If it’s not broken, why fix it?

Fiesta Broadway has been produced for almost 30 years in a living, breathing, downtown environment. What are some of the adaptations Fiesta Broadway has had to make over the years due to the downtown setting?

The only thing that stays the same is that there will be change – and almost annually. In a downtown setting over that time… the skyline changes and the street line changes as well. We always have to adapt to the community we work within. Most of the time we are viewed as a welcome annual party and sometimes, just like any other kind of party, we are asked to move to accommodate a section of the neighborhood that might want things a little…quieter. When Fiesta started there were something like 5000 residents in or around Fiesta’s footprint; now there’s something like 50,000 downtown residents. Street closures, along with all the filming going on each day that’s not even related to Fiesta, can be a much bigger issue. It’s a dance. I also noticed significant changes on the sponsor side, as the years progressed. I noticed that many of our corporate sponsors now have their own “branded” exhibits so many only need real estate space from us, and not our rented equipment. This both improves the power of their branded presence and lowers our costs.

Can you elaborate a little about what the current security concerns have done to your event that were not part of the landscape when the event began?

It has been necessary to make changes as you can imagine with an event the size of Fiesta Broadway. Although I cannot go into specifics I will say that we have increased our private security deployment the past few years based on current events happening here and around the world.

Is there anything that you have learned over the years of event production that you would say has been your most valuable lesson?

Someone asked me years ago “How do I like being in show business?” I didn’t catch what he meant at first until he said, “No show. No business! Welcome to the world of driving a free admission audience to the exhibits of your underwriting sponsors.” He was right. I learned early that you cannot fight Mother Nature. Bad weather is not a good thing. Every year I cross my fingers that it doesn’t rain on Fiesta Sunday. I have started doing my ‘sun dance” and I find myself attending church more often as well. All Access Entertainment makes it a point to promise and deliver beyond our sponsors expectations and I am willing to do whatever I have to do to make that happen!

Your experience and expertise comes after years and years of hard work and successful event production and it is not only earned but deserved. If you had any advice for someone interested in embarking on the street festival production path, what would you say to them?

The event marketing business is healthy, but it’s also high risk and high reward. Now there’s no real need to jump in like we did. There’s plenty of event opportunities and an educated world of sponsors who recognize that exhibiting at live events and giving their customers a “branded experience” is valuable. Now I’d say start to swim in the shallow water before you dive into the deep end!

Just as a way to wrap up here, tell me what the future holds for Peter Bellas. Do you see yourself retiring, passing the torch along or guiding All Access to become part of a larger organization?

Good question, I just turned 62 years of age so I am interested in exploring the opportunity of selling the business in the next few years. I figure if Kobe Bryant can retire, then I may be following his path to the finish line too.

 
Peter thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. As someone who has advised organizations and municipalities on event production, I know first hand what a monumental job it is to produce such an event. Fiesta Broadway is a first class event that people have been enjoying for over a quarter century because you and your company, All Access Entertainment make it run so smooth and look easy. Thank you for doing it right.

Maria can be reached directly at expertQA@eventcrazy.com
or visit her website at EventCrazy.com

Photos are copyright of their respective owners.
View Archived Expert Q/A