I've been asked this question a lot, recently, and I expect to get it more as more visitors browse the pictures I took from the latest Kentucky Renaissance Festival. It's actually an excellent question, because any answer tends to get rambly and vague. No one is quite sure - not only because each Faire is different, but because each person comes away from them with something unique.
There actually isn't a true explanation on the Kyrenfaire website to quote from, nor their facebook, and many other festivals and faires seem to go forward with a similar expectation that those attending will simply understand the basics and attend on faith. But casual visitors or curious passerby need not feel that the Faire is some sort of elitist club or hideaway for the uniquely talented, or even a secret cabal full of ne'erdowells and dark magics. Obviously the elitists and ne'erdowells are safely a minority, just like in any organization.
The best way to describe a Renaissance Faire is to strip away the anachronistic themes and look at what is really going on: professional entertainers, artisans, and vendors, all basically specialized small business owners who are working in a community that scatters and comes together in different locations at various times of year. A skill, a talent, a trade, and a product offered for your enjoyment - the elaborate outfits, the accents, and the decoration are all just to make it that much more fun. The vendor selling hand-crafted miniature catapults could also be a history professor at the local community college. The town crier may be a local mechanic. Alternatively, any of the vendors or entertainers may be full-time, investing every bit of their energy (and quite a bit of their wallet) into making the event magical and giving visitors an escape from the every day world.
Like all small business ventures, there's quite a bit of synergy involved in making a Renaissance Faire succesful. The landowner, the construction and maintenance teams, security, food and drinks, leatherworkers and blacksmiths, entertainers and the administrators, all must work together to promote the event and each other or the hole in the tapestry gets too big to ignore and guests see through the veneer. The Kentucky Renaissance Faire (Highlands Festival) has been running for seven years, now, and continues to bring in new talent and interest. The latest entrant has been a group known as the Faewood FaeMily. Made up of over six different (skilled!) performers that play their own unique character, their costumes and personalities brightened up a wooded corner of the Faire for the first time this year. There is trade amongst the vendors, of course; wares for wares. But there are also gifts, well-wishes, and little trinkets given to foster good will between the characters both in and out of the booths. There is another element to this camraderie, however, that should be in any text-book a small business owner reads.
In this world of social media and mass communication, advertising is becoming even more necessary for the survival of a business. Without the budget for a multi-million dollar marketing scheme, business owners have to be creative in how they get the word out. In the case of a Renaissance Faire, the individual characters and vendors may not have ANY kind of an advertising budget aside from "Big sign on the front of the booth". Word of mouth is the best and only option. But what happens when your audience is so insular that the people that have visited you already brought all of their friends? How do you grow beyond that small group of people when you have already tapped their entire network?
Borrow someone else's audience!
This is where the communication becomes a huge factor, especially in a medium such as social sites like Facebook, Twitter, G+ and whatever the next generation of applications will bring in six months. While you may have completely saturated the market of people interested in pixie dust, you can use these social networks to communicate with your partner who sells faerie wings and tap into their market while opening yours to their product. Many open-minded and personable business owners will do this naturally, seeing it simply as a way of saying hello or thank-you to their neighbor or compatriot. After all, you helped them construct their booth, or even man it for a few minutes while they get some much-needed water. These are the people that are often surprised by the influx of visitors that discover them for the first time by following the bread-crumbs back from the other vendor. Using these new high-tech options is actually a return to common-sense community business of 'the old days' when you knew your neighbors name and shook hands with the fellow in the shop next to you. If you take advantage of this concept and intentionally point your own audience to other, similar businesses, you will find that the back-and-forth traffic can only help everyone involved. Your market grows, the other vendor's market grows, and this suddenly-twice-as-big audience is talking about what they have discovered while acquiring the services or products they maybe hadn't even considered before.
And really, THAT is the Renaissance Faire to me.
What other ways do you see modern technology bringing us back to the common sense ways of small business?