In its 25 years, the Soulard Mardi Gras in St. Louis has grown into one of the largest annual Fat Tuesday celebrations in the US.Started as a neighborhood celebration - Soulard, just south of downtown St. Louis, is the oldest residential neighborhood in the US west of the Mississippi River - Soulard Mardi Gras in recent years has become a weeks-long event for which tens of thousands come to revel.
But some people might forget that it runs for nearly two months, that it's not merely a big parade, and that it has a lot to offer those thousands of potential partiers. To remind people of Soulard Mardi Gras' scope for this year, Mardi Gras Inc., the nonprofit that oversees the celebration, teamed with The Vandiver Group.
"This used to be a little neighborhood parade where they'd have a couple thousand people come down," says Mack Bradley, VP of The Vandiver Group and the official minister of information for Soulard Mardi Gras. "It's not that anymore. As such, one of our challenges, both for the public and also for the folks in the police department and the city, was to make people understand this was a major regional event and not a little neighborhood parade."
Soulard Mardi Gras had 14 events this year, including three major parades and such smaller fare as a masquerade ball at city hall and a wine-tasting event. The PR campaign wanted to get that range across to people, Bradley says.
The effort wanted to show the impact Soulard Mardi Gras has on St. Louis, Bradley says, and this impact could be a way to illustrate the celebration's scope. A study that Bradley requested from the city showed a $20 million economic windfall for St. Louis from the event.
Bradley also knew the celebration could mean more tourists. So, the campaign sent press kits not only to the local press, but to media around the US.
"We attracted tourists from a much wider area than, frankly, I thought we would," Bradley says, noting that people trekked to the celebration from as far away as New York and Chicago.
Locally, the campaign worked with meteorologists to get them to mention Soulard Mardi Gras' events in their weathercasts. The campaign also took advantage of a mailing done every spring by the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission to 300,000 people in the metro area, snagging a prominent - and free - mention in the mailing.
The campaign also worked the celebration's website into a comprehensive clearinghouse of information.
In the final month before Fat Tuesday, 2,200 news and promotional placements about Soulard Mardi Gras were recorded and more than 700 positive news placements appeared outside the St. Louis media market.
Coverage was overwhelmingly positive, in fact, a reassuring feat given that Soulard Mardi Gras was marred by riots and shootings in 1999 and 2002 - an open door to negative press. The website, according to the campaign, garnered 4.6 million hits this year, an increase of more than 3 million from last year.
In addition, the event was the most attended Soulard Mardi Gras since it started a quarter century ago, notes Bradley.
Building on this year's success, Bradley says, The Vandiver Group will work with Mardi Gras Inc. for next year's Soulard Mardi Gras. Once again, a months-long PR campaign is expected to precede the weeks-long celebration.
"It's much bigger than people realize," says Tim Lorson, executive director of Mardi Gras Inc. "There's a whole month's worth of great activities that offers something for everybody."
PR team: The Vandiver Group and Mardi Gras Inc. (both in St. Louis)
Campaign: Soulard Mardi Gras 2004
Time frame: November 2003 to February 2004
Budget: About $50,000 ($20,000 pro bono by Vandiver)