Another attendance slide raises questions about SunFest's future: 'We are not Woodstock!'
JUAN ORELLANA LOVES SunFest. The West Palm Beach man attended all three days of last weekend's scaled-back 2023 edition and had a great time watching The Killers, Jack Johnson and other musicians on the downtown waterfront.
But he declared the overall experience “a little disappointing,” a sentiment echoed on social media by others who felt they got less despite paying more.
Among Orellana’s observations: The crowds were significantly smaller. There was hardly any energy at the Captain Morgan's Floating Bars. There was no art to browse and nothing to do in between musical acts aside from perusing the food vendors.
“We started to eat outside the Sunfest event,” he said in an email. “Without the art show and art vendors, we just didn't seem that interested to walk around SunFest. We decided to just meet our friends in nearby restaurants as most friends just didn't buy tickets.”
Orellana, who took advantage of pre-event ticket discounts, said he’ll continue to patronize SunFest every year. But he said last weekend’s experience left him wondering about the festival’s future.
Saving SunFest for the future is exactly why organizers cut back on this year’s edition. After two years with no festival due to COVID and a general decline in revenues, often blamed on bad weather, organizers rolled out several major changes this year.
For the first time since the inaugural downtown festival in 1983, SunFest 2023 was exclusively a music festival and did not include a staple of its original mission — an art festival. There was one less day and one less stage. Also eliminated: the 5K race and the festival-ending fireworks display.
Organizers brought in national music acts and raised ticket prices. Despite great weather, it all added up to fewer attendees.
Initial estimates from Sunfest officials put the total attendance for the three days at “close to 75,000. Down from what we hoped it would be, but on par with what we might expect going from four to three days,” Executive Director Paul Jamieson said in a statement from a public relations firm to ByJoeCapozzi.com.
“It’s far too early to tell what that means financially,’’ he said. “The work on getting numbers solidified will take several weeks and then be subject to an external audit.”
He also said SunFest will be back next year, again as a three-day event May 3-5, 2024. He did not say whether the art vendors and fireworks display would return.
Despite the changes last weekend, many happy patrons took to social media to rave about another good time at SunFest, posting photographs and videos of crowds at performances by headliner acts The Killers and Jack Johnson.
But there seemed to be almost just as many venting disappointment, with some questioning whether festival organizers need to hit the restart button and return SunFest to what it used to be — an affordable arts and musical festival appealing to a wider age range.
“Even though we still enjoyed ourselves, I must say, this was the worst Sunfest they have ever held,’’ Patti Leigh Dye of Palm Springs wrote on Facebook.
‘‘There were no artists exhibits, there were no fireworks, the lineup left a lot to be desired, it was way smaller than usual, & they had the highest ticket prices ever!’’ she wrote. “Next year I will seriously have to think twice about going, even though I've never missed a year! They are completely sabotaging this normally incredible festival by the water.’’
Melissa Lovasco of West Palm Beach, a 20-year SunFest veteran who attended the opening night last weekend, she’ll also think twice about returning.
“It was that bad. They ruined it,’’ she said in an online comment before elaborating in an email: “They took away so much from the event. It changed SunFest forever. No artists, no fireworks and average performance. I won’t attend next year if it’s going to be like this. It was a waste of money.’’
Even before last weekend’s event, attendance at SunFest was on the slide, plummeting from about 174,000 in 2017 to 85,000 in 2022, according to The Palm Beach Post, citing data provided by SunFest. The 2022 festival was the first since 2019; the pandemic wiped out the 2020 and 2021 SunFests.
The newspaper also reported that SunFest’s $50 price hike for last-minute multi day tickets was the festival's biggest since it started in 1982. A 2022 general admission ticket for all four days cost $120 at the gate. A three-day ticket bought in person for the 2023 event cost $170.
“After losing a small fortune last year, maybe the organizers will wisen up and make it once again what it was meant to be. We are not Woodstock!” Michael Danchuck wrote on the Engage West Palm Beach Facebook page.
Barry O’Brien did not attend SunFest but was able to gauge the size of the crowds by looking out the window of his downtown condo at the empty spaces in a nearby parking garage that charged a $40 festival rate.
“At no time during Sunfest were there fewer than 400 open spaces,’’ he said.
In a Palm Beach Post letter to the editor earlier this month, under a headline “SunFest needs to rethink its mission,’’ Mike Hundley of West Palm Beach pointed out how “SunFest was conceived as an art and local music festival. … Maybe the festival should try going back to its roots to lower expenses.’’
Others have said that if SunFest continues to focus exclusively on music with national headlining acts, it might be time to move the festival to the South Florida Fairgrounds instead of shutting down Flagler Drive downtown for the weekend. That same section of Flagler is shut down for at least a week every March for the West Palm Beach International Boat Show.
“The accommodations made by city residents to host the event far exceed its benefit to the broader population,’’ architect Timothy Hullihan said in a Power Poll Palm Beach survey.
SunFest officials are collecting feedback through their annual online post-event survey. Jamieson has said these surveys have helped guide SunFest officials on planning for future festivals.
Despite the challenges of this year’s festival, he put a positive spin on last weekend.
“As we look toward celebrating SunFest’s 40th festival next year, we were happy with our 2023 event,’’ Jamieson said in a statement. “Great weather, volunteers who simply love this festival and some new sponsor activations made for a really fun experience for our fans on the waterfront.’’
And many SunFest veterans plan to continue supporting their favorite annual event.
"We had a blast Sunfest did not disappoint,'' Colleen Mccabe wrote under a photograph she posted on Facebook, seen at the top of this story.
“I don't understand the elimination of the art vendors and I always loved shopping between music,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “BUT it was a blast and looking forward to next year!!’’
(Editor’s note: Joe Capozzi is the Power Poll Palm Beach correspondent.)
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.