DeKALB - Michael Embrey first came to DeKalb in 1974 to become director of bands at Northern Illinois University. He stayed in DeKalb and over the years his business, FUN Companies, has grown into a specialized travel agency, a marketing company, and an event-planning company. Last weekend he brought the Tour of Champions Drum and Bugle Corps Competition to a nearly sold-out Huskie Stadium, and he is planning the fourth annual countywide Kishwaukee Fest, which will include the second annual BaconPalooza, later this month.
Kishwaukee Fest will have events that appeal to everyone, with music and attractions as diverse as a wild west show, a skateboarding event, car shows, a big band dance and a Friday night parade.
“I wanted a good old-fashioned, down-home parade with kids involved and local sponsors, the way you would have seen back in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said.
Embrey sat down to talk with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg.
MidWeek: How did you get into organizing big events?
Michael Embrey: Part of it was having traveled professionally since I was 16. Staying with groups, traveling, hotels, airlines, performance science, venues – you learn a lot. But the first experience was the NIU band went on tour, and we were required to use a travel agent. So we went through the process and the travel agent put us in a hotel where the bus couldn’t get under the overhang. They had no idea how to work with a group. ... It’s a little different moving a family of four from moving 260 high school or college musicians. ... I traveled with the military band, and there were 60 of us in the military band and you learn things just from that. One of the biggest challenges we had with the NIU band was feeding them or having a bathroom stop someplace. You can’t stop at a McDonald’s with one men’s room and one women’s room – you’d never get out of there.
MW: How did Kishwaukee Fest become a reality?
ME: Four years ago I created Kishwaukee Fest because I felt there was a need to create something that was not related to the university, something a little different with different musical genres. ... Back in the ’50s, the NIU homecoming parade was always big here but since then there is the Memorial Day parade, but there’s no city of DeKalb parade. The Pumpkin Parade is excellent, and I worked for them years ago, but DeKalb doesn’t really have anything outside of Corn Fest, which started as kind of a university event, that they can hang their hat on. ...I tried to find something that would bridge all (age) gaps and all genres. The goal was to create a week-long festival with different music every night.
This year we go for nine days, from a Saturday to the following Sunday. The (Turning Back Time) car show was something that was already there, so that’s another dimension that we could add and promote.
MW: What are the components of the FUN Companies?
ME: We actually have three divisions, maybe four. We have our tour and travel division, which is adults and students in separate divisions. Even the adults are split into senior citizens and the N.I.C.E. Society for younger travelers. ...Then we have the entertainment division, which provides entertainment for a variety of activities and organizations, and then our marketing division, primarily for special events. I work for different cities doing that. It’s a small but fun part of our business. ...We’ll create a special event for a city that is looking for something new and different. The big hot thing to do today is special events in communities. That special event creates the tourism. Tourism as we know it today is dead. It’s now event-ism. Brick and mortar really has no attraction to anybody because it’s not going to change. Ellwood House is not moving from DeKalb. It’s always going to be there. But if they have a Christmas event, you want to go because it’s something special.
MW: I hadn’t heard of event-ism before.
ME: In 1996 when Atlanta hosted the Olympics, in a little town southwest of Atlanta, Ga. called West Dublin, a couple DJs said, “You know, we can’t let Atlanta have all the fun. We need to stir up some interest down here.” And they created the first Redneck Olympics. Of course now they can’t call it Olympics because that’s trademarked, so now they call it the Redneck Games. It was a two-day event that attracted 500 people. Last year it was four days and they had 15,000 people come to the Redneck Games because it was something fun to do, out of the norm. Not everyone is a champagne and caviar person, that’s why there is football and car rallies.
MW: What do you have planned for kids?
ME: I wanted to have a youth music night on Wednesday but I just couldn’t find the right medium because the kids have such eclectic taste, so now we’re doing a skateboard and a health event where the kids can learn about skateboarding, learn about yoga, learn about health, learn about eating right. We’re going to bring in a top-notch skateboarder to show the kids some tricks.
MW: Is Miss Illinois coming to the parade this year?
ME: Yes, we are bringing a lot of queens in. Miss Illinois was just crowned last week, so this is their big “coming out” time of year for making public appearances. We have these other queens coming to town because we create a social atmosphere for them. I used to be the CEO of Miss Illinois and the girls never really had social events where they could see each other outside of the pageants. We bring them to town at 5 o’clock on a Friday, we assign them to different boutique stores, and they sit there and sign autographs and they get to meet the customers, which is good for the stores. At 6:30 they go get ready for the parade, and after the parade we have a social event for them. We’ll have Miss Illinois and we’ll probably have 10 to 15 other queens from Gurnee to Springfield.
MW: Tell me about BaconPalooza.
ME: Last year we lost the drum corps show, so I wanted to have a food fair. I thought about a Taste of DeKalb, but what does DeKalb taste like? I came upon the idea of a bacon fest, which turned into BaconPalooza, which turned into the BaconPalooza Swine and Wine festival. Now we have the state wine association behind us, and the state pork people behind us.
MW: Have you had success in bringing people from the Chicago area to DeKalb County events?
ME: People from Chicago think you need a passport and a box lunch to come out here. My favorite comment was from friends in Chicago when I asked them to come out and visit me. They said, “Oh my God, that’s a long way out there. Whey don’t you come here?” It’s the same distance whether I go from Chicago to DeKalb or DeKalb to Chicago! People still think DeKalb is close to Iowa but I think the growth of (nearby) places like Aurora and Naperville will bring people to unique events here.
MW: Have you gotten response from out-of-town visitors who visited DeKalb?
ME: The city of DeKalb and Re:New have spent a lot of money fixing up downtown. Whether you like it or not, they did it. The problem is, nobody knows it. ...I tell my former students that it’s a whole different downtown.
MW: You brought the Miss Fox Valley pageant to DeKalb this year. Do you plan to bring it back next year?
ME: We’re probably going to bring that back. We have been negotiating. They loved the facility; the Egyptian Theatre is a great venue for an event like that. They had it in a high school gymnasium (previous years) so this was a major step up for them.