Memphians and out-of-towners are gathering Downtown throughout this month to hear the stirring sounds of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, savor the product of competitive barbecue cooking and watch major touring acts rock the stages at Tom Lee Park.
Public participation in the Memphis in May International Festival will take a variety of forms, and it will result in obvious cultural and business benefits to the city of Memphis.
What might be less obvious, because it unfolds behind the scenes, is the pop that Memphis in May gives to the local economy.
Downtown businesses especially feel it, according to Downtown Memphis Commission president Paul Morris. He said the area gets a big economic shot in the arm from the month’s slate of events.
Beale Street Music Festival highlights the Memphis in May International Festival, which draws Memphians and tourists alike to town for a variety of events. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
Beale Street Music Festival drew huge crowds this year despite the cool, rainy weather. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
This year, Memphis in May is honoring Sweden, the third-largest country in the European Union and the first Scandinavian country to be honored.
As an example of the international ties that are fostered, an event scheduled for early May at The Orpheum Theatre was called Sweden on Stage. Sponsored by Electrolux, the event featured Skaran, a traditional Swedish music group, a folkloric dance troupe and cuisine from Swedish chef Fredrik Eriksson.
The month of events is about more than activities that fall within a 31-day window. Memphis in May also refers to a community-based not-for-profit group that works to build up civic pride, promote awareness of the city’s heritage and build international ties.
Memphis in May attendees also eat in restaurants, stay in hotels and visit attractions near where the action is taking place, something Cynthia Grawemeyer – who owns several Downtown businesses along with her husband, Mark – can attest to. They own Grawemeyer’s in the South Main neighborhood and are especially big advocates for the future of Downtown.
“Memphis in May is essential to Memphis tourism’s sustainability and continued growth,” Grawemeyer said. “The numbers grow because of our direct and indirect interactions with others.
“Memphis in May provides a great opportunity to showcase who we are. We not only show our visitors we care by our personal relationships and interactions but also by providing goods and services they need. We must have nice hotel rooms, a variety of restaurants, shops, and entertainment.”
University of Memphis researchers have something to say about that activity, as well. They conducted a recent study to put some numbers and figures to the notion that Memphis in May indeed is responsible for drawing crowds of consumers with open wallets to the area who end up supporting the economy in a big way.
Diane Hampton, executive vice president of Memphis in May, said the university’s analysis of 2012’s Memphis in May festival shows the month-long celebration does exactly that.
“While the economic impact of our events is significant, I think that importance is sometimes missed by citizens who enjoy the celebrations, but don’t always think about the events as drivers of the economy,” Hampton said. “In today’s economic climate and with its respectable impact on the economy, Memphis in May is almost as much business engine as it is a celebrator of our history and heritage.”
The analysis bears that out. According to the report, prepared with help from the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the university, the 2012 Memphis in May International Festival had a direct economic impact on the area of more than $70 million.
“However,” the report continues, “the impact continues through the economy as dollars are spent and re-spent. Direct spending of more than $34.8 million by non-resident visitors to Memphis in May International Festival supported 852 jobs earning over $22.5 million.”
Memphis in May is especially important economically because of the out-of-town visitors it brings.
“For any event to provide an economic stimulus to the local area, it must attract tourists who inject new spending into the local economy,” the report reads. “Bringing new money into a community contributes to the creation of employment and income opportunities for the area’s citizens. If an event is attended by local citizens only, its economic impact is reduced, since local spending is simply redistributed.”
Most of the festival’s out-of-town visitors flock to the month’s two biggest events: the Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. The 37th edition of the Memphis In May International Festival’s Beale Street Music Festival featured a 68-act lineup, from Alice in Chains to ZZ Top. Performers played over three days from May 3 to May 5. And the performances across three stages, a blues tent and a small blues “shack” replica stage in Tom Lee Park also featured 31 artists making their debut at the festival.
According to a post-event survey conducted by Memphis in May of attendees of the 2012 music festival, about 72 percent came from 50 or more miles away. That’s slightly up from 2011, when 71 percent came from 50 or more miles away.
The biggest spend among non-local visitors for the 2012 Beale Street Music Festival, according to the report, was the $9.4 million spent on accommodations. Direct spending of more than $24.1 million by non-resident visitors to the music festival contributed more than $49 million in output (the value of goods and services produced and sold as a result of the initial direct spending) while supporting 595 jobs with earnings of more than $15.7 million.
Sunset Symphony in 2012, meanwhile, had a direct economic impact of $2.4 million. That money caused additional economic activity generating almost $770,000 in earnings for local businesses and supporting 29 jobs in the Memphis area, according to the U of M report.
If the pattern from the last two years holds steady, about 40 percent of the barbecue contest’s attendees will be from out-of-town. The direct economic impact of the barbecue contest in 2012 was a little more than $19 million.
As with the music festival, the impact stretches beyond the direct impact. Direct spending of more than 9.4 million by non-resident visitors to the contest contributed to that $19 million.
Grawemeyer said the economic impact is underpinned by encounters like this recent one.
“One late night as we were closing one of our restaurants, a family came to the door – a couple with four young children,” she said. “They’d been on a train traveling home from New Orleans when the rails were blocked. They were taken off the train and being put on a bus when someone from Memphis suggested they rent a car. The Memphians told them to come to Memphis so they could experience a great city and also get on another train headed north towards their home.”
The family was reluctant at first.
“They arrived at our door because they had no place to go while they waited on the train and they had to figure out how to get their rental car to the airport and then back to the train,” Grawemeyer said.
Someone suggested they stop at Grawemeyer’s, and that the Grawemeyers would help. Grawemeyer opened the kitchen and made dinner for the family, and a waiter made them feel comfortable.
“In the process we told them all about Memphis,” Grawemeyer said. “We talked about the famous places and people, all the museums on Main Street, The Peabody, the Grizzles, and where to get the best barbecue. Then we took them to nearby places of interest so the circle could continue before their train left the station.
“They told us that what they thought might be a terrible vacation, turned into a wonderful adventure they would never forget. In all their travels, they had never been to a city where so many people went out of their way to help them.”
Similar to what Memphis in May does on a grand scale, this was economic impact in the form of an individual encounter. But because of that interaction and what they encountered in Memphis, that family has said they’re coming back.
And they’re planning a longer stay next time.