Now in its fourth year, Hangout Fest has become one of the most anticipated musical events along the Gulf Coast. A.J. Niland of Huka Entertainment co-founded the festival in November 2009 with Shaul Zislin, owner of The Hangout restaurant, and brought their vision of a beach festival to life in less than seven months.
The first Hangout was held in May 2010, only three weeks after the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. Zislin and Niland made the best of a bad situation, pushed on with the festival, and subsequently organized three highly successful benefit concerts that summer—Jimmy Buffett, Jon Bon Jovi, and Brad Paisley—at the Hangout venue, which helped bolster the beach-based Gulf Shores economy.
Niland started Huka in his hometown of Mobile and later moved the company to New Orleans.
Despite his hectic schedule, Niland took time to answer a few of the IN’s questions about Hangout and festivals in general.
IN: When did you first start attending festivals, and how did those experiences shape choices you’ve made with Huka?
NILAND: I was drawn to the festival business for the communal experience, but my wanting to do a festival goes back to childhood. I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders as a real young kid and checking things out. Being at a concert is such a magical feeling and every crowd has a different energy.
There are many great festivals that came out long before us that paved the way for HUKA. Traditionally, these festivals have taken place in the settings of a farm, or a city park, but we wanted to set ourselves apart—which is what led us to the beach.
IN: How many people from the HUKA team are on the ground during the festival?
NILAND: The HUKA team consists of around 16 full-time employees, most of whom are on-site during the festival.
IN: What tweaks, if any, have you made to Hangout this year?
NILAND: We take fan feedback very seriously and strive to make improvements to every aspect of the fest. This year, we concentrated on some of the operational suggestions including improving the flow as you walk around the site as well as the flow for traffic. We also made improvements on the sound.
IN: Are you still conceiving new ways to market the festival or has it gotten to a point where it’s selling itself?
NILAND: As the festival continues to reach an increasingly larger audience, the pressure to raise the bar and reach more fans becomes a greater challenge. We will always strive toward finding innovative ways of communicating with fans as well as taking the experience of the festival beyond the three days spent on the festival site.
IN: What is the response from artists, playing on the beach?
NILAND: Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters put it best when he said, “This is the funnest festival I’ve ever been to in my entire life!” in 2011.
It’s a unique experience for all parties! Being located on the beach adds a whole new element to a festival space. We make sure to take care of our performing artists with the same care that we take care of our fans, and because of that, and the beauty of our location, you’ll find that a large majority of artists that play at Hangout will hang and mill with the masses for the entire weekend!
IN: It seems like there are new festivals popping up left and right lately. What do you think is behind the rise in the number of festivals, or the perception of a rise, over the last several years?
NILAND: Festivals are definitely a big trend right now. I believe that as more and more people immerse themselves in the festival scene, they are inspiring the opportunity for new festivals to be created. I don’t see the growth slowing down anytime soon.
There is a huge value in festivals. Concerts and sporting events have gotten very expensive (and it’s not that a festival experience is necessarily cheap), but festival goers would prefer spending a couple hundred dollars to see 75+ bands over a three to four day span than to pay close to a hundred dollars to see just one band perform for a few hours during an evening. When you weigh out the value of an experience like Hangout, festivals are definitely more attractive.
IN: How did the recent Tortuga Fest come about? Is it the next big beach fest/HUKA success?
NILAND: Tortuga was born when our partners Rock the Ocean and Guy Harvey approached us to produce a festival on a beautiful stretch of beach on Ft. Lauderdale. The stars aligned for Tortuga—we had gorgeous weather and a solid lineup of country and rock artists. It was a success in year one and we’re already looking forward to next year.
IN: Every year we put together a festival survival guide. What are a few of your festival survival must haves?
NILAND: A smartphone for capturing and sharing your experience. Plus water is a big must; it’s important to stay hydrated. And don’t forget sunscreen and a good attitude!