Here’s a quick orientation to BBQ Fest for those who are new.
Wednesday night is Friends & Family Night, when only team members and a few invited guests are allowed in the park. You have to have a special red ticket to get in – these are allocated to the teams and are not sold at the gate. A certain number of tickets are allocated per team (not sure exactly how many). Smaller teams get enough to be able to invite family members and close friends. Larger teams, like the one I’m on, find that the tickets are so scarce that team members are lucky to get one ticket, much less extras to give to guests, so it’s more “team night” than “friends & family.”
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the fest is open to the public. It’s free to get in at lunchtime Thursday and Friday. Otherwise, unless you’re on a team and wearing your official Memphis in May wristband, it’s $8 per day to get in.
Although the festival itself is open to the public, almost all of the BBQ booths are private parties. This is not the choice of the teams; rather, it’s due to health rules that prohibit teams from serving food to the public. So, only team members and their invited guests are allowed in the booths. This means, if you go to BBQ Fest and don’t know anyone on a team, it can kind of suck. There are public vendors that will sell you BBQ, but it’s generally inferior to the stuff served by the teams.
Many teams post security at their booth entrance to make sure that only invited guests get in. The first year we did it, I thought this was unnecessary and complained that some of my teammates were acting like the Door Gestapo. However, once I worked a shift at the door myself, I completely understood their point. Lots of people no one on the team knew approached me with all kinds of lies and sob stories, trying to get in to freeload food and beer.
Many teams hand out their own wristbands to signify that you are an invited guest in their booth. These only grant you access to that booth; you still have to pay the $8 to get in the festival. Important note: If you plan on coming to BBQ Fest multiple days, do not cut or pull off guest wristbands at the end of the night. Keep them on for the duration of the festival. Guest wristbands are scarce, and if you take yours off, you may not be able to get another one.
It can be hard to get access to many team booths on Thursday night, even with a guest wristband. For many teams that’s “sponsor night,” where the business sponsoring the team takes over the tent, and invites their employees or clients in. Team members generally wait on the sponsors and their guests, and everyone else is kicked out for all or part of the evening.
My team is an exception to the Thursday rule. We decided early on that we only want sponsors who will party with us, rather than order us around. We found two excellent Downtown sponsors, Circa and the Silly Goose, who felt the same way we did, so we’re going to have a big ol’ party Thursday. Last year Thursday was the most fun night party-wise for us.
Friday is party night for everyone and tends to be the most crowded night. Door security at the booths is usually at maximum strength on Friday, as it also tends to be the night when freeloaders show up in droves.
Saturday is not as much of a party day. In the morning and early afternoon the judges come around, and since presentation is part of the score, teams have to be on their best behavior. Also, nearly everyone is gone from the booths between about 5 and 6:30 on Saturday, because that is when the awards are announced.
Many teams are already tearing down their booths by Saturday evening. By that point, people are tired and worn down from 4 days of partying and 4 days of building before that. My team keeps going right up until the end, though. Last year we had additional reason to party Saturday night, because we returned from the awards ceremony with the Third Place Shoulder trophy. Hopefully this year we’ll bring home an even bigger trophy, and I hear our chances are good in the Best Booth and Piggie Idol competitions as well.
If you plan to go, my recommendation is to go Thursday if you can get access to booths that aren’t doing sponsor night; otherwise, go Friday.
So, if you aren’t an invited guest to any of the team booths, what’s the best way to get invited? Here are some tips:
1) Go during the day Thursday or Friday. Security is a lot more lax and people are a lot more laid-back during the day. You’re more likely to find teams whose members are generous with guest passes and wristbands during those times.
2) If you’re new to Memphis, tell that to people on teams. We were all on the outside looking in at some point in the past, and experienced how not-fun BBQ Fest can be when you don’t know anyone on a team. Maybe you’ll be able to find a team whose members sympathize with you and let you in.
3) If you’re female, hot, and you’re not trying to get some douchebag guy in with you, your chances are generally pretty good at most booths. (Note: Wearing a tube top doesn’t hurt either)
4) Don’t lie. Last year we had people come up to the booth saying “I’m a friend of so-and-so” when they obviously weren’t. This rarely works.
5) Be courteous. Don’t walk up to the door and act like it’s your God-given right to be in the booth if you’re not a team member. We had one douchebag try to push his way in last year because he was a friend of one of the bartenders who worked for the sponsor. Pushiness and douchebaggery do not go over well.
6) It’s generally not a good idea to try and get 20 of your friends in with you, especially if they don’t know anyone on the team. Split up into smaller groups and walk around.
7) If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, might not be a bad idea to post a message that you’re looking for booth invitations.
8 Hang out with people who have guest invitations to several booths, and they can say, “hey, we’re already invited, can we get one more friend in too?” This doesn’t always work but it’s worth a try.
Heading down to the park at 5:30 and am off work for the next two days… should be a fun weekend.