Bluegrass week was back outdoors this year, and the result was another record-breaking attendance mark.
The International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual festival drew an estimated total attendance of 208,755 people to Raleigh between Sept. 27 and Oct. 1, according to figures released Tuesday.
This year’s number also is up almost 16 percent from the previous record, 180,000 people in 2014.
“This year’s big jump in business conference, Wide Open festival and exhibit hall attendance numbers are proof that the genre continues to grow at both professional and fan levels,” said Paul Schiminger, IBMA executive director. “The IBMA looks forward to being in Raleigh through 2018 and hopefully well beyond.”
Almost half of this year’s attendance – an estimated 92,000 people – came from outside Wake County. The influx contributed to the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau’s estimate of direct visitor spending of $11.5 million – also a new high point, up from 2014’s figure of $10.8 million.
This year, the city also reaped a media-exposure bonus when NBC broadcast part of “Today” from downtown Raleigh on Sept. 30. That was part of an estimated media value for the city of $1.3 million.
Bluegrass week includes the IBMA business conference, awards show and Bluegrass Ramble nightclub shows, plus the outdoor Wide Open Bluegrass main-stage shows, free street festival and barbecue championship.
IBMA relocated from Nashville to Raleigh in 2013 and was an instant success, drawing record crowds the first two years. Schiminger praised the city and local organizing committee as “wonderful partners.”
As to the “hopefully well beyond” part of Schiminger’s statement, that would be 2019 – the year after IBMA’s deal with the city expires. This year’s bluegrass week took place over the backdrop of House Bill 2, referred to as North Carolina’s “bathroom law” that overturned local anti-discrimination ordinances throughout the state.
In response, the IBMA made inclusion and diversity an emphatic priority this year. Events included a diversity panel called “Bluegrass Belongs to Us All” and a “Shout & Shine” showcase with performers spanning an array of sexual orientations, races and nationalities.
“The IBMA’s proactive efforts to embrace diversity in the face of HB2 was nothing short of spectacular,” said Laurie Okun, director of sales and marketing for the Raleigh Convention Center. “When a group like IBMA makes lemons out of lemonade by embracing an opportunity to make diversity a positive, that’s much more demonstrative than refraining from coming.”
When asked whether HB2 was an issue for IBMA, Schiminger said, “Not at this point, no.”
But for now, those involved in extending the IBMA’s stay in Raleigh seem to be in wait-and-see mode.
“There’s been a little throttling back on the movement to re-up for 2019 and ’20,” said Loren Gold, executive vice president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “That does not mean the intent is not still there. But the process has been slowed down.”