Why Northern Lights Festival Pulled the Plug After One Week
An inflatable igloo at Northern Lights Festival in Rochester. Mitch Reaume

Why Northern Lights Festival Pulled the Plug After One Week

The producer of an indoor light show in Rochester opens up about falling short and learning from mistakes.

It was the sort of feel-good story local TV news thrives on, especially during the holiday season: community-minded entrepreneur with a dream to create a magical indoor light park that would delight thousands of visitors while raising money to fund college scholarships for refugees.

Mitch Reaume spent nearly two years and more than $300,000 to finally get to opening day for his Northern Lights Festival at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester. Several local TV affiliates came out to cover it, hailing Northern Lights as the “largest indoor light festival” and saying it was “bringing the holiday magic to Rochester.” But a week after opening, Reaume abruptly pulled the plug. He reflected on Facebook: “The thing about swinging the bat at big dreams is sometimes you miss.”

Reaume said that within the first two days of the festival, he knew it had fallen short of the promised experience. “Too many people were underwhelmed. It couldn’t be dismissed.” Rather than ride it out, Reaume decided to fail fast, and actually talk about it.

“No need for sympathy,” he wrote in a long Facebook post. “The real reason I’m sharing is because I think the internet has warped entrepreneurship to a bunch of privileged folks celebrating their successes and pretending like there aren’t failures. It’s ok to fail. It’s painful, but it’s important.”

Northern Glasses

A former pastor, Reaume founded Fight For Something in 2014 with a mission to build socially minded brands and experiences. His Northern Glasses drinkware donates 7% of all sales to bring clean drinking water to developing nations. Emiliani Coffee supports organizations that advocate for kids in the foster care and adoption system. Reaume runs the retail store Minnesota Strong at Ridgedale Center and his company also produces MN Christmas Market, a traveling popup with a charitable twist.

“Sometimes people ask what all of these things have in common—do I have entrepreneurial ADD,” Reaume joked—mostly. “There’s probably some truth to it, but I value being diversified. I want to keep dreaming and take steps to make it happen.”

But he also wants to get real about the work and the sacrifice required to pursue entrepreneurial dreams, especially without any flashy VCs behind him. He shared these learnings from the Northern Lights disappointment.

Whatever you think it’s going to cost, double it—no, triple it.

“Our budget was crushed by supply chain. Freight costs jumped from $6,000 to $36,000. A $200,000 production became $350,000. You’ve really got to be real about expenses. Ultimately, our pockets weren’t deep enough to pull off a vision the size we wanted it to be.”

Evaluate from all angles.

“You can’t test-build a light park,” Reaume said. “One of the biggest oversights we had was transition time. People are used to outdoor light experiences where a lot of your time is spent just walking from one display to another. Time adds to the perception of value and we didn’t have that indoors. It was a quicker experience and we hadn’t accounted for that.”

Cutting losses is painful in the short term, but better for your brand.

“We wanted to build something really inviting and special, and it fell short. But attendance was ok. Financially, it would have been better to ride it out, but realizing more guests than we would have liked were having an underwhelming experience, it just didn’t feel right to continue selling tickets. We take pride in the things we put out there. Rather than faking it, we had to acknowledge that we came up short. It was the right thing to do even though everyone is really bummed.”

Get comfortable with risk.

It’s easy to say you’re willing to take risks after something succeeds. Reaume said you’ve got to know that it doesn’t always work out that way. “My approach with everything my company starts is if something is not worth the risk of a public failure, it’s probably not worth the time and energy that goes into it. I’ve got to be able to say, if this flops, I will be proud of us for trying.”