Oktoberfest, the second-most-important tourist magnet for the Bavarian-themed mountain town of Leavenworth, this year drew less of the loud, lager-lubricated partying for which it was once known. Local business people are still assessing the outcome.
For Jesse Willis, it was clear that something was different this year when he drove into downtown Leavenworth last Friday night, the final weekend of Oktoberfest, and found on-street parking.
“There were literally 18 spots, and that never happens,” says Willis, the ales manager at Icicle Brewing.
By Saturday, he says, the town was “wall to wall” with revelers, many dressed in faux-Bavarian garb for the famous German-inspired festival. But to Willis, a local who has seen every edition of the festival since it began in 1998, the lack of crowds on Friday “was almost eerie.”
Willis isn’t alone. Although organizers of the three-weekend, internationally popular festival say attendance was likely up over last year (they won’t know for sure until online ticket sales are tallied), some residents and business owners say that despite some of the best weather in Oktoberfest history, crowds were thinner this year, especially on the three Fridays.
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“On Friday of the second weekend, we sent home two [staff] people early, which is saying something,” said Devi Knotts, a manager at nearby Blewett Brewing, adding that she heard much the same from other businesses: slow Fridays, slammed Saturdays, and less of the loud, lager-lubricated partying for which the festival is known.
This is not small beer. Oktoberfest is this Bavarian-themed mountain village’s second-biggest economic event, behind only the three-week Christmas lighting festival in December.
It typically brings in some 35,000 visitors and an estimated $20 million in commerce to the upper Wenatchee Valley, according to Steve Lord, festival chairman. It generates 275 temporary jobs, scads of tax revenues, and sundry good works: Most of the roughly $300,000 in profits goes into community projects. And for years, Oktoberfest made Leavenworth one of the top party spots in the state — especially among younger revelers from the Puget Sound area.
But this year, “something changed,” says Stacey Barnhill, a Leavenworth family therapist who volunteered with the festival. “I just don’t know what it was.”
Theories abound. Some locals wonder whether the festival is suffering fest-fatigue. Willis said out-of-town friends who were coming year after year for the festival “are over it.”
Others blame the calendar: This year’s edition started a week later than it often does, says Lord, so would-be attendees “were not sure if it was going on that [last] weekend.” Lord also speculates that some attendees may have chosen to stay in their hotel rooms or rentals on Friday night and then come into town on Saturday.
But here’s another theory: Oktoberfest has lost some of its earlier, rowdier appeal, and not by accident. Four years ago, under mounting complaints from locals about traffic jams, public drunkenness, fights and, especially, public urination, festival organizers went to great pains to smooth the event’s rougher edges. Security was beefed up: This year, the festival’s largest single expense was $180,000 for off-duty police officers and private security, Lord said. Peeing in public now can draw a $250 fine.
Organizers also have worked to make the entire event more family-friendly. They’ve booked quality entertainment, often from Germany, and encouraged attendees to wear more authentic Oktoberfest attire, such as traditional dirndl instead of the racier St. Pauli Girl miniskirt variant. They’ve also de-emphasized alcohol consumption and promoted more food sales: Although this year’s attendees drained around 1,000 kegs, Lord says, that was down about 50 from last year.
Perhaps most important, organizers no longer market Oktoberfest as a kind of Bavarian spring break for college-age revelers. That party-focused strategy, which for years had been mainly informal, went pro in 2011, when the Leavenworth Area Promotions board commissioned a decidedly unconventional promotional video, featuring dancing maidens and a partying nutcracker named Woody Goomsba (“He never go to sleep; he never put down his stein”).
Dubbed “The Most Sexed-Up, Image-Shattering Tourism-Promotion Video You Will See All Year!” by Seattle Met magazine, the music video went viral — and Oktoberfest followed suit. Not long after, local complaints about traffic and drunkenness reached a point where some locals wanted the festival canceled.
“It was bringing that rougher crowd,” says festival chairman Steve Lord, who emphasizes that festival organizers didn’t endorse the video. “We were kind of ashamed of that.”
The effectiveness of the recent, more family-friendly version of Oktoberfest remains to be seen. Some locals wonder whether Oktoberfest without some wildness can survive.
Lord demurs. A more grown-up festival is vastly easier to sustain. There’s less property damage and, Lord says, his groundskeepers now rarely “have to deal with people getting sick.”
And, he says, the lower-key festival is actually more authentic. Genuine Germans who have come to recent editions have told him the festival now “reminds them of the Oktoberfests they went to as a child,” when those events were less devoted to partying.
In the meantime, locals seem not to mind the quieter version. Barnhill, the therapist, said she was pleasantly surprised by the civility of the revelers. While there were a few “horribly drunk” attendees, the crowd was “about 95 percent lightly buzzed people enjoying the music and having fun.”
As a bonus, this year, the festival didn’t come to her house: in years past, she said, she and her family were typically visited at least once by a drunk reveler who “comes to the door and needs help.”
But this year, Barnhill said, “we had none.”