Freedom Weekend Aloft, a Memorial Day weekend mainstay in the Upstate for 32 years, is getting a major makeover in 2013.
The festival, held in Simpsonville's Heritage Park, will still feature the hot-air balloons that have been a hallmark throughout its history. But the event, which has seen its peak of 200,000 annual visitors dwindle over the years, is in desperate need of an overhaul if it's to remain relevant, said board member Frank Skorzewski.
"We want people to say 'wow!" said Skorzewski, a Simpsonville resident and the chief financial officer of Athens, Ga.-based craft-beer brewer Terrapin Beer Co.
As part of the event's rebranding, which was unveiled during a kick-off gala Thursday night at the Children's Museum of the Upstate in Greenville, the festival will have a new name this year. The new moniker? "Aloft."
Margaret Burnquist, the event's media and marketing chair, said the new name was "young and modern." Skorzewski labeled it "metro and cool." The old name, he said, didn't appeal to the wider demographics the festival hoped to reach.
But more than just the name change, real changes in the event itself should help make it once again one of the premier events in the area, according to Skorzewski, Burnquist, and executive director Cindy Nelson.
The event will seek to brand itself as "the best in flight, music, and community," Skorzewski said.
"We've changed our business model," he said. "We want to get out of this stage that this is just a carnival. We're looking at a whole new image…. We want people to come and stay the whole day long."
To make that happen, the event will go "over and above a typical hot air balloon festival," Burnquist said. Speakers at the gala outlined plans for a zipline inside Heritage Park event along with helicopter rides, model airplane races, stand-up paddle boarding, craft beer, wine tastings, upgraded entertainment, and more.
Meantime, Skorzewski said negotiations were underway with producers to land top-notch musical acts. Whether through music or activities, he said a goal was to provide constant entertainment throughout the event to keep attendees engaged.
Event organizers also will expand Aloft's marketing efforts outside the Upstate to Georgia and North Carolina and beyond. Skorzewski said, tongue in cheek, "to hell with Bele Chere in Asheville and the White Squirrel Festival in Brevard (NC). We're going to compete with them all."
The community aspect of the event will remain intact, organizers said. In addition to a potential multi-million-dollar impact to the local economy, the event also seeks to boost its charitable sponsor, the Greenville-based Center for Developmental Services, Burnquist said. CDS serves thousands of special-needs and developmentally disabled children and their families each year.
"As we promote Aloft 2013, we'll also be shining a bright spotlight on CDS and its mission," said Burnquist. "We're planning a series of events leading up to Aloft, and one of them involves bringing a hot-air balloon that's wheelchair accessible to the children at CDS so they'll have a chance to experience flight for themselves."