The 15th Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival was mere hours from being over Sunday afternoon and Jeff Cuellar, vice president of strategic planning for co-producer AC Entertainment, was calling it one of the best festivals in its history. He is looking to the 16th. This despite a crowd that was about half of the 85,000 fans the festival has gotten in past years.
"There is more competition out there and people have choices, but there is something about Bonnaroo," he said. "It has a spirit and a community that none of the others have. I wish I could bottle the Bonnaroo spirit.
"My team is already excited and looking at ways to make next year even better," he said. "It's what we do. We always look for ways to make it better for everyone."
He said the festival is constantly looking at ways to improve the experience for the fans, and the artists. One of the big things this year was the addition of permanent bathrooms, showers and water taps for drinking.
"It seems strange to be so excited about bathrooms, but people love them," he said.
Cuellar pointed to the events of Saturday night, when a surprise thunderstorm caused the music to be stopped and the entire main area evacuated just after 8 p.m., as further proof of what makes Bonnaroo special. The delay lasted a little more than an hour.
"We asked people to take in strangers to their cars for safety and they did, and what other festival can completely shut down, evacuate everybody and then get things back on schedule. We salvaged everything. Everybody did complete sets. It was incredible."
The reason, he pointed out, that they were able to do that is because they own most of the nearly 700 acres of farmland where the festival is held. It allows them to have everyone on site throughout the four-day event, and it allows the festival to go essentially around the clock. That helps build that sense of community where everyone is in it together.
It's what the fans and the artists like about Bonnaroo, he said.
Also, on Sunday, a special fundraising Eat & Greet was held to raise money for the Bonnaroo Works Fund, which supports regional and national organizations with emphasis on arts, education and environment sustainability. As part of the event, Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir was presented with the first Les Paul Spirit Award.
The award honors Paul, "the father of modern music," for his innovation in music and music technology.
Weir told the crowd he was humbled and honored to be the first recipient.
He also said he was accepting the award with a heavy heart because of the news of the shooting in Orlando at an LGBT nightclub that claimed the lives of 50 people.
Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.
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