The customer base is there, the press is there—and so many brands want to be there, too. "There" is a red-hot festival, where a heady mix of lively activities and a committed audience can be an irresistible lure for brands looking to engage consumers.
Corporate sponsors tread a fine line, however. Many festivals—particularly cultural events such as arts and music festivals—got their start as counterculture events. Brands that push too hard risk alienating the very audience they want to win over.

SHINING AT SUNDANCE


The Sundance Film Festival, for example, started more than 30 years ago as a low-budget, artistic alternative to mainstream Hollywood. However, the event—held in Park City, Utah, in January--has grown into a celebrity-studded event that big brands don't dare miss.


Los Angeles-based Chic Events has created the lounge for magazine Entertainment Weekly at Sundance for several years, and keeping the lounge from looking overly commercial "is definitely a concern," explains Chic founder Rachel Hollis.


Instead of ham-handed branding, "EW focuses more on a beautiful event space than one that screams their logo," Hollis explains. "The clean, modern, beautifully designed space is as much a branding statement for them as any signage would be."


Even if you have never been to the EW lounge at Sundance, you've experienced some of it. That's because within the lounge is a photo studio, where the casts of various movies pose for photos while enjoying an espresso bar and food menu. The actors provide both decor and entertainment, and the photos wind up in major magazines, providing fun, edgy, intimate views of stars both mainstream and emerging.

IN THE MOOD


A successful corporate lounge suits the mood of the target audience, and at the inaugural Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, held in May, the event team wanted a high-end lounge for its high-end sponsors and their clients.


The result: the "Connoisseur Lounge," sponsored by CORT Trade Show and Event Furnishings. Designed to replicate "a Southern heiress's penthouse," explains CORT director of marketing and product development Kevin Dana, the lounge underscored the festival's theme of honoring the South's centuries-old food traditions.


The festival stressed the breadth of Southern cooking traditions—from fancy to familiar—and the lounge did the same. "Bringing outdoor furniture inside and mixing a variety of furniture styles helped create a bright, summer-like feel," Dana explains.

BIG NOISE AT BONNAROO


Sometimes a corporate lounge serves the upper crust and other times, the common man.


For mammoth music festival Bonnaroo, held in May at a farm in Tennessee, Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Precision Event Group created a comfortable, welcoming lounge for cable channel Current.
"With a grass-roots audience at the festival, authenticity was of primary concern," explains Precision founder Jason Wanderer. "Therefore, minimal branding, a focus on content, 100 beanbag chairs to lounge on, and the ability to engage at your own pace were key."


In the Current lounge, guests could watch Current programming, check their email, and "'bathe' in the brand experience," Wanderer says. One big plus: The Current lounge was air-conditioned, a welcome respite from the heat. "Never underestimate the draw of air-conditioning," Wanderer says.


Another player at Bonnaroo 2011 was AFR Furniture Rental & Event Furnishings, headquartered in Pennsauken, N.J., which created a wide range of lounges for the festival. "People of all walks of life and ages attend this event," notes Sarah Florio, AFR account executive. In place of fancy fixtures, the lounges featured "more lounge-y or outdoorsy looks," Florio adds, because "the look of the festival is laid-back and young/hip."


Lounges aiming to make a mark with this demographic must beware trying too hard.


"There is a move in general not to plaster these areas with the brand," notes AFR southeast general manager Greg Zalkin. "Clients want to be classy and tasteful with their brand. They almost want it to be a bit more the subliminal that their brand is the sponsor. This is why pillows and table graphics work well; they get the message across about the brand, but don’t have to be everywhere and in your face."

THE LOUNGE EVOLVES


In the first year of the S.F. Chefs Food Wine festival in San Francisco, event producer Dominic Phillips Event Marketing created a more mainstream VIP lounge for event sponsor Visa Signature credit cards. Featuring "sleek, modern furniture" in a space "rich in warm hues,” the inaugural lounge offered pleasures including tastings of private-reserve wines and celebrity chefs cooking up food tastings, explains DPEM marketing manager Jenny Appel.


But last year, the DPEM team amped up the lounge to create a private food and beverage "classroom," Appel explains, "designed to create a complete experience between the Visa Signature brand and the food and beverage community." The "classroom" experience will be repeated at this year's festival as well, slated for August, and will include tastings plus celebrity speakers and innovative culinary demonstrations.


"As food and wine, music, and film festivals have become more prevalent, desirable and competitive, the VIP experience has been elevated to a platform now capable of bridging the gap between corporate America and the entertainment sphere," Appel says. "Corporate brands are now connecting and engaging with current and prospective clients through entertainment events as a means to promote their brand in a fun, relaxed and chic environment that allows for open communication, light branding and a personal connection."

RESOURCES


AFR Furniture Rental & Event Furnishings
www.rentfurniture.com

Chic Events
www.chicevent.com

CORT Trade Show and Event Furnishings
www.cortevents.com

Dominic Phillips Event Marketing
www.dominicphillips.com

Precision Event Group
www.precisionus.com