Q’s With Tailgate Fest Co-Founder Melissa Carbone: On Bringing Tailgating Center Stage

Melissa Carbone
– Melissa Carbone

After bursting onto the festival scene last year with its party-friendly concept of bringing the stage out to the parking lot, Tailgate Fest returns in 2019 bigger and better by expanding to two days and a new location at Leal Ranch in Eastvale, Calif., complete with camping. The Aug. 17-18 event, located one hour east of Los Angeles, features performances by Brantley Gilbert, Brett Eldredge, Lee Brice, Clint Black, Lindsay Ell, Tyler Farr, Big Boi and more. 

Though she declined to disclose attendance numbers, co-founder Melissa Carbone tells Pollstar the new location offers the chance to welcome triple the number of fans and the 2019 festival was up 500% in ticket sales. She says plans are in the works for multiple Tailgate Fest locations, with at least one more in 2020. 

Carbone, who previously worked as the GM of sales at Clear Channel Media + Entertainment for more than a decade, and Tailgate co-founder Alyson Richards are also the creators of the Haunted Hayrides experiences, as seen on “Shark Tank.”
Pollstar: Tell us about Tailgate culture. 
Melissa Carbone: Tailgating culture is this insanely passionate culture where people set up these little worlds of perfection around their vehicles. Somebody called it the Burning Man for the 98%. … You have your car and you set up your pop-up tent, you have coolers, you have barbeques, you have cornhole or beer pong. People can get as elaborate as building living rooms, putting up TVs; the sky’s the limit with tailgating. That’s just one vehicle – with Tailgate Fest, imagine that times 5,000 other cars.  
What inspired you to launch the festival? 
I was introduced to tailgating through friends of mine who were country music fans and my very first tailgate ever was like Disney for me. The unanimous sentiment among all the tailgaters was nobody wanted to quit tailgating when the concert started. … One day I was talking to one of my friends and I was like, “It would be so great if we could just keep tailgating – “Oh my god! Let’s bring the stages outside!”
How are the festival grounds set up?
There’s two populations of people that we want to serve, one is country music fans and the other is the tailgating population. … It was creating that perfect balance of the music and tailgating – creating a vantage point of the stage from the tailgate, where they could actually still see the stage, hear the music. We also have a big giant standing area and pit, just like a traditional festival, so if somebody wants to go in front of the stage and rock out to the music there, they can do that as well.
The third piece of it [was] to make it feel like a very American small town vibe … that brought us to building our side stage platform so you can literally plant your ass in the pool, get a drink from the pool bar and watch your favorite artist from the pool.
What was the process of putting together the lineup? 
This is not a normal festival so we’re not just looking for the best-selling country artists of the year and putting them on the bill. Having artists that match this vibe we’re trying to create is super important … Tailgating culture [has] that super fun, party vibe, it’s very country. There’s also this romantic vibe. 
Going into two days we wanted to capture both sides of tailgating – night one with Brantley Gilbert, Lee Brice, Tyler Farr and Lindsay Ell, so she can play her song with Brantley, we even have Big Boi from Outkast. On night two, Brett Eldredge was actually our first choice for headlining because he has that romantic, crooney thing going on, and bringing Clint Black as our legend act of the weekend. And then we have LOCASH, Rae Lynn, Hardy, and Craig Campbell, that side gets a little bit more into your feelings.  
Besides the location, what’s new for year two? 
We’re adding a new feature called Boots & Bikinis, our hotel quality pool party for all VIP ticket holders, this is different from the side stage swimming pool. We’ll have chaise lounges, pool-side waitstaff, a DJ spinning, and Tailgate Unplugged, which is our acoustic fireside singalong with s’mores roasting. At night we’ll have string lights and tiki torches. We’re going to have pool volleyball, all kinds of pool games, as well as specialty cocktails. One of the other new things we have this year is we’re adding our Sunday Morning Bloody Mary Brunch. The best way to recover is some hair of the dog. On our ranch is this beautiful tree lined corridor and its going to have picnic tables and all kinds of things to do like bull riding and two-step dancing and dunk tanks. 
Obviously with tailgating, people are bringing in food and drinks. Was that a concern with cutting into F&B sales at the festival?
From a food and beverage sales standpoint, if we were to look at this festival and apply the same traditional concession footprint or model that every other festival uses, without acknowledging there’s a difference in the consumer behavior, then yeah, we’d probably fail miserably.  
So because of that our concessions are probably more engaging than most festivals. For instance, we’re going to have a giant clam bake, and a giant grill that’s just going to be this massive cattle line of ribs and wings and dogs and veggie burgers. It’s going to smell delicious and look very cool.