Ocean Lakes’ Bluegrass Weekend: A Winner
Theme weekends, sports activities, nature interaction, arts and crafts, you name it – campgrounds are offering everything under the sun to draw whatever audience they can hook, and when campers want even more, it’s a wise and necessary practice to mention nearby attractions.
Still, there’s no denying that while referring guests to local points of interest is part of what brings people in, it’s preferable to keep them in.
When a campground’s natural limitations (or campers’ expanding expectations) may start to push guests to outside attractions, you can pull them back in by bringing outside attractions to your campground.
Take Ocean Lakes Family Campground in Myrtle Beach, S.C., as an example. Their annual summer Bluegrass Weekend started as all initiatives do: with an idea and an effort.
It was right after the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (ARVC) named Ocean Lakes the 1997 “RV Park of the Year,” and the goal was to create an event that would bring new and more guests to Ocean Lakes during the low-occupancy chunk of summer between schools getting back in session and Labor Day weekend. When a music-industry friend of Barb Krumm, director of marketing and public relations for Ocean Lakes, commented to her that 50% to 70% of bluegrass fans were also campers, a lightbulb went off over her head, and the Bluegrass Weekend was born.
“The plan was to make it an event that would build over time and become known by the musicians,” explained Rachel Beckerman, marketing assistant and events coordinator. This year, its 15th, the festival featured eight performing acts during the weekend of Aug. 23-24.
Those 15 years have helped Ocean Lakes pound out the kinks on an event that’s become an ongoing source of entertainment and success, and they have some advice for anyone else looking to dip their toes into festival waters.
Start With the Basics
Step One: Start early. “Don’t procrastinate,” Beckerman advised. “When putting on an event this size, you really have to make sure everything is in place long before the event actually gets here.”
Next, start small. “See how you can handle one or two bands before putting on an entire festival,” she said. “It is much better to leave your guests wanting more than wishing they had never come!”
Finally, get all the nuts-and-bolts paperwork and permissions handled, such as revenue tax considerations, hiring a security team, procuring W-9 tax forms for the performers to sign, assessing your property for a good performance site, deciding how much you’re willing to spend on performers – “Budget plays a big role, of course; we’re a campground, after all, not the Grand Ole Opry” – and how much you’ll charge attendees. (Ocean Lakes keeps ticket prices low since higher summer-season camping rates are still in effect.)
Don’t forget to take care of music licensing fees, and don’t forget there’s assistance with that available to ARVC members, Beckerman said. “Make sure you pay your fees to ASCAP/SMI/SEASAC. Recently, ARVC has offered major discounts through membership to our state association. It is well worth the membership because we have more than paid for it with just that benefit!”
However you proceed from here, take notes and learn from both mistakes and successes: “Honestly, there is a learning curve to any niche market.” Don’t be afraid to try new things; you can always change it again if it doesn’t work out as expected. For example, the Bluegrass Weekend was expanded to a four-day event for a few years, but they found it was not an improvement and went back to its original two-day format.
Bringing in the Talent
Once you decide what niche to pursue and when to hold your event, Beckerman said it’s really just a matter of making some calls to see who will come for what you can offer them. Again, Beckerman said it’s wise to start small – “We started with one big-name band as the draw and several inexpensive regional bands” – and start early. “In order to make sure we get top musicians, I have to book them two years in advance.”
She tries to select bands that represent a variety of bluegrass (traditional, modern, gospel, etc.).
“When I feel I’ve got a good mix, I just start calling bands and seeing what they want – and what they are actually willing to take!” she related.
Ocean Lakes has worked with the bands on rates from the beginning, sometimes by “providing them a little oceanfront vacation.” There is, however, a caveat regarding compensation – don’t offer anything you’re not willing to keep offering (and then some) as time goes on. “I warn you to be cautious in this area,” she asserted. “Once they get used to free things, it’s difficult to break the pattern. Some bands are great and appreciate anything you do for them; others will take everything, and then ask for more.”
Bringing in the Audience
Now you’ve got the dates and performers figured out. If you build it, they will come – but only if you promote it well. Ocean Lakes promotes through campground-controlled outlets such as its website, social media channels, campground magazine, newsletter and in-house promotions. They also reach out to general camping audiences through travel shows, press releases and rally flyers, and to the bluegrass music fan base through publications such as Bluegrass Unlimited. In all these materials, it’s made clear that this event is restricted to Ocean Lakes’ guests only.
“Because we have limited seating and very limited parking, we cannot open our show to the public,” Beckerman explained. Guests must first book their site or rental house and then purchase event tickets separately. “Each time we sell a ticket, it is my job to match that ticket sale with a site reservation.”
Ocean Lakes is aware that not every camper staying during those two days will be interested in the event – not even every person in the same party as some attendees. That’s another reason event wristbands are sold separately from site reservations and a big reason for the “wraparound activities” scheduled throughout the weekend. Pool, golf, mini golf tournaments, bluegrass trivia and scavenger hunts hopefully sweeten the pot for music fans, Beckerman said, but they also provide plenty of non-concert fun so every camper has something to do.
Running the Show
You built it and they came – now, where to put them?
Beckerman said backstage space in their recreation center is very limited, but that’s OK with the musicians – and good news for other campgrounds which might be concerned their space is insufficient. The musicians’ “green room” is one side room near Ocean Lake’s stage that’s stocked with food, snacks, water and soda. “Generally when I let the band know about our Hospitality Room, that makes them more than happy,” she related.
Staffing the event itself will take plenty of hands, and here Ocean Lakes gets volunteers to help out. A group comes for the week of the show to assist with set-up, teardown, checking tickets at the door, keeping the bands on time and anything else that may arise.
While volunteer help is crucial, Beckerman said there is “an art to managing volunteers.” Test the people you get and make notes on the ones who are really making a difference – and those who may not be. When encountering the latter, she said you can’t be afraid to police them just because they aren’t paid workers. “You learn who to trust, and sometimes you really have to lay down the law. Otherwise you lose control.”
Laying down the law may also be necessary with your event attendees, Beckerman said, and it’s important that your regular camping customers remain your highest priority. “You have to make the niche market happy, but we have park policies that have to be respected,” she stated. “Picking is a good example. Bluegrass fans love to stand around their sites ’til the early morning hours playing music. That’s nice, but our quiet hours are 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. It took us a couple of years to come to that understanding. You have to be willing to lose some people that can’t abide by your park’s policies.”
Wait up, fellas! Don’t forget to have each performer sign that W-9 tax form before they leave. (“We will not pay them until they do,” Beckerman stated.)
Once the facilities are cleared out and cleaned up, she goes over the comment cards filled out during the concert asking what bands they’d like to see in the future. Customer feedback drives the selection for every Bluegrass Weekend at Ocean Lakes. “Really, it’s our guests who pick the bands. After all, they are the ones buying the tickets, so they should get to hear who they want to hear.”
That’s when she picks up the phone and starts the whole process all over again.
The Last Note
Beckerman’s overall advice for coordinating this kind of event is to prepare for everything, including the unexpected. “Get all your ducks in a row prior to the show – and create back-up plans, because we all know everything doesn’t always go as planned,” she advised.
Doing that will keep you from getting in over your head, she said, which makes for a far happier experience for both the campers and administrators.