Ask anyone who attended the 2015 World of Bluegrass convention in Raleigh how it went, and the first thing out of their mouth is likely to be about the rain. And, oh my, did it rain!
The third such event hosted by the International Bluegrass Music Association there in North Carolina had all the music you might ever want to hear, informative seminars and panels galore, and a bustling exhibit floor. But with pelting rain almost constantly through the week and into the weekend’s big Wide Open Bluegrass festival and street fair, it was difficult to get the weather too far from top of mind.
And it clearly had an impact on the attendance numbers. Not only was the rain a factor in planning on site, but there was the threat of a late season hurricane hitting before the week was out. Fortunately Joachim veered east and out to sea, but the Governor of North Carolina had declared a state of emergency by mid-week, surely having an impact on people’s decision-making.
David Menconi at the Raleigh News & Observer has pulled together numbers from the IBMA and the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau which show just how much the rain dampened attendance this year. It seems to have spoiled a hearty upwards trend in just about every metric from the first Raleigh event in 2013 to the next in ’14, instead showing a dramatic dip in conference registration, visitor spending, overall attendance from out of town, and hotel room nights.
In fact all of these measurements were not only below 2014, but down from 2013 as well.
Perhaps the number of greatest concern for the bluegrass world and the IBMA is the drop of more than 20% in conference registrations from 2014, something less likely to have been rain related. It’s a major investment of time and treasure to attend a convention like this, and plans are typically made well in advance to travel and be present. 2013 numbers show that 1431 people attended the conference, which was up to 1549 in ’14. This year’s registrations dropped to 1213.
But Paul Schiminger, newly-ensconced Executive Director of the IBMA, says that, indeed, walk-up registration for the business conference is usually a major component of their annual totals, and that this year that number was way off.
“We usually have a lot of walk-up traffic on site. That is the historical pattern. Pre-registrations were bumping along pretty close to last year right up to conference time.”
Schiminger also pointed out that they had a cumulative total of 3235 attendees at Bluegrass Ramble events, indicating that just over 2,000 people purchased tickets to attend the music showcases throughout the week, other than registered conference attendees. This year IBMA presented a total of 214 showcase performances, a record number.
Attendance figures for the annual International Bluegrass Music Awards show are a bit murky. Ticket sales reported for this year show 1746, a drop of nearly 600 from 2014. But Paul said that he suspects some discrepancy in that number, as their total revenue for the show is within $1,000 of last year’s receipts. I personally witnessed some confusion with the distribution of award show tickets early in the week, so it seems there is some issue with the numbers, though it remains unclear whether 2015 or 2014 figures are off.
A number of exhibitors also experienced registration problems, apparently resulting from miscommunications between paid and volunteer staff. Exhibitors and sponsors alike reported issues ranging from booth spaces being moved to unavailability of credentials upon arrival.
The biggest story of the week was the yeoman’s work done by the City of Raleigh and the Raleigh Convention Center staff to move two major outdoor festivals inside over the course of 48 hours. On Wednesday morning the decision was made to move the weekend events indoors and staff began the process of moving nearly 6,000 seats from the Red Hat Amphitheater adjacent to the Convention Center into the large ballroom space next to the exhibit hall. They worked through the night to be be ready for Friday morning’s concert start, and finished up preparations with only twenty minutes to spare.
But that was only half the job. The city-sponsored Street Fair which has been held the past two years on closed-to-traffic throughways downtown also had to come indoors, along with a variety of vendors and six performance stages. A dance tent was also erected in front of the convention center. With everyone inside, you couldn’t tell that the numbers were off at all. Things were tight but everyone seemed to have a grand time, and the exhibit hall saw greatly increased traffic from both the ticketed and free events occurring in the hall.
Schiminger tells us that they created new signage this year to help direct more people into the exhibit area, letting attendees know that there they could check out instruments and see a wide variety of merchandise and services offered to the bluegrass community.
The Wide Open Bluegrass festival, a chief source of annual revenue for the IBMA and it’s trust fund for grassers in need, saw an increase in total revenue for 2015. Their Friday show, which featured a performance by Alison Krauss & Union Station, was completely sold out, with only 600 seats open for Saturday.
Paul had high praise for the folks he worked with on site to bring all the events inside.
“One of the many reasons Raleigh was selected to host our convention was knowing that they had such a fine contingency plan in place for rough weather. Seeing the work done in the war room with the city people and the convention center staff was instructive. They really stepped up and showed their commitment to this partnership, and to making World Of Bluegrass happen. It is a real testament to that partnership. I was blown away by the city and convention center staff to do what they did.”
He also mentioned that they had doubled the offerings of seminars and workshops for music industry professionals this year, including their new legal track. Initial feedback on these new opportunities are reported to be very positive.
Going forward, the organization has a strong new leader in Schiminger, and a very savvy board in place to guide the way. Once Paul is able to fill the two staff openings in their Nashville office, expect planning for the 2016 IBMA week to commence in earnest. They are contracted to remain in Raleigh through 2018, and Schiminger mentioned to Menconi and the News & Observer that it’s time to start thinking about 2019 and beyond.
Some work is never done.