In his first year as Burlington Steamboat Days vice president of marketing, Jeff Ebbing has some big shoes to fill.
The 47-year-old Ebbing wore cool, colorful socks as he penciled a BSD ad at The Hawk Eye, discussing artwork, placement, titling changes and other mundane necessities of marketing a major annual event.
Last year's BSD president, Stephanie Kozlowski, said there were many good things to say about Ebbing.
"Data-driven research is the key to Jeff's plan to revamp the marketing and production of this festival," Kozlowski said. "Through social media we have a gold mine of data, and Jeff and the marketing team are putting in the hours to analyze preferences and help us bring what the consumer wants to this area."
She added, "Nerd stuff aside, he is also one of the most fun people ever."
Born in Quincy, Illinois, Ebbing's family moved to Burlington in 1983. His father bought or built many of the Hardee's fast food restaurants in southeast Iowa.
"He had a Hardee's in Hannibal, then we moved up here and expanded: Burlington to Muscatine to Washington and Centerville," Ebbing said. "Fort Madison, Keokuk; he had a whole bunch of 'em."
Don't forget Mount Pleasant and Fairfield.
Most young schoolboys get jobs delivering newspapers or bagging groceries at Hy-Vee, but not Ebbing.
"My first jobs were pulling weeds and hosing off the lot and picking up the trash at Hardee's," he said. "I learned a lot."
Wilber Hardee opened the first Hardee's in 1960 in Greenville, North Carolina. More than 3,000 locations later, Carl N. Karcher of Carl's Jr. bought the chain in 1997.
"Carl's made offers to many franchisees for their stores," Ebbing said. "Dad took them up on the offer."
By then Ebbing had graduated from the University of Iowa in 1993 and gone to work in Burlington as director of marketing at Pzazz.
"When everything got sold, I landed at Pzazz and worked with Dave Walker and Peter Harman right before Fun City opened," he said.
He left Pzazz in 2005 for a position at Southeastern Community College, and he's been there ever since.
Ebbing joined the BSD committee just two years ago.
"Last year I was on the marketing committee; Scott Smith was vice president," he said. "I'm running that now, and it's fun ... but it's equally terrorizing and invigorating. A lot of challenges with that."
Ebbing said Smith helped him get his feet wet. The two had worked on other projects including fundraising for the Burlington Bees.
Last year's marketing team included Tim Lundgren and Chelsea Lerud. Lundgren is the BSD president-elect for next year, and Lerud is the executive director of the Greater Burlington Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"Jeff has done a fabulous job taking over the duties of VP of marketing for BSD," Lerud said. "He has taken the new role as an opportunity to re-evaluate how to best reach the core audience for BSD and implement marketing best practices."
Lerud added that Smith was a valuable resource throughout the year's transition, making sure the marketing team isn't missing any of pieces.
"It's been a good succession, but there's been a lot of changes the past two years," Ebbing said.
Halfway into Ebbing's first year, Smith announced his retirement as marketing VP, and now-president Amy Burkhart asked Ebbing to take Smith's place.
"I think I do pretty well in this realm, and so I could bring some skill sets to the table that maybe other folks haven't had in the past, and maybe a different perspective because I'm a newer person," Ebbing said. "The college was a sponsor for a number of years, we sponsored Sunday, we'd give out fans and glasses and stuff at the door. I got a little bit behind the curtain when we were a sponsor."
And now, like the Wizard of Oz, Ebbing is pulling levers behind the curtain.
"Even though it's a lot of work, there are a lot of things I'm doing here that really do make me a better person at work," he said.
Ebbing took over Smith's spot as stage announcer last year.
"My big line was, 'Hello Steamboat Days.' I yelled it out every evening," Ebbing said. "That's a fun job. I don't normally get scared doing public speaking but that was, 'OK, I've got to get real now.' But after I did it that second night it was fine. That's cool to get up there and feel that vibe with everybody."
It used to be artists performed when they felt like it, but unlike the stoned musicians of the '60s and '70s, today's bands are organized and on time.
"They hand you the microphone a minute before you walk out there; it's a timed deal," Ebbing said. "It didn't used to be that way; now artists keep people on a schedule, so when it's 8:57, you've got three minutes and you're up talking on the stage."
So far, Ebbing hasn't experienced much of the glamorous side of his job — meeting the stars — but this year he'll be doing all the meet-and-greets.
"I’ll chaperone everyone back like Scott used to do: Take everybody back, tell 'em what to expect, here comes the band, one small picture, that kind of thing," he said. "I'm looking forward to that."
Ebbing said his VP position involves a lot more than quipping onstage and hanging out with the big names.
"There's just so much there. It's 'Where do you put the Porta-Potties?' and 'How many people do you have to have?' and 'Who wants to do this job?' It's not a board you join to just have your name on something and show up to a party. It's a 12-month commitment," he said.
This year the BSD committee faced a number of difficult, unfamiliar issues, but Ebbing said the festival should be as much fun as ever.
Even with a smaller budget, meaning fewer big names.
"Our name has always been the American Music Festival, but most folks consider it, 'Who's playing Tuesday night?' [Vice president of entertainment] Carlos Capdevila wanted to make it more of a full-festival feel. It was important to him to highlight all different kinds of music: local, national, and regional acts," Ebbing said. "That's something I thought would be a good idea as well: expand the offerings."
The Landing is part of that, and the South Stage has always been there, but trying to integrate those locations so people can move around and enjoy the music — like the bigger festivals — is difficult enough without this year's beefy BSD lineup.
"That was already in motion well before anything with the challenge with the carnival came up," Ebbing said.
Right: There's no waterfront carnival this year.
No carnival means guys can't dump their wives off with the kids and go swill beer with their buddies before the show. Does that mean this year the festival is less of a family thing and more of a concert thing? Is that why there are more bands?
"It's really a tiny thing," Ebbing said. "If you have a business and you can pick between 'sign the contract today' and know you can have a set location, and 'sign the contract maybe in a few months when there may or may not be a place for you to have your event' — as a businessperson, where are you going to go?"
BSD has to compete with festivals and events around the country, some of which are planned more than a year in advance. BSD wasn't able to pull the trigger because the progress of the flood wall has been a big if. When you tell somebody, 'We can't sign right now' because you might be underwater, they're going to sign with someone else.
"We kept working with carnivals, and one thing we learned was that there's a lot of consolidation going on: Smaller outfits are getting bought up by bigger outfits," Ebbing said. "So there are fewer carnival companies to fill the same number of — or maybe even more — events and festival-type places."
Ebbing said the carnivals BSD wanted to work with operate many months in advance, and the last few they considered had a shorter time-frame but weren't of the quality BSD prefers.
"The last lead we had in line backed out," Ebbing said. "For the average person, they don't care about the why, they just know, 'I don't get to go on the Ferris wheel.' I totally get it."
But the BSD committee has worked hard to overcome the no-carnival letdown by having new events and more bands.
"There's lots more music on Saturday now, so you can easily hang out there, all day if you wanted," Ebbing said. "Sunday they have Praise Fest; it's very family-focused in the morning until five o'clock in the afternoon. There's a special Guest Day, Senior Day, the talent show's back on Wednesday night — that's the Bill Riley circuit. So there's a lot going on, but you don't get to ride the motorboats and hit the hammer on the bell."
Do beer-drinking adults really want to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl anyway?
Ebbing said that the event grounds will be pretty much the same, even with The Wall still under construction.
"There's not a lot left to do, a little bit of concrete work," he said. "So the grounds should basically be the same."
Another upgrade this year is the wristband, which replaces the paper ticket of yesteryear. Anyone with a wristband can attend any event for free.
"All that stuff's built into your wristband, so it should be convenient for you," Ebbing said. "There are a number of local businesses who, show 'em your wristband, you get a deal. A lot of them are downtown businesses and you get a percentage off."
Show your wristband at the Landing and you can get a free beer or soft drink there, or a ticket for a free beer on the main grounds. Ebbing said soft drinks are available only inside the Landing so that BSD doesn't compete with the inside concession vendors.
This year wristbands are barcoded; Ebbing said they hope to switch to RFID as early as next year.
"It gives us the opportunity to open up the doors to make it easier for people to do cashless payments," Ebbing said. "Even now, you have to scan a barcode, but then you'll actually just wave your hand in front of a sensor."
Ebbing said paper tickets are only available from Hy-Vee or if you are a sponsor or radio contest winner. Web purchasers can either print the bar code on paper or display it on a smartphone for entry.
If you've flown recently, you know you can wave your phone over the boarding pass scanner, no ticket needed.
"We'll have that technology as well, but it takes a lot of time to put that in place. We just didn't have the time to do the homework to make the full jump to RFID this year," Ebbing said.
Speaking of flying, does Ebbing have a mayfly prediction?
"The water was up really high, and now its down. I have not had a chance to think about that," he said. "I'm going to have to say no, they're not going to come out."
Spoken like a true marketing wizard.
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