This post has been updated with reaction.
By Hope Reese
The city of Louisville will not be the same in September — IdeaFestival has just been canceled.
In a news release on Monday, IdeaFestival announced that the program, which has produced 15 events since 2000, is undergoing a “complete re-evaluation of every aspect of the enterprise.”
IdeaFestival, which started in Lexington, calls itself “a celebration of the curious, with the goal of inspiring all people to embrace the excitement and danger of new ideas.” Think TED talks for a more diverse crowd, with injections of art, music and bourbon. Names like Steve Wozniak, Janelle Monae and Wynton Marsalis have been included in the programs.
IdeaFestival has been scaling back, and held a shortened, two-day event in 2017. It observed that its audience “has fundamentally shifted over the years and it is unclear at this point whether our ‘product’ is still of sufficient value and relevance to a wide group of people, organizations and companies,” the release stated.
Speaking to Insider Louisville, Kris Kimel stressed that the only way to get people to “think seriously about how to reinvent it is to say: we’re not doing it.”
“It feels disappointing,” Kimel said. “On the other hand, everything has a life cycle.”
Kimel, who recently stepped down as president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, added, “We haven’t been able to figure out a sustainable path forward: programatically and financially.”
IdeaFestival has been committed to offering a program that can be accessible to people at different income levels — especially students. Officials noted that Thrivals, the daylong event run by the University of Louisville’s Nat Irvin, as well as IF Bowling Green and IF JCPS events at will continue as planned.
“Making it to the festival wasn’t contingent on the size of your bank account,” said Kimel. “We wanted young people.”
To do this, IdeaFestival relied heavily on sponsors to underwrite the cost, while ticket sales may have covered close to a quarter of the total — major donors have included Humana, Brown-Forman, Delta Dental, 21c, the city of Louisville, the University of Louisville.
But the nature of the economy has changed in Louisville, Kimel says, and several major donors of the past are no longer supporting the festival.
In Kentucky, “you’re dealing with an economy that is fundamentally changing,” he said. “There are not that many well-financed innovative companies that have deep roots,” Kimel said. “That’s very different than it was 20 years ago.”
FedEx Memphis was still a sponsor, but companies like LexMark and GE appliances — former sponsors — have been bought by Chinese companies.
The financial instability has had an impact on programming, Kimel said, and the festival has not always been able to bring in the speakers it wants. Another thing, he stressed, is the nature of new ideas, in general. “So much has changed in 15 years,” Kimel said. “To keep a festival fresh requires a lot of time and thought, and you have to have resources to invest. Otherwise you run out of gas.”
IdeaFestival will be missed by many in the city. It’s “the best innovation event in the region,” according to Jason Hiner, global editor in chief of TechRepublic, and “a big inspiration for entrepreneurs and innovators of all stripes.”
“I hope the IF team will find a way to revive it with new energy in 2019,” Hiner added.
Christa Ritchie, marketing communications manager for the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, echoed the sentiment, calling IdeaFestival “a signature event on Louisville’s fall festival lineup, drawing both locals and visitors to the city to be inspired by world-class thinkers.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a big supporter of the event, said that IdeaFestival “created a critical mass of creativity, innovation and possibility in our community, bringing together smart, ambitious, forward-thinking people to inspire and energize us.”
“I want to thank Kris Kimmel and his IdeaFestival team for their passion and hard work, including the very difficult decision to take a break and review its sustainability,” Fischer said. “No matter what happens from here, they’ve helped create an IdeaFestival mindset of curiosity and innovation in our city.”
And Kimel himself is often reminded of the festival’s impact by people in the community. He recalled being approached by the president of the University of Louisville’s Medical School, who said that he decided to go into medicine and science when he was a middle school student — after attending the festival in Lexington. It’s moments like this that make IdeaFestival’s impact difficult to measure. And the traditional metrics don’t always apply.
“It’s important to track” the number of hotel rooms booked, Kimel said, “but you also need to ask: Who are the people coming? What if Steve Wozniak is in that room?”
The festival can “often get stuck in metrics that aren’t relevant,” Kimel said. “How do you put a price tag on some of the outcomes?”
Correction: The post has been updated to reflect that FedEx was still a sponsor.
Editor’s note: The writer has volunteered at IdeaFest and served as host of IF Radio.