Tomorrowland Coming to America: Q&A With TomorrowWorld's Shawn Kent


Tomorrowland kicked off in the tiny town of Boom, Belgium tonight (July 26), marking the massive dance festival’s eighth year. One of the most international music events in the world – over 214 countries are represented amongst its attendees – it’s a magnet for a different reason this year: Its parent company, ID&T, was recently acquired by Robert F.X. Sillerman’s SFX for nearly $100 million (for a 75% stake) and the influx of cash has made it possible for Tomorrowland organizers to fulfill their long-term dream of bringing the festival to America. At a reported price of up to $16 million (according to ID&T CEO Duncan Stutterheim), TomorrowWorld comes to an 8,000-acre farm in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia (just outside Atlanta) on September 27-29.

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Helping to smooth Tomorrowland’s voyage to the New World – both literally (many of the sets will be shipped over on boats) and otherwise – is entertainment veteran Shawn Kent. The former head of marketing for Cirque du Soleil Europe joined the ID&T team two years ago, and was named TomorrowWorld project manager at the end of last year. We sat down with him the night before the Tomorrowland gates opened to talk about TomorrowWorld: The interesting story of how it found its site, the thinking behind its bold 21+ age restriction, the challenges thus far, and what makes it different from any other festival in the world.

TomorrowWorld's Shawn Kent

Billboard: Will the U.S. festival be identical to Tomorrowland? 
Shawn Kent: Well, identical in the sense that the reason we chose that site is really the lush green nature that it brings, which is reminiscent of this; of course it’s a very different layout. It’s actually much larger than this space. The entire area that we’re talking about is around 8,000 acres. We’ll be using around 500 this particular year, and we have it scaled to build that out even further. Also, as you see around us, we’re nestled in between many houses and local businesses, and there’s little scale to grow, which is one of the reasons why we’re bringing [Tomorrowland] around the world. 

So [the farm] is a very, very large space. It’s 30 minutes away from the airport, 20 minutes from the city, so it’s very easily reachable, but also unlike here, it’s very secluded. One of the secret benefits of the whole thing is that you're really in another place. Here you’re around lots of houses and cars and people, and if you're at one of the other festivals in the U.S., one of the bigger ones, you're generally in the city or in a very dry place. So you're always reminded that you are kind of in civilization. And what makes TomorrowWorld pretty special in that sense is that you're really on another planet.


When did you see the site for the first time? What was your first reaction upon seeing it? 
I personally didn’t choose the site. Bruno [Vanwelsenaers, international managing director] and [co-founder] Michiel [Beers] and others scouted it. But they spent about a year scouting, either physically or otherwise, 100 sites around the world. And this one has a very unique story behind it because there have been festivals on the site before, like Counterpoint. 



The organizers of that festival approached Tomorrowland and said, ‘Hey, do you want to meet up and maybe there’s something that can happen?’ And then we scouted it and fell in love with it. We went to Counterpoint itself [September 27-29, 2012], and then in the end, we made an agreement with [Counterpoint organizers] and with the [farm] owner to shift TomorrowWorld there because it’s just such a perfect site. [TomorrowWorld actually took Counterpoint’s pre-reserved 2013 dates.] And they work with us now; they’re actually in charge of [camping area] Dreamville. Their festival has moved from that location, of course, but they’re cooperating really closely on TomorrowWorld.


How’s it going so far; the preparation, ticket sales? 
It’s going really well. The scale that Tomorrowland has achieved in the world in terms of Facebook, in terms of its views on YouTube, and selling out in seconds is incredible. So it was difficult to understand what would be the impact in America. We went on a pre registration period in March and over 250,000 people pre registered, which was astonishing. Over 120,000 were from abroad. And we went on sale in April, an American sale and then a worldwide sale. And the sales have been really good. I mean, we talked about it within our industry with people we know and they’re just amazed at how much has been pre sold. There are more tickets available, not many, but it’s going really well. 

I have to admit we thought there’d be a lot more international. There’s still a ton of international people coming. We thought there would have been more, particularly in South America, for example. South Americans are huge fans of Tomorrowland, particularly Brazil. But they just don’t come to the U.S. which I think is maybe a visa thing. Or if you're going to spend that money to fly somewhere, you maybe prefer to go to Europe. 

What are the logistics of transporting all this gear across the globe?
What we’re undertaking is a pretty phenomenal thing: It’s bringing the best we can do, all the experience, the sets, the staging, everything, from this country over to the U.S. in a short time; we really started up as a production team in January. We're bringing over something like over 80 containers of decorations and materials and staging – most of it’s in the ocean at the moment - to set this up. We're sending up an entirely new U.S. team, obviously with experts who work on many other festivals around the country. We’re bringing that U.S. experience, and we’re combining with all this Belgian experience, and all the ID&T global experience to pull this off. So it’s quite a mesh of culture and working styles. It’s fascinating to watch how the same thing is done so differently. 

It’s also fascinating to see how there’s materials that don’t exist in the U.S. festival market. For example, you'll see here a lot of wood flooring which is something that people don’t really notice. But when you don’t have wood flooring and you have bad weather conditions, you really notice it. It can really damage the whole experience, of course. And in the U.S., there’s not [suitable] wood flooring. So we’re building at the moment 300,000 square feet of flooring which will last us for a few years, of course. But that's just an example of the details and the expense that we go through to really mirror the experience that [attendees are] having here in the U.S. And that will be one of many little things that people just won’t notice on its own. They’ll come and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, amazing. This is something we’ve never seen before.’ And it will all add up to what you're experiencing here at Tomorrowland. 

It’s all about the visitor experience at that level. It's really the little things, like waiting in line. That happens here, of course. But it's a huge thing to focus on in terms of how we orchestrate that. A lot of other festivals don’t do that, or they’ve not learned to do that, they’re not interested in doing that, and that's also fine. But this is one of those things that impacts visitor experience. 


Have there been any challenges in terms of like U.S. zoning restrictions, things that can’t translate overseas? 
There has. ID&T brings in a higher level of say, oversight, to how we produce stuff. So we’ll bring in engineers. We’re sitting down with South Fulton County; they’ve had a few festivals there, but not at this level. And we come in with a risk manager, for example, which is whole position, a whole department, who comes in with engineers to verify that we’re following the U.S. standards. We’re actually helping to educate them a littlE bit more about safety and structures. 

Have we had any problems? I mean, there have been, which have been solved. There are certain height restrictions, and then there’s a wind restriction, depending on the amount of wind, 110 miles an hour, you need to have extra space or scaffolding. We’ve had some discussions on how we can reduce that. It’s all about showing your contingency plans. We have had so much pressure here on Tomorrowland with the neighbors, to really appreciate the space and to appreciate them and also the local community, the two mayors that we work with. So we’ve been really well trained on how to dot all the “i’s” and cross the “t’s”.


Were there any alterations you felt that you had to make to better suit an American audience versus the Tomorrowland that we’re going to see here this weekend? 
I think one thing was, for a couple of reasons, a very important decision was the age restriction. We’re the only U.S. festival this size that is a 21-plus festival. The first reason that we did it was we really want the experience to be complete. So when you come into this event, we don’t want you every day to have to have a new check of your ID. We don’t want to ruin the experience. You're in a dreamland, a fantasyland, so we really want it to be pure. 

And the other reason is ID&T, in TomorrowWorld, it’s our first major foray into the U.S. And with all our experience of 20 years of doing all different events around the world, especially TomorrowWorld, we also want to send a message to the U.S., whether it’s parents or it’s press or it’s kids or it’s whatever, that this music scene, electronic music culture, is really here to stay, and that it’s maturing, and that we’re bringing such a high quality of experiences to the market that people really take notice. That this isn’t just becoming a trend of EDM; that it’s really a culture of electronic music and it’s really about live experience. And when you see the quality of what we do at Sensation or here at TomorrowWorld or Mysteryland, other events, Q-Dance events that we’ll be bringing, they’re really just at this visitor quality level that people aren’t aware of. So that's another reason why we adapted it for the U.S. with the 21-plus. 

What have you applied from Cirque most to this experience?  
Two things. One is I get so moved by the quality of what’s being produced here. I spent ten years at Cirque, and spent a lot of time in the creative groups, and seeing how we developed a big peak in Cirque’s lifespan. And the quality and attention to detail is sort of what I grew up with. And to see how they do it here is wonderful. 

And the other thing is the connection between concept, and delivering the live experience, and marketing and social media and promotion, and how you blend those three things. The Rising of Life is the storyline [at Tomorrowland]; it was announced, but it permeates everything that they do as well. So also at Cirque, the biggest step in the process of creation is figuring out what to name the darn show, and what visual can we use? Because the creatives, they’re in the middle of the process, but you want to announce what that show is. So here, it's always intertwined, in terms of creatives with the concept and how you market it. It’s always linked.