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A passing parade

Last year the event attracted 29,000 interstate and international visitors and brought A$30 million into the Sydney economy

Tomorrow night, the streets of inner Sydney will once again come alive with the annual Mardi Gras parade. Now in its 37th year, the exuberant grassroots event has been snaking its way up Oxford and Flinders Streets since before many of this year's participants were even born. The parade itself is the culmination of a two-week social, sporting, and cultural festival that features over 100 different events.

Many people under the age of 30 would be surprised to learn that the original Mardi Gras parade in 1978 was marred by violent clashes between participants and police, resulting in 53 arrests. But a funny thing happened in the 37 years between these turbulent beginnings and the explosion of joy the parade has become today – it somehow turned into a multi-million dollar tourist drawcard. Mardi Gras organisers, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (SGLMG), say that last year the event attracted 29,000 interstate and international visitors and brought A$30 million into the Sydney economy.

The story of the Mardi Gras parade is a shining, sequined example of how a local, community event can be transformed into an internationally-recognised tourist attraction. But what are the steps involved in this process? And, more importantly, how is an event then effectively marketed to capitalize on its newfound global pulling-power?

In the case of Mardi Gras, there were several significant factors that helped contribute to its transformation...

Relevance

Like all successful festivals and events, the theme and focus must be relevant to communities. When you think about attitudes to gay people, much has changed since 1978 - but the event maintains elements of political activism to highlight social and legal inequalities.

Publicity

When the parade was first broadcast nationally (and internationally) in 1994, not only did it give the ABC its highest ratings in history but also provided the parade with a truly global reach. This year SBS2 will broadcast the parade live. But the media attention does more than just focus on the festival. Each year the parade captures national and international attention for Sydney, presenting it as a vibrant and accepting community.

Management

Mardi Gras is operated by a not for profit organisation that relies heavily on volunteers – about 2,000 of them. Many experts believe that the key to a successful festival or event is its management. As Mardi Gras has grown in size, so too has the professionalism, skills and knowledge of the organisers. The organisation employs only seven full time staff but also has a Board of Directors elected by their 3,500 members.

Sponsorship

Support doesn't only come from the attendees and spectators. It comes from businesses who see value in being involved with Mardi Gras. Sponsorship opportunities provide a source of revenue that helps to operate the event and can also provide β€˜in kind' support. This year, there are seven major partners; principal partner the ANZ Bank, and then several broadcast, strategic, and government partners. This would not happen if media attention and community support for Mardi Gras didn't exist.

Are there other keys to their success? The Sydney Mardi Gras organisers have thought about their audience and remained current. Every little detail is considered. Management is professional. Watch closely to see not only the parade but also how this successful event matures and develops into the future.