Robin and Rodney James live in Austin, Texas, also known as the capitol of live music. Avid concert fans, they’re annual attenders of South By Southwest and the Austin City Limits festivals, along with fans from around the world.
And then, every year, they get on a plane and come to SunFest.
“We don’t have the water like you do,” says James, 47, who is coming to West Palm Beach with about 14 other Austinites to enjoy the music, waterfront fun and general sunniness of SunFest, which begins on Wednesday. “It’s a chance for us to get away to Florida, to hang out.”
And they’re not alone: Even though locals might tend to take the annual downtown musical party for granted, music lovers around the country and around the world, from Austin to Iceland, are using their precious vacation days, frequent flier miles and fun money to come to SunFest, making it a major tourist attraction.
“Events like SunFest are very good economic development tools for building a customer base, through hotel room nights and tourism spending,” says Raphael Clemente, West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority executive director. “If you think about people with the resources to travel halfway across the country to come to a music festival, those are people who you want to introduce the city to.”
To date, ticket buyers for the 2013 edition of SunFest hail from 34 states like Alabama, California, New York, Texas, Oregon and Nevada, and more than 100 cities outside Palm Beach County, as well as Iceland, Canada and England, according to statistics from an independent research firm commissioned by the festival. Last year, fans came from Switzerland, Australia, France, Denmark and Canada.
Over the past two years, the five-day event has led to spending of about $1.2 million on hotel rooms, according to SunFest spokeswoman Melissa Sullivan. In the same time span, SunFest’s total economic impact in the county is $21.5 million to $25 million, Sullivan said.
For several years, SunFest has offered packages with several area hotels, including the host hotel, the West Palm Beach Marriott, as well as the Embassy Suites across from Palm Beach International Airport and the Hyatt Place just blocks from the Flagler Drive waterfront. The packages include rooms, transportation and concert tickets.
“SunFest adds on a least a week to season,” says Cheri Rutledge, general manager of the West Palm Beach Marriott. “It’s been a big thing for us because of the location, and the ease of the transportation there. Everybody at that time is here for SunFest, I can tell you that, in some shape or form.”
She adds that the impact is not just from music fans, but from the people who help make sure there is a SunFest, including the artists, sponsors and technical people. That means “the whole week is very busy for our hotel. (The festival) makes a great getaway.”
Ask John and Alicja Griffin, who annually leave their Macon, Ga. home for big-ticket events like the NBA Final Four and NASCAR races. It might seem funny to us Palm Beach County residents that they consider SunFest to be on par with those can’t miss happenings, but they do.
“It really does rank up there with those big-time events, because of the whole experience - the beach trips, the shopping sprees on Worth Avenue…and by the way, there’s a big music festival,” says Griffin, a surgeon who first found SunFest last year because Third Eye Blind, one of he and his wife’s favorite bands, were playing here.
“We got the gold passes. We’d never been there before, and didn’t know what gate to go in. We got a guard to open up a locked gate because we were lost - ‘You’re new here,’ he said…Everyone was really great.
“And we got backstage. There’s a picture of me with Snoop Dogg, right before he changed his name to Snoop Lion. (The person) taking it kept saying ‘Lean in, lean in’ and I thought he was talking about me, so I was basically on top of Snoop, spooning him, and my wife was a foot over. I’m probably why he changed his name.”
SunFest executive director Paul Jamieson says it’s not uncommon for locals to “take for granted” the annual festival that happens in their back yard. For instance, “there are people in Milwaukee who don’t realize, for instance, how big an event their Summerfest festival is, and you hear them complain about the ticket prices and not realize how big it is.”
Ellen McKaig, 50, has come down from Winter Springs, north of Orlando, for about five years, initially drawn by former “American Idol” winner David Cook. She and her friends use SunFest as “a girls weekend – no men allowed, just girlfriends who love music.”
While SunFest is the main draw for the music fans, being here for a long weekend or more gives them an opportunity to explore the area. McKaig and her friends stay at the Chesterfield Hotel, just across the bridge in Palm Beach, driving around to the beach and “down Worth Avenue. God knows we couldn’t afford anything, but we love the area.”
And that’s what the tourism folks here want to hear.
Clemente says that SunFest is “a very important event for bringing new customers to the downtown area. SunFest provides a real opportunity to introduce people outside of the area to the transformation that the city and waterfront have gone through. It’s a great way to build the customer base and then have those people become regulars to the area.”
When: Wednesday-May 5
Where: The Flagler Drive waterfront, downtown West Palm Beach
The big acts: Train, Smashing Pumpkins, Boz Scaggs, Jimmy Cliff, Ed Sheeran, Gary Clark Jr., Phillip Phillips and more.
Tickets: $22 to $37 for daily admission.
More info: SunFest.com and at 800-SUNFEST (786-3378).
THE POST IS YOUR SUNFEST SOURCE
Nobody is more familiar with Sunfest than Leslie Gray Streeter, who is entering her 11th year of covering SunFest for The Palm Beach Post and pbpulse.com. Her favorite acts among the hundreds she’s seen over the years: James Brown, Jason Mraz, Mavis Staples and the unforgettable night that Eric Clapton came on stage to play guitar with Sheryl Crow on “Higher Ground.”
If you want to know what’s happening at SunFest this year, follow Leslie’s blogs on pbpulse.com and her Tweets (@lesliestreeter), beginning Wednesday night and throughout the weekend.
And keep turning to the Palm Beach Post all this week for Sunfest coverage:
MONDAY ACCENT: Leslie’s interview with Sunfest singer and reggae legend Jimmy Cliff.
TUESDAY ACCENT: Leslie’s look at the offbeat band Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes. And in The Scene: 5 non-musical things to do at SunFest.
WEDNESDAY ACCENT: What’s new in SunFest food? Liz Balmaseda reports.
THURSDAY ACCENT: Leslie interviews the Boca man behind SunFest’s psychedelic party, Life In Color.
FRIDAY’S TGIF: Our big weekend SunFest issue, with day-to-day schedules, a site map and Leslie’s interview with Slightly Stoopid.
SATURDAY ACCENT: Leslie’s interview with Sunfest performer and “American Idol” winner Phillip Phillips.
Plus: Daily schedules in The Scene from Wednesday-Sunday.