First Night Williamsburg raises prices, aims to be self-sustaining


First Night Williamsburg is meant to ring in the calendar year with family-friendly fun and games.

But that fun is far from free, and organizers have worked for several years with a budget that has teetered between red and black.

Last year, organizers relied on a one-time city grant to balance the organization's books. This year, ticket prices will be increased to raise revenue.

Organizers say there's still time to solicit business donations; the goal is to raise enough revenue to create a reserve fund to cushion First Night's books.

Last December's event was not a money maker for First Night. The group's expenses outpaced its revenues by about $7,000, according to publicly available tax records the nonprofit filed with the IRS.

The 990 tax form says the group carried over more than $4,000, but a closer examination of the return shows a loss of more than $7,000. First Night officials have not addressed the discrepancy.

The event has a $95,000-$100,000 budget each year, according to tax records and organizers who spoke about this year's plans.

Leading into its December 2015 event, organizers approached the City Council for a $15,000 grant. The city agreed with the understanding the request would not occur annually.

"They did not provide any plans on their intention to expand the event, but council felt that their longstanding track record as a popular, community supported program made them deserving of a one-time exception," said Mayor Paul Freiling, who was vice mayor at the time of the 2015 grant request.

First Night treasurer Ron Adelphi says the organization will have a final tally on just how much money they raised locally near the end of the calendar year.

"While we are extremely grateful for the support, we realize the event has to become sustainable by the community in the form of ticket sales," said Susan Woodcock Tisdale, First Night vice president of marketing and communications. "We are producing a high quality event, but in order to do so, we need to restructure our ticket pricing."

Ticket sale revenue

First Night aims to entertain. Lana Puckett played at First Night last year and has played off and on around the area for several years.

"I think it's one of the events where you can hear a lot of great music for a small price," she said. "It's also geared to listening audiences, rather than a party audience. That's good, because there aren't many places to do that."

Last year, organizers intentionally scheduled a diverse set of performances and moved up the event's start time to 1 p.m. — it was previously 6 p.m. — to make the it more inviting to families.

The December 2015 performances included Celtic, rock, bluegrass, folk, storytelling, classical, gospel, blues, jazz, shag and swing. Several food vendors were also on site.

Puckett and fellow guitar player Kim Person won't be at this year's event, but the duo does plan to return in years to come.

"We'll probably submit again in the future," Puckett said, noting that she thought First Night was moving toward having more bands in lieu of duos like hers. "It's a great event, and we've certainly enjoyed performing there."

The more people who buy tickets, the more money the event makes.

First Night Williamsburg's revenue comes primarily from ticket sales. The price change — adult tickets have moved to $20 from $15 — is the first in at least 12 years, Woodcock Tisdale said. Children's tickets still cost $10.

A family pack, a new pricing feature which gets admission for two adults and two children, is $50.

Last year, organizers said First Night usually attracts 4,000-5,000 people.

"Historically, ticket sales have been over 4,000 each year so we conservatively set a goal of 3,500 adult and 500 kids tickets to reach that goal," Woodcock Tisdale said.

Organizers plan to sell seven adult tickets for every child ticket. At the existing prices, the event would raise $77,500 by selling 35,000 adult tickets and 500 child tickets.

Leading into the 2016 event, organizers have raised at least $14,000 in donations from local businesses, First Night secretary Frank Varacalli said.

"Any family packs of tickets would be designated as part of our reserves for the following year," Woodcock Tisdale said.

And there's still time to raise more donations.

Creating a reserve

The organization expects the price increase and a newly established reserve fund will keep the event afloat long-term. Patrons should not expect another price change in the near future, Woodcock Tisdale said.

"We don't anticipate raising prices (again) as long as we have the community's support with projected attendance being met each year to pay for the cost of operations," she said.

The First Night Board of Directors shaved its budget by 10 percent this year, Woodcock Tisdale said.

Scaling back means they may actually have some money left over at the end of the event. Any extra money will also go into the reserve fund.

The purpose of the new fund is to offset any future losses the event may have. If there is a year where ticket revenue is down, for example, the fund will help them pay the acts and other people involved with the event.

"We didn't have a reserve last year," Adelphi said. "The reserve is part of the ticket prices."

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

More numbers

Ticket prices

Kids: $10

Adults: $20 (previously $15)

Family pack: Two kids, two adults for $50

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