Last year, as concerts returning from the pandemic met cautious fans and high no-show rates, destination events were a bright spot for the touring industry. Now, they’ve become contentious as the omicron COVID-19 variant rages.
The same fans who were so eager last summer to make plans to escape to beachside resorts for weekends hosted by Dead and Company, Wilco, Luke Bryan and others are now pressuring promoters to offer refunds or postpone the shows until the current coronavirus wave cools down. Promoters, however, are beholden to the resorts where the festivals are booked. A source familiar with destination festivals informs Billboard that hotel rates for these events are negotiated with the organizers and are non-refundable. The promoter, in turn, makes tickets non-refundable for the customer and encourages fans to purchase travel insurance.
Refunds for live music events are typically only provided when an artist is unable to perform or the event is cancelled entirely. Outside refund windows established by major promoters in 2020 due to the pandemic, refunds for live events are typically not offered for fans unable to attend or who choose not to. Unless the local government forced a shutdown of the resorts hosting these destinations events and the festival’s insurance kicked in, the promoter would have to shoulder the cost of any refunds.
When Dead and Company announced last month they would offer refunds to fans who were feeling uncomfortable attending their Playing in the Sand events scheduled for Jan. 7-10 and 13-16, it set an early precedent for other similar events to follow. But while the band wound up canceling its shows just a week later when John Mayer caught COVID-19, other events have resisted following suit and have pushed ahead without refund options.
Mark Dienger, a ticket holder for Wilco’s upcoming Sky Blue Sky event in Mexico, hoped other producers would take note of the Dead and Company cancellation and begin to reconsider their events. Dienger says he bought passes for the Jan. 17-21 festival in Riviera Maya, Mexico, when vaccines were providing more effective protection last summer and assumed “if it ever got this bad, there’s no way the event would go on.”
Dienger is one of more than 1,000 people who have signed a Change.org petition asking Cloud 9 – who produces the event in conjunction with The Bowery Presents and Higher Ground Presents – refund ticket holders who no longer wish to attend due to health reasons or concerns about quarantining in Mexico if they test positive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 to quarantine for five days and then receive a negative test before ending isolation. If a test comes back positive on day five, they recommend quarantining for an additional five days.
“We are not asking for the festival to be cancelled or postponed, but merely for the option of being refunded if one decides it is in their best interest not to attend,” the petition reads. “We hope that Cloud 9 would follow suit of other festivals (Dead & Co.) and recognize that the responsible thing to do would be to give their customers a choice.”
Cloud 9 Adventures tells Billboard they are still moving forward with the Wilco event, as well as Widespread Panic’s Panic En La Playa Diez and the Avett Brothers’ At the Beach scheduled for January at Hard Rock Hotel in Riviera Maya. In a statement provided to Billboard, Cloud 9 states that their non-refundable policy was made clear more than a year ago when tickets went on sale and emphasizes travel insurance for trips in winter months. The event producer is offering complimentary extended stays at the resort and third-party medical providers for anyone who tests positive. Cloud 9 has also extended and waived room transfer fees up until the day of the event.
“A refund, or the ability to hold one’s spot for a rescheduled date, will be available to purchasers if the event were to be postponed,” the statement reads. “This continuously evolving situation is being closely monitored via active discussions with local authorities and the events are moving forward as planned.”
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy took to Instagram on Jan. 6 to state, “I 100% understands understand all the anxiety and anger and confusion” surround the Sky Blue Sky festival. He explained that the band has nothing to do with ticketing or ticketing policies and are simply contracted to play the event. Tweedy went on to say he hoped all parties would come to a resolution that “makes everyone happy,” but added, “I find that to be an unlikely outcome at this point.”
After the cancelation of the Dead & Co shows, CID Presents — which is owned by OnLocation, whose parent company is Endeavor — said it still plans to move forward with its other January events including Luke Bryan’s Crash My Playa (Jan. 19-22) and Hootie and the Blowfish’s Hootiefest: The Big Splash (Jan. 26-29). In a statement last week, CID said it is monitoring U.S. and Mexico guidelines and believes it can put on “a safe and fun event at CID Presents’ new and most spacious ever outdoor venue.” The producer added that it will offer refunds if the CDC risk assessment level for COVID-19 for the Quintana Roo (Cancún) region of Mexico rises to a Level 4 or Mexico designates the area unsafe to hold an event.
In the meantime, ticket holders for CID’s Crash My Playa and Hootiefest: The Big Splash have also launched a Change.org petitions requesting refunds that has garnered more than 1,050 and 400 signatures, respectively, and encouraged an email writing campaign to the organizers.
As of Friday (Jan. 21), Quintana Roo — where the events are being held — had a daily case average of 659, according to The New York Times. The region, however, has seen a 451% increase in cases in the last two weeks based on the Times’ data.
Fans like Dienger understand that refunds or postponements would mean a financial hit for organizers and the artists, but doesn’t believe the full economical or health risks should fall on ticket holders either.
“I understand this isn’t an easy decision for them,” says Dienger. “There has to be a middle ground where if they decide the show goes on and they recognize that some people aren’t comfortable we get back 50% of what we had paid or just pay it forward as a credit for the next time when it is safer.”
Additional reporting by Dave Brooks.