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After 6 years, Firefly partners happy with festival's direction

Rob Kalesse
Delaware Public Media

Despite what fans may say or think from year to year, about the weather, or the musical acts, or the food options, there is one thing most agree on when it comes to Firefly Music Festival: there's always something new.


In this, the sixth year of the festival, changes can be seen across the 186-acre space known as The Woodlands, where artists like Bob Dylan, Muse, The Weeknd and Twenty One Pilots played to the masses this weekend. From roving stages to enhanced food and beverage options, festival coordinators are happy with the direction of the fest.

"It's been a little muggy, but we've had beautiful nights and a lot of positive feedback from fans and vendors alike," said Christiane Pheil, talent curator for Red Frog Events, the Chicago-based company that has organized Firefly since its inception in 2012.

Additions to Firefly in 2017 include expanded cocktail bars, increased food options, The Rambler, a roving stage that sets up at random spots across the grounds from the back of a retired military Humvee, and The FORT, an elevated concert viewing area made completely of large, stacked shipping containers.

"The FORT has been packed with fans all weekend long, so even though it replaced the longstanding Arcade - and most recently, Beer Arcade - it was the right decision," said Pheil. "We are always trying something new as we attempt to manipulate the grounds for the best-fitting fan experience."

Credit Rob Kalesse / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The Fort has proved to be one of the most popular additions to the Firefly Festival in 2017

This year's Firefly was dubbed as a "fan-curated" festival by Red Frog, which allows fans to be more involved with the planning of amenities and the lineup itself. The most noticeable effect may have been on the genre of acts, which featured more DJs, EDM and hip-hop artists than in years past.

Whether or not the lineup had an effect on ticket sales and crowds - Ref Frog officials insist they were hitting their numbers of nearly 90,000 fans on weekend days - there was undoubtedly more room to move around than in years past.

“If people are feeling it’s less crowded, first of all, it’s a little surprising to me," said Pheil. "But if they’re feeling that way, I’m excited because that means we’re programming talent the right way and we’re laying food and the other operational needs out in a way that make it more comfortable for people.”

Stephanie Larsen, a 36-year-old resident of Salisbury, Md., said the crowds in general feel lighter, and that getting around the grounds - even when a headliner is playing during prime time - seems easier than in the past.

"We were at Twenty One Pilots Friday night about 100 yards from the stage and thought we'd have to pick up our blanket and things once they started," said Larsen. "But it never happened. We had a bubble of space around us the entire show."

While Larsen likes the idea of having room around her and her friends during big shows, she said there was a dip in overall excitement. "I don't know, when Paul McCartney and Foo Fighters were here at the main stage, it was bedlam. This year, not so much. Maybe it's because a lot of the lineup caters to younger fans."

Gary Camp, assistant vice president of marketing and communications, said if the numbers might appear low, he believes the better flow across the grounds and the experience of five years of putting on a large-scale festival is the reason.

Credit Rob Kalesse / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Campgrounds at Firefly remained full, despite some fans feeling attendance was down from previous years.

"As these things evolve, people know how to get around and there is less confusion," Camp said. "Year six brings a lot of repeat customers and, just like our race weekends, which we've been doing for nearly 50 years it just gets easier over time."

"Easier" is a far cry from 2013, when Firefly expanded The Woodlands to accommodate more fans, but experienced backlash due to hours of traffic along Route 13 and 1, and equally long lines to enter the festival.

"I think everyone was shocked when we tripled our size in the second year, and there were some growing pains there," Pheil said. "But we are at a comfortable size now and don't think expansion is in the immediate future. If anything, we would expand on the days, rather than the space or attendees."

Meanwhile, Red Frog and Dover International Speedway are still locked into a 10-year contract that would see the partnership continue through 2023. As of now, both sides are happy with the partnership, regardless of crowd sizes this year.

"We're committed to Dover and The Woodlands for the long haul," Pheil said. "We've built permanent stages and roads, and a lot of us would even like to see a permanent brewery here someday. Dover International has a strong team and a solid infrastructure we can rely on."

For Camp, the feelings are mutual: "They [Red Frog] continue to invest money into the property with drainage and cutting in roads and permanent stages to make this place ready for festival weekend," Camp said. However, the powers that be at Dover International Speedway also see Firefly as a stepping stone to booking other events.

"These kinds of events are the things we've been looking for a while as it puts us on the map in terms of other big events," Camp said. "We were in talks with the folks from 'American Ninja Warrior' about the possibility of bringing the show here. Without the experience of popping up an event like Firefly, they wouldn't even be looking at Dover, Delaware."

Organizers announced Monday that Firefly 2018 would be held at the Woodlands at Dover International Speedway June 14-17, 2018.

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