Hangout Fest at 10: How the Alabama Festival Survived a Turbulent First Year and Delivered on Luxury
For 10 years Hangout Music Festival has been hosting a luxury event on the beaches of Alabama -- a feat that only seems more impressive following the disastrous Fyre Festival and the continuing coverage that has surrounded it. Hangout was started by entrepreneurs and restaurant owners Shaul and Lilly Zislin who followed through on a vision of a luxury festival that differed from the experiences they were having at festivals back in 2009.
"When they first called me, I didn’t even think there was a beach in Alabama. I was really skeptical that they had not only the vision but the means and the idea to see through this very different experience," says festival director Sean O’Connell who has been with the festival since day one.
"The credit goes to the founders who had a really unique vision. They didn’t come from the festival space or the music space. We had these entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity," O’Connell tells Billboard. "Their goal wasn’t let’s create the best festival in Alabama. It was let’s create the best festival in the world. And that’s what drives them every single day."
Sprawling out on the Gulf Shores in Alabama, Hangout was one of the first festivals to embrace the idea of stages on the beach, curated cuisine and luxury accommodations.
“From day one we saw this as a destination, a vacation first and foremost. People come for the music and then get swept away from the beach and the experience,” says O’Connell. Lilly “takes an empty beach and completely transforms it. We bring in hundreds of palm trees and roll out the same grass you see at the Super Bowl or the World Series. A music festival isn’t just stages. It is all these other things.”
Billboard sat down with O’Connell to discuss how Hangout has remained competitive for a decade, how he keeps the lineup fresh and how the festival recovered from a disastrous oil spill in Alabama its first year.
We have seen the idea of a luxury festival come and go over the years, especially with Fyre Festival. How has Hangout managed to maintain an upscale event for ten years?
Think about all the things that [Fyre Fest] promised. We’ve actually been delivering on those things for years. Tropical paradise? Check. Stay in a luxury beach house and see a show? Absolutely. We’ve been doing this for a long time and it is getting more refined. We’re curating culture, but without any of the pretense.
That southern hospitality, that’s a huge part of what makes it work. We have people who come from all over the world, people who go to all kinds of festivals and I hear all the time that Hangout is the coolest, most laid-back crowd. That’s both the people who work the show and the actual audience.
How has Hangout evolved over the years?
In the first few years we didn’t do a lot of waterlines. Now up and down the waterlines there are beach clubs and beach houses that have DJs going on. We have a whole summer camp that is called Camp Hangout that’s on the waterline and you can play slip and slide dodgeball or you can jump in the water and go paddle boarding.
Right before your first year the Gulf Coast was hit by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill which impacted attendance.
The first year was hard. We were getting more requests for refunds in the weeks leading up to the festival than we were getting ticket sales. People were freaking out. The funny thing was the oil spill wasn’t anywhere near Gulf Shores. But if you watched the news, not too far away there were pelicans covered in oil.
We went ahead and did the festival. We partnered with the artists and we had very authentic conversations like ‘hey, we know everybody’s pissed. We’re pissed. But if we don’t bring people back to Gulf Shores, Alabama then truly the oil spill wins.’
How did Hangout recover from that incident?
We actually did three more shows on the festival site after the first year with the model being that if you booked a hotel or a condo you could attend these shows for free. We did Jimmy Buffet, Brad Paisley and Bon Jovi. That was a really creative way to work with the local community to bring people back.
In the festival business, it’s really important for all of our partners, including sponsors, including artists, agents, managers to know that you've got someone who's going to stick by their guns.
It is more difficult every year it seems. We talk to our audience. I think that is a big part. But a lot of it is that we listen to music nonstop and going to shows. There are artists that we book simply just because the live show is just so fucking awesome. I saw Shame a few times last Spring and to me that is the best rock and roll show period. That was the first booking for 2019 and then it is a puzzle.
With 10 years under your belt, is there an undercard act whose blown up since you booked them?
We booked The 1975 pretty early on in their career and you could feel how much potential those guys had on stage. And we just had Halsey this past year. We were the first or second festival to book Halsey. She was on our smallest stage early on and I had no doubt we would see her on one of our main stages. You see the same thing with the Lumineers this year who played really early on for us.
In 2015, you entered into a partnership with Goldenvoice. What has that partnership brought to the table?
Goldenvoice was a partner who really believed in what we do. They wanted to just help us do it better. That was the number one thing. Paul Tollet, if you look at the way he runs his festivals and festivals under the AEG umbrella, they all have their own personality. There is no 'let’s book these bands across all the festivals.' I get to book the festival. Myself and Lilly get to produce the show. They are there saying how can we help.