Chamber holds public forum on future of BBQ Festival

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, November 22, 2016

TRYON – The Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce held a public forum about the 2017 Blue Ridge Barbecue Festival on Thursday, Nov. 17 to solicit ideas on how to improve the event. Members of the BBQ Festival Executive Committee and the community were invited to attend.

Attendees discussed potential festival changes next year ranging from changing the date of the event to giving festivalgoers more incentives to purchase tickets to the event. The 2017 festival will be on June 9 and 10.

The festival was created as a fundraiser for the chamber to hire a new director in 1994. The festival was nearly shut down in 2010 before the community came together to contribute $80,000 in eight days to continue it, according to Janet Sciacca, the chamber’s executive director.

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Sciacca said the festival had a $1.2 million impact on the local economy in July 2010. She also said half of the chamber’s budget is funded by special events like Shuckin’ and Shaggin’, the annual Business Expo, the Gibbs Golf Tournament and the BBQ Festival.

Sciacca said an online survey on how to improve next year’s festival would be made available to the community on the festival website.

On changing the festival dates

Allison Gillespie, chair of the festival, said there have been conflicting events with Polk County High School’s graduation and shows at the Tryon International Equestrian Center on the same weekend.

Debbie Lynch, daughter of BBQ Festival founders Charlie and Marjorie Neff, said when the festival started, the high school would graduate on Memorial Day weekend. She asked if the high school could move their graduation so it does not conflict with the weekend of the festival.

Gillespie responded by saying the date for the graduation is controlled by the state, but said the date could change for graduation based on the number of snow days during the year.

The Kansas City Barbecue Society conducted an extensive study to determine what the best weekend would be for the festival with the least amount of rain, according to Sciacca, and the organization determined the second Friday and Saturday of June to be the prime weekend.

Meg Rogers asked the committee if the festival could be extended into a festival week, to which Jim Tabb responded no alcohol could be served on Sundays if the festival were extended. Rogers responded by saying the event could be held on Wednesday and Thursday to benefit the local accommodations and give people the opportunity to explore the area rather than stay at Harmon Field.

Tabb said the barbecue cook teams need the weekend to travel to the festival. Lynch said the downside is bringing in more volunteers for a longer festival and Gillespie said it would cost more.

On the festival’s crafts fair

Nadine Naujoks said she would like to see more fine crafters at the crafts tents during the festival and added crafters could, in the past, submit some of their pieces to be judged by a jury to combine a good mix of fine crafters.

Naujoks said she used to complete 80 percent of her Christmas shopping at the festival and has not in the last four or five years. She asked if this jury selection process for the crafters could be an avenue to take again, to which Gillespie responded the festival needs more enthusiasm and “get up and go” from the festival’s steering committee.

Gillespie added only 36 out of the 50 available spots for crafters were filled last year. She said the festival committee has to be fair to the festivalgoers by finding what they are looking for in terms of what they would buy at the tents,  when choosing crafters to include at the festival.

Sciacca said she has been thinking about opening up more space for more crafters in the festival and said the areas could be divided up between luxury crafts and regular items.

Adding more value to the cost of admission

Teri Newmark, vice president of the Inman Chamber of Commerce, said the city has a Harvest Day festival every year with a concert preceding the event on the night before. She said that the Swinging Medallions, a beach music group with a strong fan base, played a concert one year and suggested the festival do something similar to this to bring in more people.

Fred Herres, vice-chair of the festival executive committee, said while the festival has “tremendous” reputation with a strong brand, he added the people he’s talked to say the festival has become “stale and the same old thing year after year with no changes.” He said the committee has a responsibility to provide value to the festival attendee rather than more opportunities to spend money.

He added he sees two events going on from his vantage point simultaneously at the festival with little connectivity between the “cooking event” and “the festival,” clarifying the cookers have their area away from the festivalgoers with “nothing to unite the two groups together to provide a valuable situation.”

His proposal was to have the cookers provide education or demonstrations to bring back the excitement of being at a barbecue festival and said this “lack of a valuable portion of the brand” of the festival does not attract a festival attendee.

Lynch said the cookers and crafters used to be in the same area at the festival before the cookers were moved across the river into “no man’s land.” She added her parents used to love going to the cookers to do taste tests and “build a rapport with some of the cookers” before they were moved into “Hog Heaven.”

Naujoks said the festival has a trailer used for demonstrations that could be moved into “Hog Heaven” to draw festival people back to the cooker area to engage with the cookers. Dennis Nagle, director of operations for the festival, said there would not be enough room to have a demonstrations trailer in the cookers area.

Herres said at a recent festival he attended there was “activity everywhere” with attractions including a local Ram dealership, BMX bicycle shows, lumberjacks and four bandstands. He said more than 200,000 attendees showed up to this festival because all of the activities were free. Three hundred vendors were also at the festival and the festival attracted “old and new customers.” He said there should be some attraction all day when the attendees come.

Lynch said the festival should try to entice the younger crowd because the festival’s volunteers are older and the festival needs to have something to get younger individuals into volunteering. Marjorie Neff added the older generation should not be the target audience of the festival and said this generation is starting to no longer attend the festival due to factors like heat.

Other free entertainment proposed by the attendees ranged from apple bobbing and sugar cube building to cornhole games and gem mining.

On the value of “Barbecue Bucks”

Lynch said she sold Barbecue Bucks at the festival for many years and has heard people ask if they could turn in their unused BBQ Bucks. She said she told these people they could either sell them to someone else or take them home as a souvenir.

She added the marketing for the festival needs to include that the BBQ Festival is the biggest fundraiser for the chamber during the year, saying it could pull more people in who have benefitted from receiving grants from the chamber thanks to the funds raised by the chamber’s events.

Lynch also said one of the top complaints is how expensive the food is, and that the festival should look into including vendors geared towards kids to help families keep costs down. She said parents look at the vendors’ menus and “begin adding up in their heads how much it will cost” and this “flips them out.”

Final thoughts

Charlie Neff said when the festival began it was because the event was created as a fundraiser to hire a new director.

Neff added that the equestrian center has opened an opportunity for the chamber to get people together “who can see the big picture.” Sciacca responded by saying the chamber has reached out to Sharon Decker at the equestrian center to try to partner with them.