- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

GULF SHORES, Ala. (AP) - With the 2016 Hangout Music Fest securely sold out as of late last week, organizers are free to focus on presenting the event - which, as usual, will pack a few refinements and surprises, they say.

Not that they haven’t taken a minute or two just to enjoy the satisfaction of selling that last ticket.

“The show’s been hot from day one,” said Sean O’Connell, executive director of the festival. “There’s a huge appetite for this show this year. We’re real excited.”

Looking closely at national coverage of the Hangout Fest over the last few years, there’s a theme that almost seems like a backhanded compliment: Who cares who’s playing, more than one writer has argued, it’s at the beach.

O’Connell said he doesn’t find it dismissive. For one thing, the setting is the festival’s ace in the hole.

“It is what makes it magical,” he said. “It is the fact that this is, for a lot of people, this is their annual vacation. We obviously have a lot of people from Alabama, but we have tens of thousands of people that come from all over the world. The average person is driving 10, 12 hours to get here, they’re spending five days in Gulf Shores, this has become a big vacation for people. And it’s because of the setting, it’s because of the experience, and the attention to detail that our creative director, Lilly Zislin, has.”

Start with the beach and add the artistic touches crafted by Zislin, the wife of festival founder Shaul Zislin, and you’ve got the makings of “an incredibly positive vibe,” O’Connell said. And that brings an audience that O’Connell describes as “remarkable,” with a “best-behaved, absolutely laid back, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe.”

All that said, O’Connell is extremely pleased with his lineup from the top down.

One notable point: Hangout has generally had strong representation by all-female or female-fronted acts. That’s true again this year, and in Florence + The Machine, it finally has its first female headliner. “She’s somebody we wanted to close the show out for a long time,” O’Connell said.

He reels off more acts: Lenny Kravitz, Flume, Panic! At The Disco, Cage the Elephant, Chainsmokers, Fetty Wap, Moon Taxi (“a band we’ve watched grow, right from the beginning.”), Daya, The Record Company, Jai Wolf, Pell, Lizzo, Bully.

And Seratones, a Louisiana group playing at the Thursday night Kick-Off Party: “Do not miss that show,” said O’Connell. “That’s a band that, you may not know now, you will absolutely know them by next year.”

The three-day festival began as a way to get people to the beach in 2010, after the BP oil spill polluted much of the Gulf Coast. As the Hangout Fest matures, organizers continue to work to keep things fresh and to improve the general comfort level. O’Connell said that his year, partly to improve traffic flow, some food vendors have been relocated to a food court with shade and seating.

“I think that will, one, be a great area where you can actually sit down and eat the food,” he said, “but it’s also going to take a lot of the pressure off the boardwalk.”

On the beach, meanwhile, old features have been moved around and new ones added. The Malibu Beach House will be larger, O’Connell said, and both the BMI Stage and the wedding chapel have moved to surfside spots. As before, there will be two sponsored beach access points where patrons will have the opportunity to swim. And “Camp Hangout” enters the picture.

“It’s a place where groups of friends, and new friends, are just going to get involved in a whole bunch of games and it’s going to feel like summer camp,” said O’Connell. “It’s going to just bring back that feeling you had when you went to summer camp as a kid.”

“Go check out what’s on the beach,” O’Connell said. “There’s more on the beach than ever.”

At this point in the festival’s life, O’Connell said, the main job for organizers is to identify what makes Hangout special and to keep refining it. That means a constant effort to make small changes - such as the addition of premium portable restrooms - that add up to a big impact.

“None of that comes easy,” he said. “We don’t take any of it for granted.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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