“You guys must be so busy during Coachella!”
That drove me crazy my first couple of years here in the desert—almost as crazy as when people ask for “something with vodka, but not too sweet.” Bacchus, save the doe-eyed innocents who say things like that in my presence.
I am not trying to be a jerk. I swear. I just need to smack that little floater of small talk into the ground like I’m Dikembe Mutombo. And instead of just taking my answer—“No, business is actually slow; it’s pretty far from here and fills all the local hotels so nobody can just visit Palm Springs”—as a good explanation, they make me draw a little map of the Coachella Valley, point out our hours of operation, explain the basic rules of supply and demand, and so on.
The end result: For most valley bars and restaurants open in the evening, Coachella sucks.
I realize I am writing this with a particular experience—that of a bartender in Palm Springs. I understand that a pool server at a hotel or at a breakfast spot, or a bartender closer to the event grounds, may have a very different experience. Nevertheless, I believe that the move of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival to October should be a permanent thing. It would be better for the whole Coachella Valley—and festival-goers, too.
Related question: What, exactly, is “season” here in the desert? People ask me that all the time, and the quick answer for me is February to April. We also have busy spurts at Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving, plus the pool parties in the summer if you work at certain hotels, and Palm Springs Pride if you work in downtown Palm Springs.
That’s about it. Otherwise, it’s very sleepy most days.
April, regardless of Coachella, would be high season (at least in years when we’re not dealing with pandemics). It’s the time of year when the weather is still pretty darn nice here, except for the wind. The hotels and vacation rentals would be full regardless of the festival, as April is a pretty blah and rainy month for most of the U.S. and Canada—and without the festival, those visitors wouldn’t be here for a cloistered event and would actually be out supporting local businesses. Much of the town at night wouldn’t be empty for two prime weekends a season. Think about that: The bars and restaurants, at least in Palm Springs, are slow for half the weekends during one of the potentially busiest months of the year due to Coachella. We lose most of a third weekend if you count Stagecoach, although the effects aren’t as dramatic.
About that wind … it can get pretty severe in April. I have a mental .gif from a few years ago when I watched two acquaintances of mine, in their cherry British convertible, get smacked in the face with an errant palm frond while driving down Arenas Road. It gets so bad that even Palm Springs VillageFest closes some weeks, and the smell from the Salton Sea can be intense. In other words … this is a great time to be at a hotel, with breeze blocks and such, but not such a great time to be standing in an open and unprotected polo field. Just look at last year, when festival-goers were dehydrated in the heat and covered in dust from head to toe. Remember, that dust is full of salt and agricultural runoff—the same terrible air quality that has been covered in this very paper for its deleterious effects on the human body. I am not so jaded against festival-goers that I want them subjected to that.
Now … let’s think of October. This is the underused start of shoulder season, and while I enjoy the generally perfect weather and quiet streets, there is a lot of room for economic growth. Guests often comment on the fact we have Greater Palm Springs Pride here in the fall—at the start of November—rather than during the summer months, when it’s scorching. Attendees love having a reason to come here and get another round of parties, parades and good vibes. Halloween here—while not as wild as the celebrations I attended during my youthful days in the witch capital of Salem, Mass.—is also a real spectacle. The costumes are top-notch, and the bars are busy downtown, but not intimidatingly so. October and early November are a second potential busy season left on the vine, in my opinion.
I did some informal polling in the time between the Coachella-postponement announcement and the stay-at-home order. While most service-industry people didn’t want to go on the record—or I didn’t feel right asking for an official quote as things got more dire—the consensus, at least in Palm Springs, is that October should be the permanent home of Coachella.
An owner of a large rental company sparked this take when he told me he wished the festival would stay in October. I figured people renting out properties were just raking it in during the two weeks in April and wouldn’t want to rock the boat—but I was wrong. He, like me, sees a wasted opportunity in October. He hates that his company has to waste two or three weeks that they could easily rent for good prices worrying about festival-goers. In non-Coachella Octobers, properties are more or less rented for off-season prices. A switch would be a win-win for them.
I am sure most readers of this paper don’t care too much for the profits of landlords—but I do find it telling that the wealthy rental owners and restaurant moguls are on the same page as the local cocktail bartenders, restaurant managers and servers.
It’s becoming a poorly kept secret that you can walk into any of our best restaurants during festival weekends and get a table any time you want. You can have a normally full popular bar mostly to yourself on a Saturday in April. This is a lot of wasted opportunity. We shouldn’t be making less on a weekend in April than we make on a weekend in September.
I have been trying to find a good reason that Coachella shouldn’t permanently be in October, and the only one I can think of is marketing: Coachella in April makes it the Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary of music festivals. By being the first of the major music festivals during the calendar year in the Northern Hemisphere, it gets to be the flagship, the trend-setter, the taste-maker. When you are in the industry of cool, it’s important to be first. But still … hopefully this rescheduling will show Goldenvoice that Coachella can still be the top music festival without it being early in the calendar year. After all, if you are the 600-pound gorilla, you can sit wherever you want. On behalf of most industry folks in my part of the desert: Coachella, please go sit in October for good.
Kevin Carlow can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.