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Vicki Gerdes, Forum Communications, Published August 02 2012

Changes at the top for WE Fest's year-round business

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - For one weekend in August, the Soo Pass Ranch south of Detroit Lakes becomes a mini-city, as staff and volunteers prepare to welcome 48,000 concert-goers to the annual WE Fest country music festival.

But it takes a year round effort to make sure everything runs smoothly during that weekend, and the days surrounding it, says John Gourley, vice president of Festivals And Concert Events (FACE), Inc.

Gourley is the newest face on the FACE board of directors, which oversees all things WE Fest. The other board members include Randy Levy, president and sole owner of FACE; Bob Bliss, chief operating officer; and Mark Schultz, chief financial officer.

Levy became the sole owner of FACE in November 2010, when he bought out co-owners Jeff Krueger and Chyrll Sparks.

Yet even with the changes in the management team, the employees and volunteers who take care of the day-to-day operations at WE Fest itself remain a tight-knit family, many of whom have been with the festival since its beginnings 30 years ago, Gourley noted.

“It’s really a family of people who have grown up being involved in WE Fest,” he said. “I’ve never seen another special event that had so much of a family atmosphere to it.

“In many cases there have been three to four generations of the same family that have worked for and helped to grow this event. These people are very passionate about WE Fest. It’s much more than just a concert for them.”

Besides the 15 permanent, year-round staff employed by FACE to run WE Fest, there are also over 1,600 part-time employees who work at the Soo Pass Ranch before, during and after the festival to make sure everything goes smoothly, Gourley said.

“Without question, it’s a year-round project for those 15 people, but there are various vendors who work on it every day as well — they just don’t happen to work at this office,” he said.

“It’s become the largest country music and camping event in America.”

Besides the paid staff, Gourley noted, there are also over 600 volunteers working on site to support their charities during WE Fest, as well as over 1,000 vendors and service providers.

And then there’s the performers themselves.

“It’s one of those events that emerging artists who are building up their careers feel is a ‘must play’ show,” Gourley said. “Even some of the headliners feel like they have to play every year they can. It’s like nothing else, really.”

“I have to say we’re pretty excited,” said Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line, who will be playing his first WE Fest on Saturday afternoon along with his musical partner Brian Kelley, the other half of the up-and-coming duo that just scored its first top-40 country radio hit, “Cruise.”

“We’ve heard a lot of great things about WE Fest,” added Kelley.

Though it’s not his first visit to the Soo Pass Ranch, Eric Church expressed similar sentiments about his sophomore WE Fest appearance, which also takes place Saturday.

“It’s almost like a vacation for us, a vacation from playing arenas and indoor venues,” Church said of performing with his band at the festival. “Being outside, it’s a little bit of a different show.

“It’s a little more laid back, just a different feel. It’s fun for us.”

Gourley noted that the atmosphere at WE Fest is just as unique for the concert-goers.

“What’s really different about it is that most other outdoor venues are so rigid in terms of the way you can experience the music and spend your day,” he said. “The wonderful thing about WE Fest is that every person who comes here has the ability to develop their concert experience the way they’d like.”

Besides all the music on the main stage of the concert bowl, not to mention the food and souvenir vendors, there is also a second, smaller music venue, the Barn Stage, located next to the Ranch House Saloon.

This stage, which has been upgraded and enlarged, will welcome talent such as Colt Ford, Hitchville, Rocket Club, Florida Georgia Line, Boomtown and Levi Riggs for a chance to perform an expanded set outside of their main stage appearances.

Rocket Club will perform after Jason Aldean finishes performing tonight, Hitchville takes to the Barn Stage after Toby Keith’s Friday night show, and Florida Georgia Line will close out the festival after Alabama performs on Saturday.

*Despite the fact that he postponed a concert set for this Thursday due to recent outpatient gall bladder surgery, Toby Keith is planning to take the stage for his scheduled performance at WE Fest on Friday.

“It is our understanding that he will be appearing,” Gourley said.

(Any last-minute schedule changes will be available to concert-goers by texting “WE Fest” to 90210.)

*Though Alabama has been a featured headliner at WE Fest’s first, 10th and 20th annual events, it wasn’t really a planned thing, Gourley noted.

“It just worked out that way,” he said.

The band’s appearance as this Saturday’s headliner (their sixth WE Fest overall) was very much planned, however — in fact, they were the first band booked for the 30th annual event.

*While Alabama might be considered a WE Fest staple, they are far from holding the record for most appearances at the festival.

That honor is held by two acts: John Anderson and Sawyer Brown, who are currently tied at 11 apiece — and this year won’t break that tie.

“We were lucky enough to get them both here for the 30th anniversary,” Gourley said.

Anderson performs at 6:15 tonight, and Sawyer Brown on Saturday, also at 6:15.

*While WE Fest’s sound and light crews work hard to make each year’s show better than the one before, this year’s event will truly be the best yet.

“There’s this amazing company called Meyer Sound, based in Berkeley, Calif., that will be debuting their new state-of-the-art sound system here for WE Fest,” said Gourley. “It is the current, absolute state-of-the-art system, and it has never been heard before here in America. They’re flying in their customers from all over the world for this.”

*Shuttle service is once again available between the city of Detroit Lakes and the front gates of the Soo Pass Ranch during all three days of the festival.

Those coming to the festival from Detroit Lakes can board the shuttles at the Becker County Fairgrounds, or downtown in front of Norby’s Department Store.

There will be both single-day and 3-day shuttle passes available for purchase at both sites, though the service is available for free to all festival campers.