Wednesday, May 23, 2018

From Spring Beer Fling to the Tampa Tee Off, meet the minds behind Tampa's most creative festivals

"I wonder who holds the air rights over the Hillsborough River," Ferdian Jap wondered aloud as his colleagues at Big City Events shot him quizzical looks.

Seconds earlier, the 29-year-old event coordinator was sharing his dream: To host an event in both Curtis Hixon and Julian B. Lane Riverfront parks, connected by water taxi and zipline.

"It would be so cool," he exclaimed. "We could mount a GoPro camera on the zipline and take pictures with the city skyline in the background."

A round of gasps and sighs of "That would be cool" filled the small, neatly decorated living-room space, followed by the clicks of keyboards to see if it really could be done.

This is how most things start in the tan house on W Bay to Bay Boulevard that is officially the office of Elan Event Studio, but has become home to the Big City team.

Since its beginning in 2007, the group has drawn crowds of thousands to events like the Tampa Bay Margarita Festival, Summer of Rum Festival, Jim Beam Bourbon and Brew Festival, Tampa Tee Off and Tampa River Lights Festival and parties for the Gasparilla International Film Festival. With each event, the company has built its brand on a unique user experience, from full country bars for a bourbon festival to perfect souvenir plastic margarita glasses.

This Sunday, the team will add to its repertoire with the Spring Beer Fling, a surf-rock inspired outdoor festival in Curtis Hixon Park featuring spring-themed beers and ciders and beach-vibe bands. They've already sold more than 3,500 tickets, putting them on pace to match their Bourbon and Brew Festival (about 4,000) and maybe the Margarita Festival (6,000).

"We've found our little niche market," said Monica Varner, 39, owner of Elan and the team's captain. "We hosted the Margarita Festival and people were asking for more."


Varner, Jap, Kyle Gilliand, 28, and Holly Shump, 27, make up the core team of Big City Events.

On a random Monday, they're all T-shirts and laptops, an unassuming group whose depth of experience isn't apparent as you pass the full bar with three-quarters-full bottles on the way into the office.

"We only use those to taste-test drinks so we know what we're serving the public," Varner said, smiling.

Jap was a project specialist at Tampa's Riverwalk when Varner was a Riverwalk tour guide in 2006. She quickly recruited the heavily degreed Jap to the board of brand-new Gasparilla International Film Festival.

"That was the very first year we hosted it," she said. "We were both on the original board and I became the executive director before I decided to step down to get more involved on the logistics side of things."

Even then, they were both passionate about what Tampa could be. Their love of the city spurred them to think outside the box for ways to bring people out. After seeing a YouTube video of people hitting golf balls on the side of the road, Jap pitched the idea of doing the same in downtown Tampa.

The Tampa Tee Off was slow to get off the ground. City permitters didn't understand the idea, or why they should trust these upstarts with closing down N Franklin Street near the historic Tampa Theatre.

"They would say things like, 'We're going to need more information on that,' " Varner snarked as she adjusted imaginary glasses. "Ultimately, it just took time to come together."

When it did in 2012, people walked from their offices to marvel at the line extending into the intersection for a chance to whack the balls at the Tampa Theater marquee, which was protected by a net. The city took note. Not only was it an interesting charity event, benefitting the Special Olympics, it was popular with working people in their 20s and 30s. Big City had managed in a single evening what Tampa hadn't been able to since the revitalization of downtown began.

From the Tee Off, other ideas sprang forth. Varner decided it would be best to break from Elan Event Studio to give this movement a brand. "We wanted to bring a big-city feel to Tampa," Jap said. "We thought a long time before we chose the name."

Though they've had offers from other cities to host events, Big City has remained firmly planted in Tampa.

"We couldn't wait for Curtis Hixon Park to be done," Varner said. "It's like a chicken-and-egg thing. Businesses need people to come to an area and people need something to do in order to come to a place. We're trying to show businesses that you can get a lot of people into downtown Tampa."

That mission falls perfectly in step with Mayor Bob Buckhorn's vision.

"I love it," he said. "They have been an extension of what we're trying to do here. They make what we do easier with their different concepts. They make it easy to get people downtown."


Sometimes, the ideas become too grand. In December 2012, Big City attempted the ambitious River Lights Festival, where they dropped thousands of LED-lit balls into the Hillsborough River at night to create a light show. Factors such as the river changing directions, the Chinese-made balls not lighting properly and the Environmental Protection Agency approval needed made it a logistical crapshoot. Murphy's Law was in full effect, as the river stopped flowing once the balls dropped, forcing a clean-up team to switch riverbanks.

"I still have nightmares about it," Jap laughed.

Now they stick to ticketed festivals, mostly in downtown, where folks can come and go as they please to explore the area and patronize the businesses who decided to get in on the ground floor. On Sunday, Spring Beer Flingers can step out and catch the Gasparilla Criterium and Cycling Festival before coming back to catch rock band Surfer Blood and an LED beach-ball drop.

"It will be like a living art installation when we drop the beach balls from the stage," Jap said. "We'll cut off the main lights and we've even hired an aerial photographer."

Once it's over, the beach balls will be the crowd's to keep. But first, the core team plus the two interns has to blow up and insert lights into thousands of beach balls.

The devil is always in the details for Big City. No tedious task shakes their commitment to cool.

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