Bumbershoot 2023 takes us by the wrist

Bumbershoot wristbands

It’s been a decade since we last attended Bumbershoot, the music and arts festival that happens at the Space Needle each September in Seattle. This year was something of a “back-to-basics” theme due to the show owners skipping the big budget event operators and doing it more or less themselves. The benefit to showgoers:  You could walk up to any of the main stages, a change from previous years when you had to arrive early to collect a coveted wristband to see the big acts in a stadium setting.

For some reason, the stadium lay mostly dormant, home to an out-of-the-way drum and cowbell thing if you wanted to let off a little steam. By the end of it, after all of the mishaps and anguish, we seriously considered paying it a visit.


Day 1: This band is your key to a rockin’ weekend!

You see, there are still wristbands, but they are now for overall event attendance. If you had a weekend pass for both days, you were given an ALL WEEKEND wristband on Saturday and expected to wear it through the next day. Ours were just handed to us, and when we put them on, we pulled them too tight before realizing they were designed not to be loosened.

Clearly the intake event staff were meant to put them on us and ensure a proper fit, so that we couldn’t remove them and hand them off to a friend who might then attend in our stead on Sunday. Staff also told us we’d no longer need our paper passes as the wristband would get us in for the second day.

The other big rule was that once you left for the day, there was no re-entry. Which was fine – it just meant we started our day late so we could stay late without running out of steam.

Our son arrived a few hours later than we did, and by then they had started putting wristbands on people as many attendees had run into trouble and needed to have staff cut them off and replace them – so many that they began to run out of bands at some help stations and redirected people back to the main entry gate for assistance.

Apart from that, our first day experience was pretty good, overall. Sunday, things disintegrated.


Day 2: Forget what we said, prove you belong here!

The next morning, our son decided to go early. He took off and then texted us that he had forgotten his paper ticket. No worries, we replied – they said all you need is your wristband. By then he had already bailed on his bus to come back for the ticket, and the next bus didn’t stop (either it didn’t see him or was full). So we told him to take an Uber and we’d meet him there. By that time, he was incredibly stressed and upset, and we were on a bus frantically trying to retrieve the passes on a phone so we could screenshot the barcodes. We tried texting him the code for his ticket, but by then he had been redirected to the accessibility entrance. When he arrived there, they said they could not help him and sent him back to the main gate. We waited there for his return, and finally – after showing our original barcodes – got in together.

As best we can guess, the original plan was for the wristbands to be the only thing required for Day 2 entry (why else make us bathe and sleep with them?!). But since some workers handed them out loose rather than putting them on patrons to ensure no pass trading, we think this spurred the late decision to require paper tickets plus the bands on Sunday. This caused untold stress on attendees, many of which were clearly panicked as this new rule was being verbally announced at the gate because they had left behind or disposed of their tickets after being told they would not be needed.

Since leaving the festival ended your wristband entry for the day, it greatly limited the risk of passbacks, that dreaded scourge at events that takes money out of the pockets of the event runners. But was it really that big a risk? One worth making so many legitimate attendees upset and wrecking their mood before they even got in for more show?

Worst case, if you got your fill on Day 1, you might pass it on to a friend for Day 2… if you hadn’t had the band put directly on you, AND you hadn’t instinctively put it on yourself and then (over)tightened it (as so many did), AND you hadn’t been caught out by staff for wearing it loose on Day 1 and instructed to wear it correctly. If you manage an event like this, you have to expect a small percentage of abuses. Weighed against the negative energy it laid on legitimate showgoers, who were made to feel like criminals for doing as instructed, was it really worth it? How many ne’er-do-wells did you actually thwart, Bumbershoot? Also, if you gave up your wristband, it meant you weren’t going back so it’s really not stealing, just putting something you paid for to good use. Anyone who attends is likely to spend some money there, so it’s actually beneficial to the festival and its vendors – many of whom were wondering early on Sunday why attendance was so low compared to Saturday.

The coup de grace came at 3:53 p.m. on Sunday when we received an email stating that paper tickets were needed for reentry:

Bumbershoot email sent late on Sunday - click to view large image

At this point, most people attending the event were already there or en route. Some people may have traveled from an hour or more away to get turned back or forced to burn their phone battery and bandwidth on trying to conjure a copy of their pass.

Of course, this is nothing compared to what happened at Burning Man the same weekend, but from a marketing perspective the harm done by this decision may outweigh the money saved. Will we attend next year? It seems doubtful. Normally we attend the PAX West gaming expo that same weekend, but with the dregs of COVID still swirling around us, we felt safer at an outdoor festival where we could mask up on the bus and when packed in the entry line, hang back from crowds and still enjoy the shows, and take in some food truck meals and arts.

Clearly the right thing to do from a customer-centric point of view was to allow a few wristbands to be traded. What resulted from a hardline approach came off as greedy and insensitive. If there had been unlimited in-and-out privileges (which some older attendees staying nearby who might like a nap before the late-night shows would have appreciated), yes, there should have been a clear policy stated from the start governing what would be needed to regain entry. We had expected some sort of authentication, perhaps by transferring your ticket to a smartphone wallet – but this approach apparently was not in the event budget.

If you’re going to go low tech, expect some acceptable losses. Unless you’d rather lose some customers.

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