Hangout Fest takes over Gulf Shores Public Beach for most of May
What was once marketed as a family fest has contract with city through 2025
By Fran Thompson
Back in 2010, The Hangout Fest was promoted and pitched to Gulf Shores City Council as a family event. A very cool children’s village filled the entire Hangout Restaurant courtyard and included an area stocked with musical instruments for kids to explore.
Saul Zislin, spokesman for the company that owns the event and the restaurant that dominates the city’s sparkling $15 million Gulf Place, said families could spend a week in Gulf Shores and enjoy fishing, our zoo, boating, parasailing and other family activities while here.
By the second year, children could barely find a spot in the children’s village among the adults while Michael Franti played an acoustic set especially for the kids. The children’s village was shuttered altogether by 2012.
Pleasure Island’s award winning Convention & Visitors Bureau has always focused on attracting families with blessings from Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Both cities have taken major steps to discourage rowdy spring break behavior. Gulf Shores, in an effort to get ahead of it, instituted a spring break alcohol ban in 2017 that continues today.
Hangout Fest, after a two year pandemic hiatus, returns to Gulf Shores Public Beach May 20-22 as a very upscale spring break celebration. There will be no cash accepted, but there will be lots of alcoholic beverages consumed. And that is OK. The kids are of age and they mostly come and go by chartered bus.
But Greg Kennedy, a former Gulf Shores City Councilman, made a valid point when he said at a public forum that it was ironic that Gulf Shores takes a draconian stance during spring break with college kids while welcoming 40,000 young Hangout patrons with open arms.
“Just how damn hypocritical it is for the city to say you can’t drink a beer on your private property during spring break but then they allow that?” Kennedy asked. “That’s the big elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about.”
“It goes hand in hand with what happened at Spring Break and what was associated with it.’’ said Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon. “It generated a certain amount of dollars. But a majority of Orange Beach residents wanted nothing to do with it. And that’s what this (Hangout Fest) is – A late term Spring Break.
“Those are not the type dollars we want or need,’’ Kennon added. “Those specific dollars have far less value than dollars generated from multi-generational families visiting our city. This is just as much a business decision as it is anything else. We in Orange Beach refuse to compromise our family friendly brand which we have worked so hard to establish.’’
A small percentage of bad elements will always be included when 40,000 out-of towners cross the Holmes Bridge. Nobody, especially Hangout founder Shaul Zislin, wants to see the fest associated with bad behavior.
“We have never asked them (police) to turn a blind eye to misbehaving people. We hate misbehaving people. It makes my job harder,’’ he said.
I am certain that the 2019 crowd was the youngest and best behaved in the fest’s 10 years history (This is the first year I will miss even one fest day). That does not mean that all of the facebook posts and calls to City Council about illegal and lewd behavior, vandalism and public drug use following the 2019 fest were not valid. Not at all. It’s no excuse, but it used to be worse.
Residents absolutely have the right to expect decency and basic manners from our tourists whether they are here to make memories with their family at one of the Phoenix condos or to overdrink and dance with 10 of their fraternity brothers at the Hangout Fest and then pile into a two bedroom condo, much to the dismay of the hardworking condo cleaners that are the backbone of our tourist industry.
The tax and franchise fee revenue the city collects from the Hangout Fest helps support the incredible amenities Gulf Shores citizens enjoy. City spokesman Grant Brown told NBC 15 that the fest will generate around $700,000 in city taxes. But those dollars don’t come without complications.
“Our phones were ringing from citizens about noise and traffic which was overwhelming at times,” Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said after the last festival in 2019. “Our challenge is to try to explain all the things that we’re doing and the money that we collect. It balances out. This is what you give up, this is what you get.”
Gulf Shores basically sells its public beach to a private business to the determent of other area retailers and restaurants and against the wishes of a majority of its citizens in return for a payout that improves the quality of life here.
Some GSHS Career Academy students intern at the fest, and there are volunteer opportunities. But local community involvement is minimal. Two restaurants directly across from the fest, Desoto’s and Crazy Donuts, did not even open for business during the 2019 fest.
Dennis and Deborah Hatfield owned the iconic ice cream parlor Scoops for more than 30 years before selling the business in 2020. Dennis said Scoops lost $5,000 in revenue during every Hangout weekend.
“Ever since the festival started, we’ve seen a different crowd. We were used to catering to families getting an early start on vacations,’’ he said. “Even in the week leading up to the festival, it was slow. And once the festival started, it was dismal.’’
Gulf Shores collects three percent sales tax on all sales inside the fest, including ticket sales, just like it does from Wal-Mart or any other retailer. Like all of us, the fest also pays three percent to Baldwin County and four percent to Alabama on its retail sales.
In addition to sales tax, Gulf Shores collects special event license fees from merchandise vendors and business license fees from companies that provide services that provide everything from tents to lighting and potable water for the fest. It is a long list.
What has changed significantly is the franchise fee the fest pays on ticket sales. Before 2017, it was nonexistent – a mere $1 per year. That fee increased to one percent of gross ticket sales in 2017 and two percent the following year.
In 2019, the franchise fee increased again to three percent of ticket sales. And that will continue through the duration of the fest’s contract with the city, which goes through 2025. This means Gulf Shores collected $60 on every $1,000 VIP ticket sold in 2019.
The Hangout also reimburses the city for expenses occurred directly or indirectly in connection with staging the event. But it’s not like city employees do not have ample other opportunities to pick up extra shifts. The fest is a major strain on city staff.
The idea that Hangout Fest attracts a “bad element” is way overstated, but it’s a fact that Hangout is now part of Gulf Shores’ brand. The city has given this upscale spring break a place at its family vacation destination table.
During a Coastal Alabama Chamber breakfast his company sponsored at Lulu’s before the 2019 fest, Zislin said it made him “feel warm and fuzzy’’ that the fest entered a contract with Circle K to display promotional posters at hundreds of its convenience stores around the Southeast.
At an earlier community meeting he sponsored (free craft beer & munchies) at Big Beach Brewery, Zislin said that the festival promotes Gulf Shores and its beautiful beaches in ways that are beyond Gulf Shores Tourism’s capacity.
But Pleasure Island already has a brand, and it doesn’t need to be promoted as anything other than a safe, family vacation destination. The bet possible promotion for our brand is for us to simply by be nice to tourists.
Zislin specifically mentioned a national promotional partnership with Monster Energy Drink offering Hangout Fest vacations as prizes. He said rock stars talk about the beaches here as they travel the world performing. He said people come to the fest for the first time and then come back ready to buy a $2 million condo here. He has a point there. The Hangout’s Super VIP tickets and Big Kahouna tickets sell quickly.
Many Americans did not know Alabama touched the Gulf of Mexico until the BP Oil Spill put Pleasure Island in the national conversation. That terrible explosion on the DeepwaterHorizon oil rig, an accident that cost 11 men their lives, occurred on April 20, 2010, three weeks before the first Hangout Fest. That tragedy led to the multi-million dollar advertising campaign paid for by BP that raised Gulf Shores’ profile as a beach vacation destination.
The ESPN televised NCAA National Beach Volleyball Championship has also contributed to spreading the word about our spectacular beaches. And 420 of the best junior beach volleyball teams played a tourney amidst festival construction just west of the NCAA teams earlier this month. Even more junior teams wanted to come, but there was no room for additional courts because boards had already been laid across the beach for the Hangout main stage. Yes, that area was open for volleyball parking. But that was because the west parking lot directly behind the junior players was already closed for the fest’s equipment.
I love the Hangout Fest. This is the first one I will miss (kid graduating from college). The Mullet Wrapper office is located near the West Beach entrance. I sit on my porch and marvel at how efficiently the fest moves thousands in and out on charter buses. I am always amazed at how clean the bathrooms are. Amazed at how much alcohol young attendees consume. Amazed at the incredible public art and musical talent. The ferris wheel. The interactive sponsor areas. This is a first class event. Maybe it is the best music fest in the world. But that is not the issue.
Oil had been flowing from the Deepwater Horizon site for more than three weeks prior to the 2010 fest. And there is a direct correlation between the fest and the free (if you rented a condo) BP sponsored beach concerts featuring Jimmy Buffett and Brad Paisley later that dreadful summer.
Zislin is correct when he told City Council that people tell untruths about the fest. A couple of years back, a local told me that a man was busted for selling drugs in front of Papa Rocco’s. I happened to be at Papa’s when the man was arrested. It was for scalping tickets. He had been warned not to do it the day before.
In order to address concerns this year, the Hangout Fest has started an ambassador program. Local residents who see bad behavior can look for an ambassador, who will then tell the official Hangout liaison, who will then call police, if necessary. It sounds crazy, but I did not just make that up.
The fest generates significant income for my city. But is it really in our best interest to indefinitely rent our public beach to a business, even if that business already owns the majority of the property around that beach?
Where will this lead us? We’ve all seen how the fest has changed in 10 years. What can we expect it to look like in 2030? And does our city really have control over that?
We are already branded as a family vacation destination. Is it not good enough to not want the fest here just because it ties up traffic and access to the beach for most of May?
I don’t know if elected officials besides councilman Steve Jones are in favor of extending the contract past 2025. But it would be a legitimate campaign issue.
I believe the city would be onboard with the fest opting out of the remaining three years of its contract. I also believe a majority of residents do not want to take Zislin up on his offer to become “forever friends’’ with the fest.
The Hangout group has a presence in Fort Walton Beach and is set to open a 40,000 square ft. restaurant in Myrtle Beach this summer. Who knows? The Hangout poobahs might decide one of those locales is a better option for the fest and the Hangout brand.
I didn’t tell her she was on record. So, I won’t use her name, but I asked a community leader her opinion. She said she had never been to the fest, but it has definitely divided her city in unhealthy ways.
“Besides,’’ she said. “People can hear all the good music they want to at the Flora-Bama.’’