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Investing in Ancillary Experiences to Sell Out Events.jpeg
Photo by: Nathan Zucker

Investing in Ancillary Experiences to Sell Out Events

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee has been slowly rebounding from an all time record low attendance of less than 46,000 in 2016.

For the first time since Beatles legend Sir Paul McCartney graced the stage in 2013 the festival celebrated a sell out event. This year the festival, featuring a line up of Phish, Post Malone, Odesza, Childish Gambino, and more, sold over 80,000 tickets. 

According to Bonnaroo co-founder, Ashley Capps, the ticket sales were trending up last fall before the lineup was even announced. In November the festival opened up a six week “pre-sale”. This sale offered a special rate for those who chose to buy before the performers were revealed. He attributes the festival’s increased focus on the overall experience of the four day event to the rise in early purchases. By improving the facilities, like adding more permanent bathroom structures, and expanding unique programming around the campgrounds, the festival has upped the ante. In addition, once the lineup was released, the organizers also revealed that they were listening to cries from those wanting the festival to go back to its roots. Originally premiering as a mecca for jam bands, the most recent lineups strayed away from that opting to move towards today’s trends of electronic music and hip hop. However, with the announcement of Phish as a headliner, Bonnaroo gave a nod back in the direction it started from. 

Continued Focus on the Experience

Over the past few years, a lot of attention has been given to increasing the camping plazas and providing 24/7 entertainment around the festival grounds. In a world where festivals all seem to be the same, boasting similar lineups and rising prices, cultivating ancillary experiences that captivate loyal fans is essential to hosting a successful event year after year. 

"We had, by a huge margin, the biggest pre-sale in Bonnaroo history. There's been a lot of focus on the 24-7 Bonnaroo experience, and making the festival an unforgettable weekend outside of having a great lineup musically," Capps said the Tennessean. "Seeing that huge surge in the pre-sale during the month of December, I think spoke to that focus."

Photo by Jorgphoto

Last year festival organizers began to hone in on boosting the campground experience. With nearly 90% of the festival camping, it only makes sense to elevate the programming here. Sprinkling throughout the massive campgrounds are various “plazas”, basically large barns with different themes.  Last year the festival brought on Cage the Elephant’s Mark Shultz to curate activities at one of them. Returning for the second year, the New York nightclub collective, House of Yes, hosted surprise performances and an all hours party out of Plaza 2. They also helped to orchestrate a massive Pride Parade featuring thousands walking throughout the campsites Saturday afternoon. 

“Bonnaroo’s such a special place,” Sophie Lobl, Bonnaroo’s director of community and campground experiences, tells Fortune. “It’s one of the biggest camping festivals in the world, certainly in the US, which obviously makes it a completely different experience. Campers show up for four days and they don’t leave!”

Over the years, many Bonnaroovians, the term coined for attendees of the festival, have developed a community code. The Bonnaroovian Code includes: Prepare Thyself, Play as a Team, Radiate Positivity, Respect the Farm, Don’t be that Guy/Gal, and Stay True Roo. These pillars are meant to help guests take care of themselves, others, and the land. It also encourages everyone to bring those good vibes back into their everyday life. Taking the time to write down and promote the code not only fosters a sense of community but also demonstrates that the festival is invested in the well-being of its patrons. This is one of the many ways that you build relationships with loyal fans that buy tickets before the lineup is announced. 

Along with this code, the festival has also made a large push to ensure that the grounds are a safe space for everyone. This year, Paramore lead singer Hayley Williams curated a plaza called the Sanctuary of Self Love. Areas like this take the Bonnaroovian code to the next level. This plaza, along with specialized camping areas like SheRoo and SoberRoo, help to provide festival long support systems and promote inclusivity at a heightened level. 

Photo by Lindsey Byrnes

“What I've loved about working with Bonnaroo is that I'm understanding the spirit and the culture that the organization promotes and embodies. I would say that the plaza that we're building is for the introvert that's going to hang out at the festival for the weekend. It's like, this is where you can go take space for yourself, meditate in the morning, and recharge and reset and connect with either yourself or with other people in a way that maybe you haven't been able to at a festival before. So, that's another thing I love about Bonnaroo, is that they were interested in having a space for that.” Hayley Williams told Nylon Magazine

Going Back to its Roots

This year in particular the festival also appeared to musically incorporate more acts that reflect the sound of it’s lineup in the early years. In 2002 the festival premiered as a jam-band focused event. The first year sold out, selling 70,000 tickets in just 19 days. In recent years the festival has focused more on electronic music artists, expanding the Other from a tent to a stage and increasing the number of acts on it. However this year, with the announcement of Phish as the main headliner many original Bonnaroovians rejoiced. 

“I’d say this year is like an ode to what it was. I mean, Phish is what started Bonnaroo basically… so, having a jam band on [the lineup] and having programming for all ages, I feel like they did a great job of that this year. And I think that’s why they’re selling more tickets than they have in a long time.” Emily Cox, founder of visual design and event production firm Formation and former director of visual design for AC Entertainment told Fortune

Benefitting the Locals

The festival is also fortunate that even though it is in its 18th year, it has still maintained a healthy relationship with Coffee County where the “Farm” is located. Other events, like Ultra Miami cannot say the same. Ultra has moved locations multiple times over the years and now the future of the whole festival hangs in the balance as it waits for city officials to approve its permits. Luckily, Bonnaroo is seen as a benefit to the local area. Reportedly, Bonnaroo alone generates $56 million for the regional economy. It also pays 

With over twenty major sponsors listed on their website, it’s clear that the event benefited from more than just large ticket sales. From the massive Bacardi Oasis that features a full sand volleyball court and tons of places to lounge, to the late night pizza bites that patrons can enjoy the festival has leveled up its experiential marketing in recent years in addition to its other experiences. 

As the music festival landscape seems to be getting more and more competitive, selling out an event is a massive achievement. This is especially true when it comes to large festivals like Bonnaroo. After a few low attending years, the festival pulled itself back on top by focusing on ancillary experiences. This helps to enhance guest loyalty and create early ticket buyers. Loyal customers are what sells out events, not lineups. 

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