The amount of Latin dance congresses has grown exponentially over the last decade. The Puerto Rico Salsa Congress (in 1997) is often credited with being the first salsa dance congress, and ushering in the modern era of congregating mass amounts of dancers for instruction, performances, and socials in one event. Latin dancers in all genres have benefited from the birth of the ‘congress’ format as it has given structure and formality to what otherwise in the past could be called a ‘workshop’.
The format continues to morph and is still a relatively new phenomenon. The congress market seems to fluctuate wildly from year to year due to fickle consumers, and new promoters competing with established events for market share. New festivals pop up every weekend, while others disappear quietly into the night and are gone with little to no fanfare.
A good latin dance festival can be tremendously fun, educational, and expand your dance horizons. As much potential fun we all can have at a festival, it is still a business, and little is known about what it takes to organize these events. We interviewed four organizers who gave us insight into what actually goes on behind the scenes; Rodney Aquino (Bachata/Kizomba), Jorge Elizondo (Bachata), Rhonda Alvina (Salsa), and Juan Ruiz (Salsa/Bachata). Rodney, Jorge and Juan have all organized congresses for many years, while Rhonda is in her first year of organizing a large festival.
We asked a series of questions in hopes of getting a complete picture of, “The Business of Latin Dance Congresses”.
The consensus is that the high level planning begins at least one year prior to the festival, and the nuts and bolts get completed about 6 months prior to the event. Rhonda (pictured left, and organizer of the St. Louis International Dance Festival) said, “There is never enough time to plan and nothing is ever going to turn out exactly how you want it to be.”
Is organizing a congress challenging?
Answers were mixed. Rhonda and Rodney believe it is very challenging, especially if the event is over 1000 attendees. On average Rodney organizes eight events per year, including the Afro-Latin & Bachata Internationals and San Francisco Bachata Festival. Rodney commented that big events need a large stuff plus a healthy amount of volunteers to get everything done. The hotel needs a certain amount of rooms booked, and facility and rental fees paid at least a month prior to the event. He said, “Failure to do so would mean the event will be cancelled.” Rhonda agreed that organization and planning challenges are stressful and that there is also added pressure from “…overly demanding people.”
Jorge (pictured right) organizes 3-5 festivals each year including the Dallas Bachata Festival and Shanghai Bachata Festival. He commented that he finds it less difficult to organize his festivals, and attributes this to his organizational skills and relationships with the bachata talent he recruits. He said, “It normally takes me one or two weeks to recruit artists, buy flights, create a website, create flyers, organize Facebook marketing, and create a workshop schedule.” He also serves as an instructor at his festivals.
Are there challenges in finding a venue?
Everyone agreed that securing a venue is difficult due to the financial challenges. Juan organizes several events a year including the Sydney International Bachata Festival and Byron Latin Fiesta. He said, “Finding a venue is a challenge for every event. Conversations need to start early, and I like to make sure I have a good relationship with the venue manager.” Availability, festival hours, and additional hotel fees are difficult arrangements to agree upon. Jorge commented that negotiations and deals vary by location, and that hotels usually have no reason to offer you the best prices to do events at their venue. Jorge said, “As a promoter, the most important thing is securing a deal that is beneficial for you and for the hotel.” Rodney echoed the sentiment that is a challenge to find a venue in bigger cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas, and New York City. Rodney said, “The hotel negotiations are brutal and if you don’t know what you’re doing when you sign a contract then you’re practically screwed.”
Do you (on average) have good working relationships with instructors you hire?
They emphasized that they only want to hire instructors who they can trust and give a quality product to consumers. Jorge feels it is important to help create a sense of instructor unity and mutual respect. He said, “I have numerous activities that I have my artists do as a team to help build a sense of teamwork. We eat, fly, teach, and share rooms together.” Good relationships are important, but at the end of the day it is still a business. Rodney (pictured right) said, “Most of the time I have a good relationship as long as they get paid and are getting what they want.”
Do you typically lose money, make money, or break even?
Generally, the panel felt that breaking even should be considered success, and that making huge profits on an event shouldn’t be the goal. Jorge said, “My goal is to put on an event that is affordable for everyone to attend yet be able to balance the expenses I need to pay.” Rodney added that you typically lose money if you’re planning a big event at a hotel, and have a long list of instructors. Instructor flights, meals, hotel accommodations, and unfilled rooms that were blocked specifically for festival attendees quickly eat into profits.
How do you judge if an event has been successful?
Feedback, attendance, financial outcome, social media sharing, and dancer engagement were all mentioned as measures of success. Social media feedback is particularly important due to the variety of locations that dancers come from to attend. Both positive and negative reviews spread quickly these days thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and congress review sites like SalsaTravelAdvisor.com.
Do you feel the community who attend your events appreciate your efforts?
A unanimous “Yes” was answered by our panel. Rodney commented that while some appreciate it, the dance scene isn’t the place for an organizer to seek loyalty or friendship, and that appreciation comes with a price. He said, “In general, when people don’t get what they want, they go somewhere else…no difference in the dance community.”
Do you feel there is competition between festival promoters? If so, it is positive or negative competition?
Another unanimous “Yes” from our panel. Without question there is a high amount of competition between festival promoters, and much of it is negative. They do, however, feel that the competition can contribute to them working harder to improve their events. Juan (pictured left) said, “For me, competition is good as it forces me to make sure my events are organized properly…and that my events stand out from the rest.” He also indicated that many promoters get angry when someone new steps into the arena and impedes on their territory.
As a new organizer, Rhonda certainly agrees with Juan’s sentiment. She said, “Since announcing the St. Louis International Dance Festival I have had my share of negativity thrown at me from territorial promoters that believe they own performers.” She said its sad that most of the promoters don’t bother to interact with each other, and that only a few have offered her advice. Rodney added, “Most competitors are friendly to each other, but never friends. It’s nothing personal, just business.” Rodney remembered trying to plan a festival in another city and an organizer in that city attempted to sabotage it. He said partnering with someone to organize a festival usually isn’t a good idea because you probably won’t share the same vision.
What is the biggest business lesson you’ve learned since you started organizing congresses?
Organizing dance congresses will definitely leave you with battle scars. Rodney stated his opinion bluntly, “You don’t have any real friends.” Rhonda expressed similar feelings in that she won’t be making the same mistakes twice when dealing with certain people and performers. She said, “Don’t rely on people…budget!” Juan and Jorge said their lessons revolve around reporting and business deals. Juan commented, “My biggest lesson learned is to have everything in writing with the artists.” Having something in writing sets expectations and there are no misunderstandings. Jorge learned to manage funds and create detailed business reports using Excel.
What (if anything) needs to be changed about latin dance congresses overall?
A mix of answers were given. Rhonda feels that promoters themselves need to change, or just not be in the business. Jorge stated that sometimes promoters take advantage of artists and that instructor/promoter relations need to improve. He said, “Some artists are working for free. Many organizers accept amateur talent over professionals because they are willing to work for free, so there is no cost to them.”
Jorge feels that artists should be compensated for expenses occurred at the event. Rodney listed too many performances, the DJ playing similar songs all night, and professional instructors not dancing at socials as items that need to change. He also said, “I personally don’t like congresses that have several locations. For example, if a workshop is to far from a hotel or the social event at night requires transportation to get there.”
What is the most rewarding aspect of organizing a congress?
Seeing festival attendees enjoy themselves and grow as dancers is definitely rewarding for all of the organizers, and, as Juan said, “Creating memories that will last forever.”