Gulf Shores, Ala. — Standing in the center of a hidden grove of grass and shade, just a few yards from the white sandy beach of Gulf Shores, Ala., I bit into my complimentary Krispy Kreme doughnut, washed it down with a sip of my complimentary mimosa and took a long look around.
Directly ahead were shaded lounge chairs, hammocks, giant cool-mist fans and foosball tables. To my right, a cellphone charging station and a smiling concierge with sunscreen, bug spray, aloe, Band-Aids and even body glitter at the ready. A large air-conditioned tent, where lunch and dinner would be served, stood to my left. Behind me, an open bar and private restrooms.
Moments after the gates opened on the first day of the 2013 Hangout Music Fest, before a single note had been played on any stage, I knew this would be a completely different experience than any of the music festivals I had attended in the past. This time, my wristband identified me as a VIP.
Hangout Fest, now going into its fifth year, caps attendance at 35,000, compared with 80,000 at Bonnaroo or 100,000 at Lollapalooza. The smaller numbers give Hangout a more relaxed setting, even for general admission ticket holders, than most major music festivals. Safety concerns are a large part of the reason for the smaller numbers, but founder Shaul Zislin says it's also a deliberate strategy to retain the festival's easygoing beach vibe.
"Our philosophy is to create a different experience," Zislin said. "We believe our lineup is on par with almost anybody else out there, but we wanted to create a much more intimate experience. It's hard to talk about intimate experience when there are tens of thousands of people. But there's a big difference between 100,000 and 35,000. The extension of that is that we want be the measuring stick of all VIP programs."
Hangout Fest offers additional perks and luxuries for music fans who want creature comforts instead of portable toilets and elbow room instead of an elbow to the ribs.
The VIP grove, where customers are greeted with doughnuts and drinks as they enter in the morning, is only the beginning. Hangout offers tiered VIP passes ranging from $799 to $1,499 that include access to restricted viewing areas at two of the main stages, complimentary beer, wine and cocktails, restaurant-quality meals, main stage swimming pools, hot tubs and cabanas, and golf cart rides across the festival grounds.
Frank Robinson of Palm Harbor, who often travels to music festivals with his family, bought Hangout Fest Super VIP tickets this year for the third time.
"You couldn't be pampered any more," Robinson said. "The Super VIP experience at this festival is like watching a live show at a Ritz-Carlton by the pool. The food is phenomenal, if you like seafood and filet mignon. All the drinks are top shelf. It's worth every penny."
General admission ticket holders at Hangout Fest, even with the comparatively smaller crowds, must constantly get in line for food, drinks and portable toilets. With a VIP pass, waiting became virtually nonexistent. Complimentary drinks and separate restrooms were always available at both main stage VIP viewing areas.
When I got hungry, wanted to escape the sun or simply needed to recharge a battery — my own or the one in my iPhone — I headed for the VIP grove.
"This is a really relaxed place," said Allison Portlock, a VIP concierge stationed around the clock at a booth in the grove for all three days of the Hangout Fest. "It can be exhausting in the sun and heat all the time. There's not a lot of shade around the beach. This is an area that's relatively quiet, it has umbrellas and hammocks. It's just a great place to recharge."
A small stage in the grove area featured a few exclusive performances each day that were not accessible to general Hangout crowd. And the Super VIP dining tent offered air conditioning, couches and chairs, flat-screen TVs, coolers stocked with water, tea, soft drinks and beer, cocktails made to order and full-course meals offered at lunch and dinner.
Celebrity chefs like Martie Duncan, Chris Hastings and Wesley True were brought in to cater the event, creating dishes such as tomato salad with field peas, sweet corn, fried okra and chive aioli, grilled triggerfish with pole beans, cucumber and cherry tomatoes and whole amberjack and mahi mahi cooked over a slow charcoal fire.
Music festivals are still all about the music, of course. This year's Hangout Fest featured headline acts like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Stevie Wonder and Kings of Leon. Dozens of other artists played on four stages during the three-day festival.
The VIP experience simply provides more accessibility to the music with less hassle. I arrived moments before The Shins took the stage and got a great spot close to the stage with only a few people around me in the VIP viewing area. I had a great view of Americana duo Shovels & Rope from the VIP pool near the main stage and was able to relax in a shaded cabana while listening to the Black Crowes.
For an even more exclusive experience, Hangout offers the Big Kahuna. The exact number of Big Kahuna tickets sold is not publicized, but Zislin says it's "way below 100." As a Big Kahuna, you get access to the artist village and back-stage areas, towering shaded suites with direct sight lines of the main stage, complimentary "headliner" transportation to and from the festival, a parking pass and personalized concierge service.
"The beauty of the Big Kahuna is that a serious music fan has a chance to engage with the artists," said Zislin. "It's not a meet and greet, you're not guaranteed to meet any specific artist. But you get to experience the festival from the back of the house, if you wish."
Plans for next year include more exclusive content for VIP patrons, which means expanded lineups on the VIP grove stage.
"That's where we can provide an even more intimate experience of seeing one of these artists with only 30 to 60 people around you, instead of 1,000," Zislin said.
VIP offerings at the 2013 Hangout Fest seemed most popular with music lovers who are no longer interested in fighting big crowds and those who wanted to make it a family vacation.
"I really like being separated from the general admission crowd," said Simone Thompson of Fort Lauderdale, who flew in for the weekend. "I wouldn't come on a general admission ticket. I'm kind of out of that age bracket. The VIP allows you to still have fun."