The Big Business of Thanksgiving Day Parades

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A Parade Company Artist sculpts a larger-than-life character for the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Path of Confidence float, in October 2013.
The Parade Company

A Parade Company artist sculpts a larger-than-life character for the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan float in October 2013

Thanksgiving weekend is a banner one for American retailers, but there’s another American business that thrives at this time of year: parades. Each year, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade draws more than 3.5 million spectators to New York City, while another 50 million watch on TV. That’s right, far more Americans tune in to the Thanksgiving Day processional than the Oscars.

And it’s not just Macy’s. Across the country, from Plymouth, Mass., to Seattle, folks will crowd street corners and tune in on television to watch marching bands, helium-filled balloons and papier-mâché floats pass by. In this age of smartphones and social media, viewers are still transfixed by this century-old tradition, and still have a hankering for hometown fanfare sponsored by local businesses.

Take Detroit. Though the city is still reeling from its recent bankruptcy filing, it’s expecting roughly 1 million people to line Woodward Avenue in the city’s downtown section for America’s Thanksgiving Parade presented by Art Van Furniture. Michiganders and TV watchers across the country will also be tuning in — last year the event was watched by 21% of viewers in Detroit’s local TV market, and the parade was syndicated in 140 cities across America.

According to Tony Michaels, CEO of the Parade Company, the nonprofit group that operates Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day parade and several other civic events, parades like Detroit’s maintain their popularity because of the quickly changing landscape of American entertainment rather than in spite of it. “The buzz over this year’s parade is at the highest level it’s ever been,” says Michaels. “That’s because traditions like these are even more valuable to people today. In a fast-paced world, we’re down-home cool.”

Cool or not, the parades would never happen without the many businesses, large and small, that are willing to sponsor them. Putting on a parade of such magnitude is no cheap task. The Parade Company has 14 full-time employees, including an art director responsible for overseeing the construction of floats in its 200,000-sq.-ft. (18,580 sq m) studio and sponsorship-fulfillment representatives who work with companies putting up the dough. Sponsoring a float doesn’t come cheap — just the construction costs alone can run anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000.

And while they feel like civic events, parades are almost exclusively funded by sponsors. Most of the roughly half-million dollars the City of Houston will spend on its parade this year will come from businesses like supermarket chain HEB. The nonprofit firm Christmas in St. Louis, which operates that city’s 29-year-old parade, estimates it will spend $140,000, but that doesn’t include the cost of many of the featured floats, which many sponsors hire artists to build. And the historical-themed parade in Plymouth, which happened on Saturday, cost its nonprofit manager $250,000 — drawn mostly from local restaurants and banks in small-town Massachusetts. (Organizers in New York City, Detroit and Philadelphia declined to provide total cost estimates.)

The fact that these increasingly elaborate events are being pulled off without much help from taxpayers is evidence that event sponsorship is an increasingly popular publicity strategy. Jim Andrews, vice president at sponsorship-consulting firm IEG, says corporate spending on sponsorship is growing faster than most other forms of marketing. With the surge in entertainment options for Americans, it’s becoming easier for them to avoid or ignore ads, and sponsorships are one way for a company to broaden its reach. “It’s harder to break through these days with traditional advertising because of the clutter and cost in some markets,” says Andrews. “And sponsoring local events is a unique way to signal that you’re a good corporate citizen.”

Firms like McDonald’s, which sponsors Chicago’s Thanksgiving Parade, and Philadelphia’s local ABC affiliate WPVI-TV, which sponsors that city’s parade along with Dunkin’ Donuts, couldn’t get away with expensing the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to put on these events each year if it didn’t in some way help pad the bottom line. “The parade is a truly iconic event for the city, and our sponsors see the value in aligning with it,” says Mike Monsell, director of creative services for WPVI-TV. With 500,000 people across the Philadelphia media market expected to tune in, it’s not hard to see why.
Holiday parades have always been intertwined with commerce. Philadelphia’s parade, the nation’s oldest, was the brainchild of Ellis Gimbel of Gimbels department store, who thought the celebration would be a great way to draw holiday shoppers to his downtown outpost. The original parade’s finale even had Santa Claus bounding into the Gimbels toy department. 

Nearly 100 years later, that commercial zeal hasn’t faded. But it’s not all business. Art Van Elslander, chairman of Art Van Furniture, says he first began supporting the Detroit parade 24 years ago when a lack of funding made it look as though the parade wouldn’t happen. Born and raised in Detroit, Elslander has a sentimental attachment to an event he attended as a kid and later with his own children. He wrote a $200,000 check to keep the parade afloat in 1989, and has been a lead sponsor ever since, with his company sporting the largest float. In the parade business, there’s still plenty of holiday spirit.