Howard’s homecoming: a brand and a business

October 21, 2011

Dominique Moxey promotes parties at some of Washington’s swankiest venues all year. But he looks forward to the latter part of October, when 100,000 revelers pack townhouses in Shaw, cram into Georgia Avenue eateries and attend $150 downtown parties.

Howard University’s homecoming is both a brand and a business.

“It’s a promoter’s Christmas,” said Moxey, who along with his partner, Mark Spain, runs JetSetDC.com. “It’s one time of the year when it’s really good to be a promoter.”

This weekend is Howard University’s 87th annual homecoming, when students, alumni and others pour into Washington for the most renowned of the homecomings thrown by historically black colleges and universities.

Party promoters such as Moxey circle the weekend on their calendars, certain that they’ll be able to charge admission prices two or three times the usual. University officials receive more than $1 million in donations and profits. It is one of the most profitable weekends for lower Georgia Avenue business owners.

And Howard officials say that sales at the bookstore can reach $100,000 over the weekend, when alumni often come to buy school clothing and other gear.

Elliot Ferguson, president and chief executive of Destination D.C., said Howard’s homecoming is comparable to the Cherry Blossom Festival in that there is a spike in the city’s weekend business, including high occupancy and retention of hotel rooms.

The university sponsors nearly 30 student and alumni events on campus and around the city, including concerts, pageants, Yardfest, the Saturday morning parade and game day activities. Some events are free, but most charge a fee.

A “Prestige pass” costs $487 and includes access to 11 events, including the step show, an R &B concert and Saturday’s football game against North Carolina A&T. Fifteen of the all-access passes were sold. A $287 “weekend pass” was offered, as well.

The profits from ticket sales are used for planning and supporting the next year’s festivities.

Some students complained of being priced out of their own homecoming. A ticket to this year’s step show, for instance, costs $50, up from $35 last year. Still, 4,000 tickets had been sold.

Sydney Greene, a freshman from Arlington, Tex., said she wanted to go to the poetry cipher on Tuesday. Most of her friends scoffed at the $25 price, so she didn’t go.

“I know a lot of my friends couldn’t go to some of the events they wanted to because they weren’t being sent the money that they needed,” she said.

Greene said she went to homecoming last year with her sister, also a Howard student, and didn’t spend more than $100. “This year, you buy two tickets, and it’s already $100, basically,” she said.

The university did not release how much it costs to put on homecoming each year. But Shenise McKnight, who heads the homecoming committee, said prices increased partly because the committee received less seed money than expected.

The committee relied heavily on sponsorships and fundraisers. McKnight, a senior marketing major from Sacramento, said the committee reached out to BET, which sponsored Friday’s Yardfest, a midday party in the center of campus.

The fundraising resulted in $400,000 in in-kind sponsorships and about $100,000 in monetary donations, McKnight said.

The committee decided to increase the prices instead of canceling events that students look forward to each year.

“We just had to crunch the numbers economically and see what could and could not happen, what was feasible — and we chose to raise the ticket prices a little bit,” she said. “Some events it sort of affected them, but some events — no effect at all.”

‘Ultimate party experience’

People appear to be arriving in town and planning to party as usual. Barbara Griffin, vice president for student affairs at Howard, said “the party aspect is completely independent of what Howard University is sponsoring and promoting.” Many events are being promoted as glamorous affairs, some fetching $150.

The 1,000 Bottles Party is creating the biggest buzz. It’s hosted by a group of recent Howard grads who call themselves the Gifted Life and Burrrr Entertainment. It features a premium open bar. Tickets started at $40 in August and topped out at $125 before selling out.

Jason Foster, a 2007 graduate, said that he and his business partner, Steve Owens, used to throw house parties and barbecues, which helped them build their network. The party sold out without a paper flier ever being disseminated.

“We’ve all been to previous celebrations that do not fulfill the hype,” said Francis Roberts, a 2009 graduate. “We want to create the ultimate party experience.”

For many alumni, who have been attending homecoming for years, the high prices and entrepreneurial spirit of the students and alumni is part of Howard homecoming’s DNA.

“We did anything we could to make a little bit of money off of homecoming,” said Doug Coleman, 46, an IT consultant who graduated in 1987. “It was part of what it meant to do HU homecoming right.”

Toni Blackman is a social entrepreneur and works as a hip-hop cultural ambassador for the State Department. She has two degrees from Howard and said that returning to campus is great for networking.

“You get to see everyone all at once,” she said. “A party can turn into three power meetings.”

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