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Heat, traffic and theft: Float Fest’s return was not all smooth sailing

Jia Chen
for Texas Public Radio

The path to Float Fest is daunting. Off of U.S. Route 183, signs point festival attendees down an unassuming country road that quickly devolves into a dirt path, which coats cars in dust and jolts passengers as they navigate the bumps.

In the early afternoon of Saturday, July 23, lines of cars made their way through vehicle checks and traffic directors into a parking lot, where throngs of people emerged and prepared for a long day of tubing and dancing under the hot sun.

For those without VIP privileges, it’s a bit of a walk into the festival grounds, and there the vision unfolds: expansive campgrounds, rows of food and merchandise vendors, and two giant stages to host the musical acts.

On the banks of the Guadalupe River, mountains of inner tubes await those eager to float before the concerts. According to one worker who was distributing tubes, about 16,000 were inflated ahead of the festival.

Float Fest combines concerts with river tubing, aimed at celebrating the spirit of Texas. Attendees were able to tube the river in the morning and enjoy music from the two stages all night long. Headliners included Chance the Rapper, Vampire Weekend, and Kaytranada. This year’s festival was the first in this location, opening up a new chapter of the festival’s somewhat tumultuous history.

Float Fest was first held in 2014. In its early years, it was located in Martindale, a small town near San Marcos. But difficulties began in 2018, when Float Fest’s permit was denied. This decision was appealed and the festival went on but the same difficulties arose in 2019 and could not be overcome. Locals complained of congestion and excessive noise.

So, Float Fest decided to pack up and head to a ranch south of Gonzales, a town about an hour east of San Antonio. But weather and construction delays prevented the festival from going forward in 2019 and it was canceled. Due to the pandemic, 2022 is the festival’s official return and its first outing in Gonzales.

Ahead of the festival, Float Fest founder Marcus Federman was enthusiastic.

“The people of Gonzales have been great to us and it's just all around, it's a really, really great situation for a show like ours,” he said. “We have a lot of support here. It's been fantastic.”

Federman also showed a clear commitment to sustainability and keeping the river clean. He explained that there was a plan in place to thoroughly clean the river before, during and after the event.

“We've always had the environmental aspect of the festival at the top of our mind when we produce this festival,” Federman said.

Indeed, there were clear measures to protect the environment. For instance, at the bar nearest to the river entrance, beer is only served in reusable containers. Many attendees brought reusable water bottles but for guests without a container, bartenders allowed them to purchase a plastic water bottle, drink the water and then have it filled with beer.

Mesh trash bags were handed out to floaters as well, to prevent any cans from winding up in the water.

Coca-Cola, the event’s title sponsor, led a recycling initiative, with bright red boxes dotting the concert area, discouraging littering.

“The goal is leave no trace,” Federman said.

Coca-Cola was Float Fest's main sponsor, and aided in their environmental initiatives.
Erika Howlett
Coca-Cola was Float Fest's main sponsor, and aided in their environmental initiatives.

“Operationally, we've had a lot of time to correct a lot of things,” Federman said. “So I think that the fans are going to come out and be surprised because it's going to be a pretty seamless experience.”

Federman seemed determined to avoid the festival’s past mistakes, but not everything ran so smoothly. Despite his assurances, several Twitter users complained about heat and disorganization.

One tweet read, “float fest has no direction of traffic out of the festival and i’ve been sitting here for 30+ minutes not moving. absolutely unacceptable.”

Within the concert area, there was little reprieve from the 100 degree temperatures and little access to shade or air conditioning, though there was a water bottle refill station. The festival was forced to adjust the hours for tubing on Sunday due to heat.

One attendee, Wes Stephl, was excited about the festival, but struggled with the weather as well.

“I had trouble just having fun because it's too hot to even think,” he said.

The grounds included a section of vendors selling merchandise like clothing, art, and accessories, which proved to be another source of difficulty for the festival. Early Saturday morning vendors were unable to connect to Wi-Fi and had difficulties completing transactions. Cell service in the area was unreliable.

More seriously, several of the vendors reported that merchandise was stolen from their booths between their set-up on Friday night and their return in the morning. According to several people selling their wares, vendors zip-tied their booths for security and were told their goods would be safe.

The next day, however, they returned to find that zip ties were cut and merchandise had been taken. One vendor, Mama P’s Wholesome Grinding Co., reported that over $60,000 worth of merchandise was stolen.

The vendors created this poster to inform patrons about their situation.
Erika Howlett
The vendors created this poster to inform patrons about their situation.

The festival issued a statement afterwards saying that there was, in fact, overnight security and they were “looking into” how the alleged theft happened.

“We have plans to work with each vendor concerning any losses they have sustained. We appreciate all of the vendors that came out to Float Fest this year, and this unfortunate incident in no way represents the entire experience we sought to deliver to both attendees and vendors at Float Fest 2022,” the statement read.

Vendors were concerned on Saturday that they would be unable to profit from the festival, especially given that they paid significant fees to attend in the first place.

“It puts a damper because we want to try to make at least the booth fee back, but it's kind of hard,” said Selena Martinez, who worked a booth for Dime Bags.

Despite the losses, vendors were doing their best to look out for one another and make as many sales as possible.

Of course, many attendees enjoyed the event, especially as the sun fell and the star-studded lineup began to play. For music lovers, it was certainly an exciting weekend as acts like Chance the Rapper and Marshmello dazzled a large, intense crowd.

Before the festival, Federman discussed his plan for the future.

“We continue to keep growing and keep having a better lineup every year,” he said. “Once we get through this one, you can expect an even better one next year.”

For now, Float Fest has found its home and will no doubt return again next year with all the ups and downs bound to occur in such an ambitious summer spectacle.

Jia Chen contributed to this story.

Erika Howlett is the 2022 Summer Arts Intern at Texas Public Radio. She assists with community engagement and produces articles on local arts and culture for TPR’s website.