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Arts & Culture

As Summer Events Heat Up, Organizers Contemplate The Future Of Festivals In A Post Pandemic World

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Riccardo Savi/Aspen Institute
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The Aspen Ideas Festival will continue to be virtual this summer. Organizers said they'll return to an in-person event next summer, with a virtual option available for online audiences.

As more people get vaccinated and temperatures warm up across the country, people have nostalgia for the before times — before the pandemic, that is. Recent data suggest that nearly two-thirds of Americans are intending to travel for vacations, and some are planning overdue family gatherings. Others still are getting back into specific summer habits, and looking forward to the many summer-long festivals the region has to offer.

Earlier this spring, Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater announced a return to in-person concerts with limited attendance, and in the Roaring Fork Valley, some beloved events will once again be in-person. Others will wait out another summer online while public health orders remain in flux, and some will offer a little bit of both. Some organizers say that latter hybrid model, however, might be around to stay as we move into a post-pandemic world.

The Mixed Business Of Hybrid Models

5Point Adventure Film Festival, for instance, is planning to screen this year’s selections in person come October, but the festival will be offering a virtual component as well. Part of that is logistics; organizers said they can’t bet on packing the Carbondale Rec Center with the venue’s capacity of 800 people. 5Point’s Executive Director Regna Jones said that even if they did get the go-ahead for full capacity, however, they’d still offer an online option for audiences.

“There are a lot of people that have come to us as new audience members and people who wouldn’t necessarily come to the festival who are now fans, or who are fans and can’t travel,” said Jones. “We definitely had more viewership than we would at an in-person festival.”

The Aspen Ideas Festival also experienced a surge of new fandom when it went online. Ideas organizers had just six weeks to go completely online when everything shut down in March last year, and refunded Ideas Festival passholders to 5 free nights of pre-recorded content instead.

The response was enormous; 40,000 people signed up as virtual attendees, 32,000 of whom had never been involved with the Aspen Institute before.

“One thing that everyone learns when you go virtual is that everybody signs up and they don’t always show up,” said the Aspen Institute Vice President, Public Programming and Aspen Ideas Festival Executive Director Kitty Boone. Boone is also on Aspen Public Radio’s Board of Directors. “But the first night, which was a Sunday evening, 28,000 people watched, so that was really stunning.”

On top of that initial interest, people also visited their website to watch archived Ideas Fest content throughout the year. This summer’s Aspen Ideas will still be all virtual and free, but the sheer volume of last year’s online interest has given Boone some thoughts on what the future of the festival might look like when people can gather again.

“When we go back in 2022, live, on our campus, which is our full expectation next summer, we will have a virtual component,” she said.

Of course, there’s more competition now that so much has moved online, and Zoom fatigue is also very real amongst once-enthusiastic virtual audiences. To that end, Aspen Ideas is incorporating online breakout rooms for more personal engagement with this summer’s programming lineup.

5Point Adventure Film Festival has also been dabbling with more ways that online audiences can interact with their content. The festival hosted a virtual Q and A with featured filmmakers after each night’s screenings back in October. They also live-streamed films each night of the festival so that audiences watched together, albeit from their own living rooms.

However, translating online viewership into revenue isn’t straightforward. 5Point sold individual and household festival passes for each night’s live streamed show.

“It was hard to track it because it’s sort of scout’s honor,” Jones said of individual versus household pass sales.

The festival also hosted pop-up, drive-in screenings for audiences, including a recent Earth Day screening at Roaring Fork High School (which also had a virtual component) as a means to keep up engagement and ticket sales. Although, Jones said that getting people logged on in any capacity during the pandemic was a success.

“In a time of adaptation you still need to look to your mission to help guide your decisions, and one of those was bringing people together and having a sense of community,” she said.

What Will This Summer Be Like?

The common refrain throughout this pandemic has been that people can’t wait to gather again. Case in point: festival passes for the 2021 Aspen Food & Wine Classic are already sold out. The event, typically held in June, was bumped to September this year, and organizers announced they would limit daily attendance by half. (Food & Wine also has a virtual programming schedule set to be unveiled later this summer.)

Other local events are also planning to break out of the cybersphere this summer; the Aspen Music Festival and School also announced that it would kick off its summer season in-person at the Benedict Music Tent. Jazz Aspen Snowmass is planning on a June-through-Labor Day lineup of performances at venues across Aspen, and Carbondale’s Mountain Fair will celebrate 50 years with three days of in-person festivities at the end of June. Adding to that, Theatre Aspen already kicked off its in-person performance season with a spring concert at Aspen Harris Hall in April.

All those festivals will need to navigate whatever health regulations are in place at the time, and organizers say anyone attending or traveling for an event should be well-versed on local public health protocols ahead of time.

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