Written by Jim Murphy
In the not too distant future, social historians who assign cute nicknames to our passing eras—the Roaring ’20s, Fabulous ’50s—may decide to call our present time, “The Age of the Festival.” Nowhere is that description more accurate than in Western North Carolina and its surrounding areas.
From April Fool’s Day to Halloween, it seems not a weekend goes by without at least a couple of festivals clamoring for our attention. Their festive themes run from the standard music, art, and food categories to some pretty esoteric extremes. Consider: The North Carolina Mineral and Gem Festival, Dirty Dancing Festival, Coon Dog Day Festival, Asheville Yogafest, Sourwood Festival, Big Love Fest, and the Wild Goose Festival.
This proliferation of celebrations has spawned a new mini-industry of festival producers and directors. Their skills must include precise planning, elaborate multi-tasking—and a simple faith that it will all work out in the end.
They agree that they could not do it alone.
Rod Bowling has produced festivals for more than two decades. His credits include the Poetry Alive Festival at UNC Asheville, the Mountain Renaissance Adventure Faire, the Bluff Mountain music festival in Hot Springs, and now the Mars Hill Heritage Festival. “I trust committee chairs,” Rod says. “I want to make sure I’ve got somebody there who can do the job and will be honest with me if they’re having troubles along the line.”
Jennifer Pickering agrees that a festival can’t succeed without a strong staff. “You really have to trust people and build your team,” she says. Jennifer created the semi-annual LEAF Festival in Black Mountain 19 years ago, and now her team consists of 10 full-time staffers and nearly 300 workers during the festival. “You can’t oversee all of it, so you have to make sure you surround yourself with amazing people.”
Bob Bowles, who produces Asheville’s Wine and Food Festival, says staff involvement is the key ingredient. “I try to spend several days every couple of months with the staff and say, ‘Let’s visualize.’ And we take that mental walk to review how we’re putting it on and what the guest is seeing. We visualize what we’re aiming for and then we make it happen.”
“You really need to start at the end. What do you want to end up with? What’s your vision for this day or days for this festival?”[/quote]Rod Bowling echoes that approach. “You really need to start at the end. What do you want to end up with? What’s your vision for this day or days for this festival?”
Rod leans forward, elbows on the table, as he expands on the thought. “What do you want to do and where do you want to do it? Then we start by working backwards. What are we going to need? I think people don’t realize how much behind-the-scenes stuff goes on to make it seem like what a great day this is. It has to be seamless.”
Bob Bowles ran through a roster of staff positions. “It takes the person soliciting vendors and sponsorships. You need someone to do the marketing, a website person, an accounting person. There are typically five to six people working full-time for six months before the festival. We also have lots of assistants and a volunteer coordinator. I have to hire package designers, sometimes writers, photographers, videographers. I have three guys who set it up every year and take it down. There’s a large group of people who support it one way or another.”
Once the planning is done and the vendors are set up, the next order of business is getting the festive crowds in the door. That challenge begins in the parking lot.
Jennifer Pickering says one of the toughest lessons she learned was how to handle the limited parking space at the LEAF Festival. “We don’t have one big open field. We have to rely on 10 different areas that are open at different times. So we can’t accommodate people arriving early. All our tickets are for specific times, and if people show up early we either recommend they go to Black Mountain and hang out for a little bit, or if there’s any way we can squeeze them in somewhere we try to do it.”
Bob Bowles smiles as he recalls that parking was his very first hard lesson. “The first year of the festival, we held it in Carrier Park. It was a very small festival, only a couple of hundred attendees and about a dozen wineries. But even at that size, it didn’t take long to realize there wasn’t enough parking there. People couldn’t get in. So we moved to the WNC Agricultural Center down by the Asheville Regional Airport. It has plenty of parking, but the lesson we learned down there is that people don’t want to drink and drive. After tasting two or three wines, people didn’t want to get back on the highway. It took a couple of years, but we finally got into the US Cellular Center downtown, and that seems to have solved both problems.”
The entry issues don’t end at the parking lot. With one main entry point, the US Cellular Center creates its own complications. “I have volunteers who go outside to check IDs while people are waiting in line. They give a wristband to customers old enough to drink alcohol. This year they’ll also hand out programs outside so the customers have something to read while they’re waiting.” Bob begins pacing around his office in the old Barnardsville Fire Department. His words gather speed as he moves. “The other thing is spread out the burden. We have VIP tickets which allow the customer to enter an hour earlier than the general admission tickets. So we get maybe a thousand people in the first hour and another 1,500 over the next two hours or so.”
In its six-year history, the Wine and Food Festival has grown from that small event in Carrier Park to a three-day extravaganza held at three separate locations. This year’s event kicks off on Thursday, August 21st, with what may be Asheville’s most elaborate cocktail party. Elixir will combine the creative talents of top area bartenders with the craft spirits of North Carolina distillers. In keeping with the prohibition theme of the event, the location is a secret—for now.
On Friday evening, the party moves to the Grove Arcade for a dessert extravaganza called Sweet. Local purveyors of sugary concoctions will line the corridors of the arcade to serve their fancy creations.
The festival concludes on Saturday with the main event, the Grand Tasting, at the Cellular Center. The event includes 120 vendors and features the finals of the Chef’s Challenge competition.
The Bluff Mountain Festival in June is only a one-day affair, and it has a simpler format, but it presents its own logistical challenges. “The structure of any festival is essentially the same,” Rod Bowling says. He lists parking space, restrooms, exhibit facility, selection and placement of vendors, and number of food stations as “the first order of business. Those components really are going to run through any event. Take the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee. They get 80 thousand campers every year. I guarantee you if I talk to the director, that person’s role and my role will be identical. The only difference is a matter of scale.”
Bluff Mountain features eight hours of traditional mountain and bluegrass music. “We have 14 different performers, each doing half-hour sets,” Rod says. “Someone has got to coordinate all that.” There are also several dozen craft and food vendors and a massive silent auction under a series of tents.
The festival takes place on an open field in front of the Hot Springs spa. Rod ran through some of the last minute preparations. “Make sure the spa grounds have the date right. Make sure the Porta Johns are opened. Make sure we borrow the stage from the fire department. Make sure we move it onto the grounds and get it set up.”
Problems can arise in the most unexpected places. “We had a hitch with the stage this year because it was blocked by some equipment. We couldn’t hitch a tractor to it. We almost had to do the festival the old-fashioned way, on the grass. But we got the equipment moved and hauled the stage into place in time to set up on the grounds.”
“You’ve got to stay relaxed. If there’s a problem, you don’t want the audience to see it. The whole thing has got to look smooth. And the same goes for your staff. This is a fun day, don’t get upset because someone’s being a jerk over there. I’ll deal with the jerk.”[/quote]He uses the incident to launch into another facet of his job. “You’ve got to stay relaxed. If there’s a problem, you don’t want the audience to see it. The whole thing has got to look smooth. And the same goes for your staff. This is a fun day, don’t get upset because someone’s being a jerk over there. I’ll deal with the jerk.”
Jennifer Pickering is well acquainted with unexpected situations. “Problems?” She laughs at the thought. “There are so many possibilities. Your staff shows, up and their badges haven’t been printed. Or the bags for your guests weren’t made. When the Porta Johns are being cleaned, you’ve got to remember to post signs saying, ‘Temporarily Closed.’ It’s a million little things.”
There are also what must seem like a million big things. At this October’s LEAF Festival, 110 musical acts will perform, making a total of 350 musicians. That number of performers would seem to present its own logistical nightmare, but Jennifer says, “In the nineteen years of this festival I’ve only had two groups cancel on me.” But does the pressure of knowing that disaster might be looming around every corner make her a little edgy when everything is happening at once? “It used to in the early days. But over time you learn that isn’t your best self, and it’s not great for your staff.” So a laid-back attitude—or at least the ability to appear relaxed—is another attribute of the successful festival director.
But the absolute essential attribute is attention to detail. Bob Bowles ran through the hidden complexities of what would seem to be a simple transaction: pouring an ounce of wine for a patron. “How do we keep the water in the pitchers both for drinking and cleaning their wine glasses? The used water goes in spit bucket, and I have a group of volunteers who come around with five-gallon buckets to empty the spit buckets. But then what do we do with all those five-gallon buckets of used water? We finally settled on dumping them in a shower backstage.”
Bob pauses for a minute to think about some other issues that required creative solutions. It doesn’t take long for him to come up with one. “I think the big problem I’ve had over the years is getting enough ice. That’s really an issue because all the white wines have to be iced down and all the restaurants want to keep their food on the ice until they’re ready to put it out. So I bring in this large portable electric freezer on wheels.”
Even the background noise level demands attention. “Do we have music? Well, it can’t be too loud to drown out the wine and restaurant people who are talking with the customers. One year, one of the vendors wanted to have their microphone to talk over their own announcement system. And a radio station wanted to come in and blare their music. I had to tell them, ‘I’m sorry you can’t do that.’ If I have music there, it’s got to be background music.”
You may be sitting in a lawn chair on a sunny field listening to a country fiddler; you may be tasting an interesting Merlot or a delightfully gooey pastry; you may be zip lining into a warm summer lake. Whatever activities you pursue, whatever festival you attend, you can be sure that, just like the biggest iceberg, there’s more going on below the surface than anyone can see—more than most people can even imagine—all in an effort to keep the “festive” in the festival.
Editor’s Note: Capital at Play is a sponsor of this year’s Asheville Wine and Food Festival, as well as the LEAF Festival and many other events in Western North Carolina. The focus of this piece was decided without regard to sponsorships, etc.