KAABOO Del Mar mastermind Bryan E. Gordon is not the first festival producer to cite 1969’s Woodstock as an early inspiration. But he may well be the first to cite the plush Four Seasons hotels and the chi-chi Aman Resorts as inspirations for his unabashedly upscale festival at the Del Mar Racetrack and adjacent fairgrounds.
The fourth annual edition of the all-ages KAABOO Del Mar takes place Sept. 14-16, with Katy Perry, Robert Plant, Imagine Dragons, Foo Fighters and Judd Apatow headlining the nearly 100-act bill. Some of the VIP amenities at the music, comedy, art, food and drink festival include: a swimming pool; concierge service; private cabanas; massages; a private backstage lounge area; luxury on-demand car and golf cart service; on-stage, front-row and elevated viewing areas; two gourmet “curated meals” per day; and unlimited beverages.
“Probably the most influential reference points for me — as a guest, not from a business point of view — were looking at the hospitality industry and higher-end boutique hotel brands, like Aman and the Four Seasons,” said KAABOO creator Gordon, 56.
“The way they blend architecture and design with great culinary programs and great activities, all wrapped in a first-class hospitality and guest-services program, was the most foundational concept for me. ... I always planned KAABOO as a 365-day-a-year lifestyle.”
That concept will soon grow for Gordon and his primary business partners at Virgin Produced, the film and television development, packaging and production arm of the Richard Branson-led Virgin Group.
KAABOO Cayman debuts Feb. 15-16 — the top VIP package is priced at a gulp-inducing $500,000 for six people — with a lineup that includes The Chainsmokers, Duran Duran, Zedd and Maren Morris. It will be held on Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach.
KAABOO Texas debuts May 10-12 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, outside Dallas, where Gordon and Virgin Produced are teaming with Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones. The Texas lineup has not been announced yet, but the festival will feature headlining acts in the stadium — which typically can hold 50,000 to 60,000 for concerts — and on several outdoor stages adjacent to the stadium.
“We’re investors with KAABOO — that’s how the partnership is set up,” said Chad Estis, the Dallas Cowboys’ executive vice president of business operations.
“What attracted us is that it appears to be a festival geared to a higher-end experience with a lot of premium elements that can be had throughout the day, and that it skews to a little older demographic with a bit more spending power.
“When we went to the 2017 KAABOO Del Mar festival and saw how classy it was, how good the food and drink experience was, and how well run it was — even extending to who the corporate partners are and how they fit the festival’s brand — those all align with how we run our Cowboys’ business and view the world at AT&T Stadium. While it’s not identical, there are good synergies with how Bryan Gordon views his brand and with how we view ours.”
Even more KAABOO festivals are planned
Eager to extend its reach even more, KAABOO is already planning a major expansion beyond Texas and the Caribbean.
“Within five years, I think we will certainly be a seven-to-10 festival brand across North America that may well stretch into Canada, Mexico and possibly other international markets,” said Gordon, who regards KAABOO’s brand much like the posh comforts provided at his favorite hotels.
“You always know you’re at a Four Seasons or Aman Resort, from an elemental point of view and guest-services point of view. That’s what I was trying to create — a festival where you know you’re in San Diego, Dallas or the Cayman Islands, but you also know you’re at KAABOO. We want to build this sort of year-round calendar of events, so people can pick and choose, and — we hope — vacation with us multiple times a year.”
Virgin Produced Co-Founder and CEO Jason Felts, who doubles as KAABOO’s Chief Brand + Marketing Officer also stressed the importance of making the festival both familiar and distinctive at each site where it is held.
“Every KAABOO location has its own unique flavor, so we have to sort of dive in and become experts on what is authentic to that community,” said Felts, 41, who as a teenager grew up almost within walking distance of the Del Mar Racetrack.
“Given that I straddle the Virgin and KAABOO worlds, they have very similar sensibilities. The level of hospitality and customer service differentiates us from other festivals. And the thing we’ve been able to do, after four years, is understand what the DNA of the KAABOO brand is, what our consumer preferences are — and aren’t — and deliver a product well-targeted to KAABOO fans.
“Witness the fact that right now the No. 1 offshore-feeder market for KAABOO Cayman is Southern California, even though there are no direct flights to the Caymans.”
That kind of initiative is hailed by Ray Waddell, who covered festivals for Billboard magazine for 30 years but has yet to attend KAABOO.
“What KAABOO is doing is unique,” Waddell said. He now heads the Media & Conferences division of Oak View Group, which publishes the concert-industry magazines Pollstar and Venues Now.
“The festival business is very risky; you make one mistake and you can lose your house,” Waddell noted. “Somebody knows what the hell they’re doing at KAABOO. That an independent producer could come in, book these major acts and last more than one year — my hat’s off to them. And KAABOO offers an experience for every fan, not just the high-end ones.”
Gordon, who expects this year’s edition to sell out in advance, concurred.
“The misconception some people have — because we’re providing this elevated experience at KAABOO — is that we’re sort of unobtainably expensive. If you look at the facts, that’s not remotely true,” he said. “We’re just delivering a lot more value at competitive prices.”
According to Gordon, KAABOO Del Mar has attracted attendees from all 50 states and at least as many countries. A third of the audience hails from California. Intriguingly, the festival has relied largely on word-of-mouth and has spent no money on marketing outside of Southern California.
Bucking the festival odds
Given that it has yet to become a household name like Coachella (which launched in 1999) or Bonnaroo (which launched in 2002), one could easily dismiss KAABOO’s expansion plans as marketing hyperbole.
This holds especially true given the number of financially challenged festivals, established and new, that have been canceled this year alone. They include FYF Fest in Los Angeles, Meadows Music and Arts Festival in Queens, N.Y., Lost Lake in Phoenix, XO in Antioch, Montebello in Quebec, and LouFest in St. Louis, which was abruptly canceled on Sept. 6, just three days before it was scheduled to begin.
But Gordon has the passion and the very deep pockets to grow KAABOO faster than any other American festival to emerge so far in this century. And he is doing so even though KAABOO Del Mar appears to only now be approaching profitability.
“Well, look, it’s not easy starting a festival,” said AEG Presents Chairman, CEO and COO Jay Marciano. His company produces 40 festivals worldwide, including British Summer Time in London, Firefly in Delaware and the two-year-old Arroyo Seco Weekend in Pasadena. AEG’s Goldenvoice division produces both the Coachella and Stagecoach festivals in Indio.
“Most of our festivals lose money for several years, or we turn the corner and finally become profitable, so you better be prepared to lose money,” Marciano continued. “People look at Coachella, and think: ‘Oh, yeah, it made money (from the start). It didn’t.”
Indeed, the general rule of thumb for new festivals, concert series and venues is that it generally takes at least three years just to break even. Coachella took four years to become profitable, before gradually evolving into the highest-grossing annual music festival in the world.
The 2017 edition of Coachella grossed a record $114.6 million over the two, three-day weekends it was held. The Goldenvoice-produced Desert Trip festival, which debuted in 2016 at the same Indio location as Coachella and has not been staged again, grossed a staggering $160 million over two weekends. But for most young festivals, the risks can typically outweigh any potential payoffs.
“It certainly is a business where you need to be patient, and we knew that going in,” said Gordon, who in 2013 made a preliminary offer to acquire Napa Valley’s BottleRock festival jointly with AEG in 2013. He ultimately passed on that opportunity and began to formulate plans for what became KAABOO.
“It’s not reasonable to expect you’ll make money in the first couple of years of undertaking something like this,” Gordon continued. “Fortunately, we had the gas in the tank and the expectation that to do this is no different than building a hotel. You have a construction period and a stabilization period, like any new business. ...
“Our partnership with Jerry Jones in Dallas is very much a template that will guide most of our growth going forward. We have a similar third partnership in Cayman and are having discussions with three to four other venues. In all those cases, there are significant partners with properties and market presence we’re talking to.”
Attendance at the debut edition of KAABOO Cayman will be capped at between 10,000 and 15,000. Advance sales there are ahead of projections, according to Gordon and Felts. Attendance at KAABOO Del Mar is capped at 40,000 daily.
“This will be our fourth year in a row of increased attendance,” said Gordon, who declined to give any attendance figures for the festival’s first three editions.
“We have more than doubled in size, attendance-wise, from year-one to year-four. We are now smaller than Lollapalooza and Coachella, but far bigger than (attendance) at a Los Angeles Lakers’ game (at the Staples Center). And 15 to 20 percent of our attendees buy VIP packages.”
VIP perks at previous editions of KAABOO have ranged from a wine-tasting with Pink, one of last year’s headliners, to in-the-ocean lessons with legendary surfer Rob Machado, a San Diego resident. Among the guests at 2015’s debut edition of the festival was former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who owns a home in nearby La Jolla.
VIP ticket packages for next weekend’s KAABOO Del Mar range from $399 a day for a Hang Five pass to $15,000 for a three-day Ultimate Hang pass. KAABOO Texas prices have not yet been announced. Two-day KAABOO Cayman VIP packages range from $1,143.75 for a Silver Thatch pass to $17,500 for an Ultimate Hang pass.
Then there’s the single $500,000 Dream Pass for four to six people. It includes round-trip transportation, use of a yacht, a villa with a chef and butler, a private viewing area for KAABOO Cayman’s two stages, priority meet-and-greets with the festival’s performers and unlimited food and drink.
“We have the Dream Pass on hold, right now, for a prospective party,” Virgin Produced’s Felts said.
By comparison, prices for a one-weekend Platinum Estates pass for the first weekend of this year’s Coachella festival ranged from $47,500 to $110,000 for up to five nights of lodging at a luxury estate with up to six bedrooms, a private pool and VIP festival passes and amenities. At this year’s Bonnaroo festival, Roll Like a Rock Star packages cost $50,000 and featured VIP tickets and amenities, along with lodging on a luxury tour bus for up to eight people.
“Bonnaroo and Coachella started off as all-general admission events, whereas KAABOO and BottleRock had VIP packages from the beginning,” said Dan Berkowitz, whose Philadelphia-based company, CID Entertainment, provides high-end VIP experiences at Coachella and Bonnaroo. It also produces boutique festivals on the Mexican Riviera for such artists as Phish and Luke Bryan.
“We worked with KAABOO in their inaugural year in Del Mar,” Berkowitz continued. “They are very well known for wanting to do everything in-house, so that’s what they are doing. It’s very hard to do a festival at new site, like KAABOO (in Dallas and Grand Cayman). But I’m rooting for them — and they are very smart guys.”
KAABOO Del Mar
When: 1:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday, Sept. 15; noon to 12:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 16; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17
Where: Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar
Tickets: $149 daily general admission to $319 for three-day pass; VIP packages range from $339 per day to $15,000 for a three-day Ultimate Hang pass. Katy Perry passes, for next Sunday evening only, cost $89 each and a portion of the proceeds from the Perry passes will benefit the nonprofit MusiCares.
Phone: (855) 798-5995
8:56 p.m., Sept. 9: The daily hours in the information box at the conclusion of the original version of this article were for last year’s KAABOO Del Mar Festival. Those times have been updated below to reflect this year’s schedule.