SALISBURY – Despite rainy conditions, city officials and event organizers estimate more than 60,000 people attended the inaugural National Folk Festival in Salisbury.
From Sept. 7-9, downtown Salisbury hosted its first National Folk Festival – a free, outdoor event produced by the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) that celebrates arts, culture and heritage through live performances, workshops, demonstrations, children’s activities and more.
And while the festival was accompanied by rain for most of the weekend, Salisbury Mayor Jake Day said approximately 63,000 attendees came out to support the inaugural event.
“It’s an unequivocal success,” Day said in a press release. “We expected to draw record crowds downtown over the course of the weekend, and we did. The fact that there were so many attendees in spite of all that rain just makes it even more impressive.”
City officials said they gathered a headcount using mounted cameras, drone footage and mobile device usage, and factored out devices belonging to nearby businesses, residences and medical centers.
“While the total attendance number also accounts for volunteers and employees, and is in no way perfect, it provides us a very good estimation of the total attendance over the three-day festival,” said Bill Garrett, the city’s information services director.
While she commended the turnout, Caroline O’Hare, local manager for the National Folk Festival, said event organizers will have a better understanding of attendance and performance in the weeks to come.
“We are going to debrief within the next 30 days and go through the things that went well and the things we can improve on,” she said. “We’ve asked all team leaders and coordinators to write notes during the festival, and once the emotions are gone and we can gather our thoughts, we will be able to understand the festival more clearly.”
O’Hare noted that more than 1,000 volunteers showed up for the event and – despite having to move the last two performances of the festival offstage – everything proceeded as planned.
“I think it went spectacularly well,” she said. “You had the community coming together, rain or shine, having a great time and experiencing new food, music and arts in downtown Salisbury.”
O’Hare added that organizers were also working with graduate students from Salisbury University to determine the results of an economic impact study from the National Folk Festival.
“It’s another tool we are using to plan for the second year,” she said.
Dr. Memo Diriker, director of the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network (BEACON) at the university’s Franklin P. Perdue School of Business, said graduate students spent the course of the weekend conducting field interviews with festival attendees.
“We are doing a full report on the economic, employment, fiscal, social media and community impacts of the festival …,” he said. “Essentially, we wanted to get a picture of people’s time here.”
Diriker said preliminary findings show most of the festival attendees were locals, and of those that were visiting from out of town, most traveled an average of 150 miles.
“An even smaller, but solid, group were those that travel to the festival each year,” he said. “I guess you can call them ‘fans of the festival.’”
Diriker said turnout to the festival on Friday and Saturday was “a pleasant surprise,” given the inclement weather and attributed attendance to social media.
“They were hearing and seeing what it was like on social media from people who were there …,” he said. “I cannot tell you how many thousands and thousands of videos have been posted. You can’t imagine the value of that.”
While he noted that many of the respondents commended the festival’s organization and performers, Diriker said all suggested improvements that were provided will also be used to plan for next year.
“The most interesting thing we heard people saying was they had expected more ethnic and different foods,” he said.
Diriker said he expects BEACON to release a full, detailed economic report on the festival in the coming months.
“We hope to do this all three years of the festival,” he said. “This will inform decision makers how the festival will look like in the future and what the investment will be,” he said.
O’Hare said planning for next year’s National Folk Festival will begin in the coming weeks.
“Not only was it a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun work,” she said, “and we will use what we learned to make next year a bigger and better event.”