Whiskey, kayaking, and the music of David Bowie are all things that I enjoy. But it would be fair to say that I’m not an aficionado when it comes to any of them. I add mixers to the whiskey, don’t even own a Bowie album, and kayak just once or twice a year. So how does someone like me end up hosting Rebel Rebel Float Trip: the 1790s Whiskey Rebellion with a David Bowie Twist (held August 6, 2017 on the Monongahela River)?
I was contracted by the Mon River Towns Program to create a “Mon River Experience.” The request was to offer a themed kayaking trip, possibly centered on the historic Whiskey Rebellion, in order to draw people to the Monongahela River. Cathy McCollom, who manages the program, imagined a play that would unfold along the riverbanks.
The word “rebellion” kept rolling over my tongue as I considered a name for the paddle trip. And then I went from “rebellion” to “rebel” and, finally, Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” And that’s when I wondered whether or not we could connect the two.I spent the next couple of weeks trying to imagine how we could use the iconic rocker to help draw people to hear about a 18th Century rebellion that helped to shape a young nation. The planning started soon thereafter.
I’m happy to report that the event was a success. We reached our 25-boat capacity nine days before the scheduled event. Not only this, but we refilled all of the boats after we had to change the date due to flooding. Good social media buzz and a feature in an area newspaper helped to sell the event (we reached capacity the day after the story ran).
So what stands out to me about Rebel Rebel Float Trip? My reflections are below. But, first, here’s a video that Pennsylvania Environmental Council produced on the event:
- We got new paddlers to the river. Our goal mirrored the goal of the Mon River Towns Program, to highlight the river as a regional asset and to draw people to use it. Of those who completed our post-event survey, 25 percent were first-time kayakers, and nearly 9 out of 10 hadn’t paddled the Monongahela before. We provided a safe and fun group experience that provided those new kayakers an entry point to the activity and river.
- Strong artwork was key. A gifted illustrator who appreciated the event concept created our stunning poster. It helped to convey what the event was and, ultimately, helped to sell it. An appreciation for the event’s concept became critical for all of our relationships. I personally wouldn’t settle on a caterer or any other partner that wasn’t totally jazzed about Rebel Rebel. If it’s just a sale to them, they’re not going to bring all of the energy that is needed to a first-time event.And it wasn’t just an “event.” We were committed to offering an “experience” (more on this later), making partner and vendor enthusiasm a critical component.
- One thing I learned about an event as wacky as this one is that some people will “get” it, and a lot of people won’t. I questioned myself the first many times that someone asked me to explain the connection between David Bowie and the Whiskey Rebellion, and then I learned to stop second-guessing myself. With Bowie as a hook and with a spirit of rebellion threading the experience, the concept was solid (and all I needed to do was fill 25 boats!).
- I mentioned above that we were providing an experience. In 2016, I attended an Edge of the Wedge Experiential Travel Course. Much of what I knew about communities and hospitality was validated in that course. In taking the course, however, I was given a language for experiential travel and a toolbox for how to offer experiences. So much of that course aided me in creating Rebel Rebel. A few points in particular:
- Pay your talent. Having a budget to pay the interpreters was important to me, and sadly, this isn’t always the case for events. Without our interpreters, we wouldn’t have had an event. While we interpreted the Whiskey Rebellion in a nontraditional manner, we were committed to honoring the history. Our interpreters are the ones that made this possible, and I’m glad that we could compensate them.
- The story must be locally authentic. Obviously there’s nothing local about David Bowie, but some of the most important events of the Whiskey Rebellion took place in southwestern Pennsylvania and along the banks of the Monongahela River. That is what was locally authentic about it. Layer in a local distiller serving up cocktails (after the kayaking, of course) and a caterer that uses craft whiskey in her baking, and suddenly it’s a themed and locally authentic experience.
- Include an “element of surprise.” Having learned this in Canada, I kept looking for ways to surprise our event goers. I think we accomplished that. But the effectiveness of surprise really occurred to me when our interpreters surprised me alongside all of the rest of our paddlers. We had paddled upstream for a bit and then turned around to head to our end point. I knew that our guitarist would be positioned along the shore playing a tune. I can’t possibly describe the delight I experienced when we paddled up to find him flanked by two of our other interpreters, tambourine and washboard in hand. We suddenly had a trio performing! We all sat in our boats, watching and listening in delight.
- Create value. We probably undercharged for this event, but wanted to ensure a sell-out crowd. It’s not lost on me, though, that attendees gave up both their day and a good chunk of money to join us. As taught by my Edge of the Wedge course instructors, I kept asking myself what value we were offering back to the participants. What made it worth their time and money, and what did they get that they couldn’t get on their own? We all should be asking those questions in the realm of event planning and inviting people to experience our communities.
- Holy smokes – does the mood of the crowd impact the success of the event! This being a first-time event, in which we had an interpretive team playing 18th Century figures and weaving in the “David Bowie Twist,” participants’ reception to the initial welcome, music, and monologue really set the tone. They had fun with it, which fueled our interpreters. Had the crowd not played along, who knows how the event would have gone. And maybe the atmosphere we set during registration (Bowie-themed temporary tattoos, fresh peaches from a local farm, a DJ spinning David Bowie covers) is what allowed them to be receptive in the first place.
- A safety-first attitude guided planning. Partnering with Venture Outdoors, we determined a boat ratio (one guide for every six boats) and stuck to it. While it became tempting to sell more tickets to satisfy the demand, our commitment to safety kept us at the 6:1 ratio. This commitment came into play again as a rain event resulted in flood stage water levels leading up to the event. We knew even before the river crested that the event would need to be rescheduled. When you have a top priority (safety), decision-making is simplified. We spent the original event weekend and the next several days working on Plan B. While we did have a rain date scheduled, one key learning for me was to be explicit with every partner, vendor, and registrant around rain dates. Be clear on the implications in using the rain date and ensure that those are included in contracts and in registration information.
- Always scout the trip. This is something I learned years ago from my friends at Venture Outdoors. Scouting this trip turned out to be critical. With the previous week’s flooding, I felt inclined to drive out to the area twice to see how the river and boat launches were looking, as well as to check on things such as whether or not the borough had mowed the lawn (where we’d have our post-kayaking meal). Between my site visits, I placed a call to one of the municipalities’ street managers, and I’m glad to have made that call. I learned that our intended launch was covered with 8-10 inches of river mud. Had I not had that information or have scouted the local launches, that river mud would have wreaked havoc on our event.
So that’s the gist of Rebel Rebel Float Trip! It was a whole lot of work and a total thrill to be able to tell an old story in a new way. Special thanks to the Mon River Towns Program and National Road Heritage Corridor for making the event possible, to Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers for helping to fund the trip, to Green Comma Media for the artwork, to Venture Outdoors for its leadership on the water, to Wigle Whiskey for mixing up those “Major Tom” and “Ginny Stardust” craft cocktails, to Prohibition Pastries for a great meal, to Washington County Historical Society for helping with the interpretation, and to our incredible interpreters for bringing the story to life.
Photos by Shauna Benz Patterson, Kathi Radock, and Cycle Forward.