Miami Beach

Organizers won’t say what killed Miami Beach Pop. Lower turnout projections didn’t help

Fans at the concert celebrating Miami Beach’s centennial, held on South Beach in March 2015. Some members of the production team who organized that event were involved in planning the Miami Beach Pop Festival.
Fans at the concert celebrating Miami Beach’s centennial, held on South Beach in March 2015. Some members of the production team who organized that event were involved in planning the Miami Beach Pop Festival.

In the weeks leading up to the abrupt shelving of the Miami Beach Pop Festival, a three-day music and arts festival billed as Miami’s version of Coachella, organizers grappled with turnout estimates that were lower than expected.

They no longer expected 100,000 cheering fans to swarm Lummus Park in South Beach, as they had told city commissioners last year.

The true estimate was 75,000 — or about 25,000 per day — according to a grant request made to the Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority. A city memo to the commission in June estimated the daily attendance to be 35,000.

“They were expecting a higher volume,” said Bruce Orosz, the CEO and founder of ACT Productions. Orosz helped produce the festival and pitch the event to the city. “They must have recognized that and probably sat with their team and anticipated ticket sales or presales were not hitting goals they had set.”

For ticket holders and city leaders alike, Tuesday’s announcement that the festival would not be held as originally planned came as a surprise. And they still don’t know what killed the festival. Was it slumping ticket sales, a lack of corporate sponsorship or logistical issues? Organizers won’t say.

And while they stressed that the show was being postponed, it appears to be canceled in all but name. Organizers said their announced lineup of musical acts like Chance the Rapper and Daddy Yankee would surely change if the festival were to come back to life. But so too would the very essence of the show.

The City Commission gave the festival approval in 2018 on a 4-3 vote. It had taken about three years to get to that point. In June, Mayor Dan Gelber told organizers “we’re not going to do it again” if the festival even smelled of failure.

In a text Wednesday, he said the city tried to help the organizers. City leaders appear supportive of trying again, although Gelber did not say one way or the other.

“We were doing everything we could to help them,” he said. “It’s very hard to start a new festival.”

The projected economic impact was between $20 million and $30 million, organizers said during their pitch. Between then and now, organizers did not “voice concern” to the city — until the official postponement was announced, a city spokesperson said.

But Orosz sensed something was off weeks ahead of time, and the turnout was the least of his concerns.

“The tents were not planned completely and the stages were not planned out completely,” he said. “Things were not moving as quickly as we expected in the weeks prior.”

The commission gave organizers permission to request permits in June, but by October the city had not received an application. Orosz said that’s because site plans were a “little in flux” and changing often, so organizers did not have a final proposal to send.

On Sept. 25, the Visitor and Convention Authority approved the festival’s $45,000 grant request for tenting rentals and installation. The grant money was not disbursed, as the event had not yet taken place. Lineup or scheduling changes require applicants to submit new grant requests, a spokesperson for the Visitor and Convention Authority said.

To be sure, the grant would have constituted a small fraction of the total projected costs of putting on a “world class” show, as organizers described it.

The festival was expected to cost $12 million, with $5.2 million going to artists and $3 million to equipment rental, according to the grant request. As of September, organizers had secured two corporate sponsorship from Heineken and Aperol worth $500,000.

Orosz said the slow pace at which festival organizers had been moving in recent weeks gave him pause, but he did not expect the festival to be canceled because of the experience of the organizers, Steve Sybesma and Paul Peck.

Sybesma, a Beach resident, has four decades of experience in entertainment marketing and production in the United States and abroad. Peck worked for 12 years in production, booking and management for Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

The pair founded the annual Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival, which was also canceled this year.

Peck declined to comment for this article, and referred a reporter to the statement Miami Beach Pop Festival issued Tuesday.

“Due to unforeseen circumstances, the continuation of the original plan is no longer viable,” organizers wrote in the statement. “The producers of Miami Beach Pop Festival will be working with all involved parties to secure a new date in the future. The lineup will change, as some performers may be unable to accommodate a rescheduled date.”

Commissioners and residents were blindsided by the news on Tuesday.

On Sept. 27, representatives of event management group Jim Tobin Productions met with the Miami Design Preservation League about utilizing a service road behind the organization’s Art Deco Welcome Center on Ocean Drive to unload equipment.

“At that point it seemed like a go,” said Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League. “They were ready to go.”

But city leaders remained supportive of the effort and offered their well wishes to organizers, although they are unsure what plans the organizers have or when they would happen.

Commissioners Ricky Arriola and Michael Gongora suspected underwhelming finances could have played a role in the show’s shelving.

“Nobody has given us an answer at the commission level, but it’s a money thing,” Gongora said. “That’s why events get canceled.”

Perhaps it was too ambitious a plan, Arriola said.

“Clearly it’s a large financial issue,” he said. “Either they didn’t have enough money to market or they didn’t have enough ticket sales.”

By not committing any money to the festival, the city avoided a reenactment of the 2017 cancellation of the World OutGames, a planned 10-day LGBTQ and sporting festival. In that incident, Miami Beach had waived municipal fees and provided $200,000 in cash to sponsor the event.

“We are saddened at the news, as we were really wanting nothing but their success,” city spokeswoman Melissa Berthier said in a statement. “This postponement has zero financial repercussions to the City of Miami Beach as we did not have any financial stake other than potential lost resort tax revenue during the festival timeframe.”

Asked about possible perception issues caused by the debacle, a city spokesperson said the postponement did not put the city in a negative light because of its hands-off approach.

“We are thankful to any entity who takes the risk of producing an event like this, as the risks on their side are high,” the spokesperson said. “Without producers such as these bringing opportunities like this to our City, we would have very few cultural offerings for our residents and tourists.”

For out-of-state fans like Agnieszka Tchorzewska, who purchased airplane tickets and booking arrangements far ahead of time, Tuesday’s announcement felt like a joke at first.

“It’s not like some party, it’s this big festival,” the 25-year-old real estate assistant said. “I have no idea what happened. I was so surprised.”

The Washington, D.C., resident was most looking forward to see electronic artist Kygo perform. She had planned to touch down in Miami two days before the festival to prepare for the show. Now she has to figure out how she’ll spend her time.

She took three days off work, and spent a total of $454 on airfare and lodging. Her $247 ticket should be refunded by the start of next week.

“I’m going to be there by myself for five days with no plans,” she said. “If it wasn’t the festival, I wouldn’t go.”

To her, the show’s postponement reflects poorly on the city.

“Of course it’s a bad look for the city,” she said.

Lester Palmiano, a Chicago resident, said he had been planning for the festival for three months. He will follow through with his plan to visit on Veterans Day Weekend, when the festival was scheduled to be held, because it would cost too much to cancel his airline ticket or Airbnb booking. He and his fiancé are now out about $950 total.

“I was very amazed that something like this would be canceled after being planned for two years,” he said.

If the organizers regrouped and planned a Part Two, he said fans may not be as trusting next time around.

“I’m sure it’ll draw interest but there may be a trust issue,” he said.