The Power and Potential of Signature Local Events

birds eye view of a local festival
by Chris Adams
Head of Research & Insights

Events are a powerful and pivotal part of the tourism sector. They create compelling reasons to visit a destination, especially in the shoulder or off-season when the destination’s better-known experiences may not be top of mind.

In our “Destination Decisions” webinar, powered by The State of the American Traveler, we have taken a deeper dive into the role not just of events, but specifically of signature local events, in generating travel to a destination. Signature local events are recurring events hosted in one location that celebrate something special about the host community. They drive visitation and enhance community life year after year. The Gasparilla Pirate Festival in Tampa, FL, the Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, NC, and the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, CA, are just three examples out of thousands of these events. 

While over half of all U.S. leisure travelers have traveled to a destination at least in part to attend an event, signature local events have an even greater pull. In the latest State of the American Traveler research from Future Partners, almost two-thirds of travelers were interested or very interested in traveling to attend a signature local event. Among Gen Z and Y travelers, this share was 71% and 75% respectively.

trees with disco balls

Electric Forest Music Festival, Michigan.

Signature local events amplify what is unique and special about a community and can be a foundational part of why visitors choose to visit that destination. Unlike many sporting, arts and cultural events, signature local events are by definition connected to one place and community and cannot be easily lost to a higher bidding destination.

This year in our Destination Decisions webinar, we took a closer look at the six characteristics of top-performing signature local events. We worked with our partners, OccasionGenius, the leading collector and manager of event information across the U.S., and, a leading publishing platform for event information. Together, we assessed tens of thousands of events across the U.S.

Based on this analysis, we pinpointed six key features of top-performing signature local events. The most successful events typically possess most, if not all, of these characteristics:

1. Seasonal Superstar: These are signature local events that are especially valuable as they run in the shoulder and off-season, attracting visitors and driving economic activity during slower times of the year. Increasingly, local governments and destination organizations are actively facilitating, supporting or even leading the incubation and growth of events at selected times of the year to fill gaps in visitor demand and economic activity.

2. Local Hero: Top-performing signature local events have deep, wide and strong local connections and support from the community and businesses - both during their growth and in managing success when issues like crowding, congestion and price rises can reduce their appeal. Great signature local events work through these issues, balancing the needs of stakeholders to find smart solutions that retain the support of the local community.

pirate ship in the sunset

The Gasparilla Pirate Festival celebrates Tampa's mythical pirate legend, embodying local lore and community spirit.

3. Visitor Draw: Great signature local events need strong local support, but they also need to bring new money to the town, providing a compelling reason for visitors from out of state, province, region or country to visit. This means the event must be sufficiently unique to create a desire to be part of it and turn this aspiration into action.



Bourbon festival banner

Established in 1992, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival celebrates the state’s unique bourbon heritage with enduring popularity and rapid growth in annual visitation.

4. Authentic Story: Signature local events celebrate and amplify something special about a community or place - its unique arts, community food, culture, heritage and/or landscape and nature. Great events bring these stories to life and serve as a catalyst for this storytelling. 

5. Time Tested: Signature local events that have stood the test of time, demonstrating they are not just a “fad.” They have something that engages with locals and visitors alike and have shown resilience to the issues and challenges that can impact any event.

6. Unlikely Winner: Exceptional signature local events stand apart as special and distinctive. They often offer something that is unexpected, different, or even quirky, modernizing where it makes sense but staying true to their unique story and what separates them from other events.

Almost every destination could benefit from a new or enhanced signature local event, highlighting what is special about a community and creating a compelling reason to visit. Consider these six characteristics and examples, as well as our signature events U.S. Hall of Fame, which provides a fuller selection of top events by category. This event U.S. Hall of Fame assessed and scored thousands of local events against the six characteristics above.

Use these resources as inspiration in creating or growing a signature local events in your destination.

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