Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Q&A: New SunFest Executive Director Dianna Craven

Two weeks ago, SunFest, the preeminent music festival of the Palm Beaches, announced a major change at the top of its organization. With the retirement of Paul Jamieson, the executive director and public face of the festival for the past 33 years, SunFest’s board appointed Dianna Craven, its sales director for the past 12 years, and an employee of the festival since 1996, to take over the reins.

Just days later, Craven spoke to Boca magazine about recent changes in SunFest’s structure and programming, her plans for the forthcoming 40th-annual festival next May, and more.

How much staff does it take to put the festival on every year?

We have four full-time staff members. We’re a very small organization compared to our counterparts. … We are able to be small because of the community support that we have. In 2023, over 2,100 volunteers worked with us to produce the event. There are 19 committees to plan the event. It’s an effort by the entire team and the volunteers, and that’s what has me most excited in this role, is to continue that legacy. SunFest is truly community.

The festival made a strategic decision to remove certain elements this year—to delete a day and book fewer acts, but spend more money on headliners. Did that experiment work to the festival’s satisfaction?

I would say no, because of the response from our customer base. We value the feedback that we receive from our customers. We started in 2022 trying to produce a festival post-pandemic. We were faced with rising costs across all elements of our business structure. And we were cautious with our spending in 2022, rightfully so, coming off a pandemic and missing two festivals. And people from our survey showed they wanted more in the way of music.

So when 2023 was produced, we looked at those surveys and analyzed them to the best of our ability to what we thought we heard loud and clear of what they wanted to see at the festival. And we doubled down more on the music side of things. And to do that, and to keep the price at a price point we thought was palatable to our consumer, we had to forgo some other activities to try to drive more into our music category. And what we heard back is that while music is important to individuals, they missed some of the other elements that we had. So we are now in a discovery phase, trying to say, how can we look at those two years—in our mind similar but very different in how we programmed—and come back in 2024, our 40th anniversary year, and provide a product that will resonate with our fans and our customers.

Do you expect to be doing something special to mark this historic anniversary?

We would like to; that is our plan. It’s first and foremost to nail what our strategy is going to be for the event, and that’s what we’re working on right now. But we want to very much incorporate our founding beliefs of how we were put together. For us to look back at our accomplishments over 40 years, and to celebrate those accomplishments with our community, will be something we’re trying to tie in.

What are the factors that you consider when you pursue artists and build a lineup?

One of the misnomers I think people have is that we can come up with names of artists we’d like to see at the event, and kind of go up to those individuals. It comes down, No. 1, to who’s available that’s touring at that time, who’s available in the southeast market at that time, or even the east coast of the United States. Because if an artist is getting ready to launch a Europe tour, then obviously they would not be available, or if they’re starting a tour on the west coast, it’s not feasible for them to head to Florida and back.

And price plays a big part of that as well—who you can afford, and what talent is costing at the time. And then we try to look at genre and makeup of who will make the best program decisions for us to fit our demographic. SunFest is traditionally programmed to a wider genre, not being genre specific, to appeal to a larger community base. But we try to always make the best decision at the time, and the best mix of what’s available to us.

Have you witnessed the SunFest demographics change, in terms of the type of artists that customers want to see?

Our demographics are fairly consistent. People are surprised as some of the artists have skewed a little younger over the years. People who have been coming to SunFest for many years, I hear comments that we’ve gotten too young. But the average age of the SunFest attendee is usually anywhere from 37 to 39 years old. So while we might have a Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, it might skew a little younger, when you look at the majority of the acts that are performing at the festival, they do appeal to an older demographic than, say, a younger rap artist might. But we program across genres … to ensure that we can sell those tickets. Sometimes if you focus too much on the same demographic, that same niche of people, you’re limiting your base of who might attend. We’ve done the best we can with the talent available to us to try to appease that broader base. We try to focus as much as we can on the 25-to-54 demographic. Then you might skew a little younger or older on the outliers, but that’s the target.

Paul Jamieson recently announced his retirement from SunFest after 33 years. (Carrie Bradburn/CAPEHART)

Are you constantly being bombarded by PR people pushing certain bands and artists, or is it more like, you’re on your own looking for the talent?

We partner with AEG Live, which is one of the national booking companies in the market. And they deal directly with the agent and look for avails, and they do receive the calls. When bands are looking to go out on tour and set their schedules, they will reach out to AEG directly. Sometimes we do get some calls internally, but because we’ve had a longstanding relationship with AEG, most of those calls are directed to their office. And then we work hand in hand with them on the lineup.

Do you look at bands that are just now starting to climb the charts but are still affordable, so that by the time of the festival, they’re even bigger? Is that one of the strategies?

That’s the golden ticket—if you have the crystal ball to see who might be popular. The difference now from music 15 years ago is that stars will climb and drop very quickly sometimes. But some artists we’ve had in the past 10 years: Lizzo was at SunFest, Ed Sheeren … it is a venue where we do try to find those individuals. We had Ja Rule many years ago, and he was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle acts. It was a record-breaking Friday night; you couldn’t move on site. No one really knew who he was, we booked him for a very low fee, and by the time SunFest hit, he was all over the charts, in a matter of five months’ time.

Whenever the lineup drops, you get passionate responses from both sides, from people who can’t wait to fly in from other states to see the festival, and from people who say, this lineup is terrible.

Correct. Music is probably one of the most subjective topics out there. I think there’s no way to make everyone happy. We all know that people nowadays like to express their opinions more so than in the past, with social media. But you try to do your best with what’s available. And we have to always remember what’s available within a budget. We have to be cautious of our spending to ensure the vitality of the event going forward.


For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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