Seafair: A Q&A with CEO of Seattle's summer tradition
Beth Knox, Seafair's CEO, sits down with us and talks about Seattle's enduring festival.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Upcoming Seafair events
Two you can do Sunday
Ballard SeafoodFest: Barbecued salmon and other seafood and food vendors, music, beer and wine gardens, children's activities, arts and crafts vendors, sidewalk sale, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, Market Street and Ballard Avenue, Seattle (206-784-9705 or www.seafoodfest.org).
Seattle Chinatown International District Dragon Fest: Chinese lion and dragon dances, martial-arts demonstrations and Japanese Taiko drumming, noon-6 p.m. Sunday, Hing Hay Park, 409 Maynard Ave. S., Seattle (www.seattledragonfest.com).
Two for your calendar
Alaska Airlines Seafair Torchlight Parade: This year's parade includes giant helium balloons, precision drill teams, equestrian units, comical clowns, swashbuckling pirates and heart-pounding bands; 7:30 p.m. July 28, downtown Seattle/4th Avenue.
Seafair Weekend: Albert Lee Cup, Boeing Air Show, Graham Trucking Cup & Hyperlite Wakeboard Experience. Friday, Aug. 3, to Sunday, Aug. 5; Genesee Park/LakeWashington.
For a complete list of all the Seafair events: www.seafair.com
Nothing says summer in Seattle like Seafair. That's what some people insist, anyway. You'll find these folks — let's call them old-school Seattleites — reminiscing about the halcyon days, when kids zoomed around with model boats tied to their bikes, the days when the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby joined the celebration.
And the rest of us think, huh?
In the 62 years since Seafair started, Seattle grew from a small town to a high-tech metropolis. Is it possible New Seattle still could be interested in this midcentury creation?
Seafair says the numbers are strong: Some 2 million people a year experience some part of the festival, including those who just watch it on TV. Verifying that figure is impossible, of course — there are about a gazillion different events over weeks, and many free-of-charge. Seattle police say the single biggest factor in attendance has more to do with the weather.
Financially, Seafair is on an upswing after suffering an $884,000 loss in 2009. That's when festival sponsor General Motors declared bankruptcy as the economy sank. Seafair cut staff by half and expenses by more than $1 million, according to Beth Knox, the organization's CEO. She worked for Seafair in the late '80s, selling sponsorships, then left and came back to run the multiweek show in 2005.
We sat down with Knox at the Seafair offices in the Denny Building as she presided over the "controlled chaos" that builds in the days leading up to the festival's biggest events: the hydro races and the Torchlight Parade. We asked her how the festival has endured, all these years.
"One of the endearing things about Seafair," she said, "is its tradition and the history and the role that it plays in Seattle's identity."
Q: You mention the "role Seafair plays in Seattle's identity." What do you mean?
A: It's no different than what the Mardi Gras is to New Orleans or the Kentucky Derby Festival is to Louisville. It provides a part of our identity, it adds personality to our city. It gives something for people to count as their legacy. It's Seattle's legacy.
Q: In Kentucky, they breed horses. What's so Seattle about Seafair?
A: It's not just the hydros. It's having the hydros with the Blue Angels. The Seafair pirates, the Seafair clowns, these are all unique components that have their own traditions. The Torchlight Parade showcases all that's iconic in Seattle.
Q: It's iconic because we've always done it this way?
A: It's no different than riding on a float and throwing beads is iconic in New Orleans. There are those elements you can count on. I think that's a big piece of why Seafair resonates here. They can count on those elements always being there.
Q: Ryan Blethen, Director, New Product Strategies and Associate Publisher of The Seattle Times, wrote a column in 2010 saying "Seafair is Seattle, old and new." I get the old part. The new?
A: This year we have a new class of boats racing with the unlimited hydroplanes. So we're mixing things up.
Q: In the sport's heyday, the hydro races attracted up to a half-million spectators. Paid attendance this year is expected to be a fraction of that. I think it's safe to say the sport's allure has shrunk.
A: I don't know that I agree with that. I have people say to me all the time, "I went to Seafair this year. I was standing on Queen Anne watching the Blue Angels." Or, "I was in a boat on Lake Washington." None of those are paying customers, but they are a Seafair attendee. So it is still accurate to say it's in the 300,000-400,000 range when you count everybody.
Q: There are only a handful of hydro races in the world. Two years ago, the Seafair race almost didn't happen because you couldn't come up with the $170,000 pot that drivers share. (Local sponsors stepped up.) Hasn't the sport's heyday passed?
A: The truth of the matter is there are far more choices in the entire country and world. Back in the '50s and '60s, we didn't have the Mariners, we didn't have the Seahawks. If you compare the '60s to now, of course it (race attendance) is less. But in the last 10 years, attendance has actually increased.
Q: Some of the challenges of Seafair remind me of the challenges of the newspaper business. All these people are getting your product for free.
A: On one hand, that is kind of a core value of Seafair. We want every person to be able to enjoy Seafair. (But) it still costs us to put that event on. (About $3 million this year.)
Q: What are your demographics? Aren't Seafair-goers aging?
A: The older demographic has remained steady. But we do absolutely stay focused on the youngest generation, which we feel is in elementary school. We've started a new curriculum that we're taking into schools, about the aviation-technology industry and how that influenced hydroplane racing. It gets them thinking, "I want to come to Seafair."
Q: Seafair had a marathon but it struggled, and now the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon runs the event and it's wildly successful. The hydro races almost didn't happen in 2010. This year the Pow Wow was canceled. Is Seafair in trouble?
A: That's over different years, so you can't put them altogether. The Seafair marathon was never struggling, it was only three to four years old. The opportunity to partner with the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon had to do with ... bringing an economic impact to the city of Seattle.
Q: Seafair Royalty seems kind of hokey.
Q: Is that the point?
A: It absolutely is the point. It was part of the legend that was written about Seafair in 1950, and it's a way of sustaining that legacy: King Neptune decided to throw a festival in his favorite maritime city.
It really just adds some pageantry to the festival. There is sparkle.
Q: Anything new this year you're excited about?
A: The F1 PROP Tour boats. The public had been asking for the (hydro) boats to race closer to the shore. We can't have the unlimiteds racing closer, but the F1 boats are smaller and they also can turn on a dime. And they can turn left and right, unlike unlimited hydroplanes; they can only turn left.
Q: There have been violent incidents at the Torchlight parade.
A: Your odds go up, unfortunately, anytime you have a large crowd. We work with 17 different agencies for Seafair weekend, (including) police, fire, FAA, Coast Guard. They're all there involved in the planning. We have ham radio operators up and down the parade route to help to communicate if a float breaks down or something of that nature.
Q: Ham radios? Isn't that from, like, the 1920s?
A: This group still loves to volunteer. It's a resource that still works. It's a little nostalgic, but we obviously have other communications methods on-site. It is kind of funny.
Q: What has been the biggest Seafair scare?
A: There's been no disaster, thankfully. Knock on wood.
I say a lot of prayers during the air show. But I get the same thrill out of watching the Blue Angels every time I see them.
Q: What's your favorite Seafair memory?
A: In our office we tell all the staff that you have to find your festival moment.
I've had the crazy moments when it's pouring rain on hydro weekend and we're having to use long sticks to get the water off the tarps over the scaffolding. And at some point you just have to say: This is Seattle.
There've been moments on Torchlight night when a particular float or a drill team comes through, and it really makes the crowd respond. I love hearing the responses from the crowd.
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org