Three days of Gilda’s LaughFest remain, and Leann Arkema, president and CEO of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, said there are plenty of great shows still ahead — and businesses yet to benefit from the crowds.
“There is so much still available,” Arkema said. “Lots of tickets. It’s a great time to come out and exercise some good emotional health along with us.”
In its third year, LaughFest’s audience continues to expand.
“A really cool fact: This year we know we have sold tickets to people in 32 states and Canada. Last year it was 25 states, so the word is obviously traveling and more people are coming (from) out of the community into the community to experience Grand Rapids and LaughFest.”
Each year’s festival is different, Arkema said, because during the first year LaughFest developed a flexible framework that would allow it to work with different venues and available comics in each successive year, as well as meet audience demands for entertainment.
“We are really excited (with) where we are to date,” she said. “We are doing some streamlining this year, so while the overall number of events might not be quite as high as previous years, we are on track with attendance similar to previous years — in the 50,000 attendance range.”
The event also is helping Gilda’s Club raise money for its children’s grief program through its High Five fundraiser.
“Each year during LaughFest, we ask audience members and the community to give LaughFest a ‘High Five,’ which is a $5 contribution,” Arkema said. “This year, the Wege Foundation is matching every High Five contribution with their own $5 so it becomes $10, and we are dedicating all the High Five contributions this year specifically to our children’s grief program.
“Gilda’s Club’s mission has evolved and we are now supporting grieving children and their families that have experienced a death in their life due to any cause. We are targeting that program because we want the community to know what we are doing. To date, between the match and High Fives, we’ve raised $115,000 dedicated to our children’s grief program.”
The annual Signature Event, which serves as the festival’s headliner, also was a huge success, with more than 1,500 people — in terms of tables sold — attending.
“We actually sold more tables this year than at our Betty White event,” Arkema said. “We are thrilled. The community came out and had a fabulous time. Social media was on fire. People just laughed. Wayne Brady was an amazing talent.”
LaughFest partners with a host of businesses and nonprofits to carry off the 10-day festival, and this year businesses couldn’t be happier with their participation.
Cindy Schneider, San Chez Bistro general manager, said the restaurant's LaughFest-related sales have increased about 25 percent over last year and the festival has had a "larger impact" on downtown businesses.
San Chez has participated in LaughFest for the past three years, and this year it decided to host its own dinner theater show.
“LaughFest is going really well for San Chez this year,” Schneider said. “Our participation is a little different this year, which it is every year. This year we had four shows for LaughFest on Friday and Saturday evenings called ‘Looking for Mrs. San Chez,’ which is a dinner theater for $40. We have been sold out for all four shows.”
Tami VandenBerg, whose bar Pyramid Scheme has served as a venue for the past two years, also is happy with this year’s turnout for LaughFest.
Pyramid Scheme hosted various performances, including four sold-out shows by Garfunkel and Oates that brought in "all kinds of new faces again" and a successful preview show that the bar would "absolutely do again" and was "very, very happy with."
VandenBerg added that bar sales from this year’s shows have been about double the sales of 2012.
The B.O.B. also is a participating venue again this year, and Kim Lemmen, director of catering for The Gilmore Collection, said that this year is going as well as last year.
“It is a great community event; good for Grand Rapids,” Lemmen said.
The B.O.B. has had several sold-out shows so far this time around and it has benefited from increased employee morale on top of that.
Even restaurants and bars that are not hosting shows have seen a spike in sales and visitors. VandenBerg said that last week Saturday people were literally going door-to-door looking for a bar or restaurant that was not at capacity.
Arkema added that LaughFest organizers design LaughFest to be a win-win for the venues and "everyone involved."
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