Bluegrass event's move to Raleigh brings high tourism expectations

ccampbell@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

  • Bluegrass week by the numbers

    Conference attendance


    Bluegrass bands performing


    Bands performing in local schools




    Total projected attendance


    Incentive grant


    Corporate sponsorships


    Estimated visitor spending

    $5 million to $10 million

— City tourism officials first applied to host the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual awards show, convention and music festival six years ago.

Back then, the bluegrass association was not particularly impressed with Raleigh’s half-built convention center and a vacant lot that would eventually host an outdoor amphitheater. “We were told, ‘Come back when you’ve got something to look at instead of a crane,’ ” recalled Laurie Okun, the convention center’s director of sales and marketing.

Flash forward to this week, when Raleigh is rolling out the red carpet after successfully luring the bluegrass association’s event from its longtime base in Nashville, Tenn. Thousands of visitors are expected to spend $5 million to $10 million in a busy week that will include an awards show, a street festival, a business conference and five days and nights of concerts by virtually every major act in the bluegrass world.

Winning the conference was a coup for Raleigh. But it also offers new opportunities for members of the bluegrass community, who often felt overshadowed by their country music cousins in Nashville.

“In Nashville, we were a small fish in a big pond,” said Lynda Dawson, the lead singer for the Raleigh-based Kickin Grass Band. “In Raleigh, we’re a big fish in a medium-sized pond. There’s a lot more community tie-in here.”

In Raleigh, bluegrass will take over downtown from Tuesday through Saturday, with nightly showcases at six nightclubs and a free weekend festival on Fayetteville Street. Nashville’s festivities were largely confined to a convention center, and few outside the genre’s faithful participated.

“We’re essentially blowing up the old model that was in Nashville,” said William Lewis, director of PineCone, the local bluegrass and roots music nonprofit that is helping IBMA organize the event.

Beating the Music City

Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium – formerly home of the Grand Ole Opry – has always been a popular spot for awards shows, often hosting the Country Music Association Awards and the past eight International Bluegrass Music Awards.

While it’s hard to argue with the Opry, bluegrass musicians were less pleased by the Music City’s aging convention center and rising hotel rates.

“For a lot of our folks, it was getting very expensive,” said Nancy Cardwell, director of the bluegrass association.

In contrast, Raleigh’s hotels are offering convention deals as cheap as $68 a night, and the downtown Marriott is offering special “jamming floors” where the usual noise restrictions don’t apply.

IBMA officials also say Raleigh’s new convention center is a better fit – open-floor plan, more natural light – and attendees won’t have to spend all their time there like they did in Nashville.

Friday and Saturday’s headlining shows featuring Bela Fleck, Del McCoury, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell will happen across the street at the Red Hat Amphitheater. And instead of being showcased in bland convention hall rooms, up-and-coming bands will play nightclubs such as Raleigh’s Pour House Music Hall, Architect Bar and Kings Barcade. Or they’ll be outside playing the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival with three stages along Fayetteville Street.

“There’s just something nice about listening to good bluegrass music outside,” Cardwell said.

60,000 expected

Luring the bluegrass association took only one major financial incentive: a $159,000 grant from the Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. That funding comes from local hotel tax revenues – not city tax dollars – and is based on the number of contracted hotel rooms.

Visitors bureau vice president Loren Gold said the money is a good investment because the event should generate more than $5 million in direct visitor spending. “At the end of the day, it could climb much higher than that,” Gold said.

This is the first of at least three years the association will gather in Raleigh. Because the city hasn’t hosted the event before, Gold isn’t sure exactly how tourism numbers will stack up.

Last year’s event in Nashville drew 13,000 people for the business conference, awards show and headlining concerts. In Raleigh, about 1,100 people have registered for the conference early in the week. Saturday’s amphitheater show has sold out of its 6,000 tickets, and Thursday’s awards ceremony in 2,200-seat Memorial Auditorium is nearly full.

The Marriott and Sheraton hotels on Fayetteville Street are completely booked, with more participants spread across hotels from Cary to North Raleigh. On Friday and Saturday, organizers expect at least 60,000 people on the streets for the free festival, which also features the N.C. Whole Hog Barbecue State Championship.

“Those who wouldn’t normally come to a bluegrass festival may come check it out because there’s nothing to lose,” Lewis said.

The prestige of the event has been compared to the NHL All-Star Weekend, which Raleigh hosted in 2011. That drew 60,000 fans downtown for a street fair, and the event generated $11.4 million in visitor spending.

City leaders and local businesses, hoping the bluegrass association’s three-year run will be a success, are putting up welcome banners all over town. Callers to Raleigh City Hall hear an ad for the festivities when they’re put on hold. And corporate sponsors have chipped in $150,000 for the street festival.

‘A super opportunity’

Local bluegrass bands say they’re thrilled to have the genre’s biggest event in their own backyard.

“It’s going to bring a lot of people that are in bluegrass that have never been to North Carolina before,” said Russell Johnson, who heads the North Carolina group The Grass Cats. “It’s really cool for that reason.”

Shows will be crawling with booking agents and other industry professionals, so bands need to be in top form. “You’re going to be playing in front of somebody who may influence your career in some way,” Johnson said.

That’s what The Gravy Boys – a Raleigh band that plays mostly local shows – is hoping for. The band is scheduled to play four shows during the week, opening up for nationally known bluegrass acts. Guitarist Steve Storms says he’s particularly excited about a midnight slot at the posh second-floor Architect Bar. Industry bigwigs will likely be sipping cocktails as the band shows off its unique blend of bluegrass and Americana.

“We’re pretty confined to our current footprint, and we saw this as a super opportunity to get some more exposure,” Storms said.

Raleigh also has high hopes for the exposure. A successful bluegrass week could set the stage for more national festivals and conventions to come. “I think it’s going to set a precedent that shows how Raleigh is a little more versatile and caring,” Okun said.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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