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The business side of Bonnaroo 

AC Entertainment vice president discusses ways to improve the experience

With roughly 85,000 music fans filling the farmlands of Manchester, Tennessee, each June to experience the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, it's no surprise that the event has become one of the biggest flagship festivals in the country over the last 13 years. With more than $51 million in revenue generated across the state, there's also a serious side of business that involves creating an experience for attendees and benefitting the local community at large. AC Entertainment's vice president of strategic partnerships Jeff Cuellar has been there since the festival's beginning in 2002, creating brand partnerships and improving the overall Bonnaroo experience year after year. Cuellar will speak to AAF Charlotte (an affiliate of American Advertising Federation) on April 16 about his experiences, but we got a chance to speak with him by phone to ask how he's helped turn Bonnaroo into this generation's must-attend event.

Creative Loafing: How has Bonnaroo changed since you first got involved?

Jeff Cuellar: It's grown a lot, especially by size. It was 70,000 people its first year, then went to 80,000, did a stint at 90,000 but we realized that was too taxing on our site, so 80,000 is kind of our sweet spot. With everyone you have on site, I hear it's between 100,000 and 110,000. The biggest changes occurred in 2007 after we purchased the property. It gave us an opportunity to look toward the future. The first year was beyond our wildest dreams — nothing on that scale had been attempted in the United States to that point. We talk about Bonnaroo being a community because it's different than any other event out there. You never know who you'll be camping next to and relationships foster. No other event creates a community in that way.

Do you see Bonnaroo as a flagship for every other U.S. festival?

It's always a concern — how do we maintain. The competition is stiff and constantly trying to raise the bar. There are also more regional events creating a pull. I think Bonnaroo sets itself apart with the camping side, which allows us to go 24/7. Lollapalooza can only go until 10 or 11 at night and then people head into the city. With Bonnaroo, that's it. You're there for the duration and there's more than music. We've added comedy, cinema, a silent disco, a post office, there's a sustainability side with Planet Roo. We are more than a music festival — but live music is always at the core. You can take your face out of your phone and really experience something out of the norm.

What have you learned from your work with Bonnaroo that has translated to smaller events?

The nurturing of the community and finding something special about the location or event. It's not just about putting bands on a stage and curating a good lineup. What is the extra element that truly makes something special? It's the location, it's the food and finding something different. With Bonnaroo, people talk about the music, but those little things help make it memorable and give you the warm and fuzzies of why it's the favorite event for so many people.

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