Heart-pounding music or tunes that make you sway, eclectic outfits, the ultimate food and drink scene – all of this combined with perfect weather and unbeatable views of the Rocky Mountains – it’s festival season in Colorado.
To learn more about the Colorado festival scene, the history, and what the future looks like with more and more events to choose from, we sat down with Steve Gumble, founder of “one of the most scenic and intimate music festivals in the country” – The Telluride Blues & Brews Festival. Gumble is also the founder and CEO of SBG Productions, the producers of this renowned festival, plus the Durango Blues Train and Telluride Jazz Festival.
26 years ago, the first Telluride Blues & Brews Festival was held (originally called Telluride Brewers Festival). 1994 still marked the forefront of the craft beer industry and due to Gumble’s local ties (owning and running a liquor store), he formulated the idea of having a brew fest in Colorado. Running this idea past local brewmaster Jeff Lebesch, co-founder of New Belgium Brewing Company, the idea seemed to have some legs.
“I had heard about Fat Tire so I drove up to Fort Collins to meet Jeff. He opened up this hatch in his kitchen and we walked down to the brewery. He couldn’t keep up with the consumption in Fort Collins with his limited space at that point in time, but I finally convinced him to sell me four cases. Jeff realized he could bring beer to Telluride and also stay to enjoy some time in this beautiful town – it was a win-win. Telluride was really the first market for New Belgium outside of Fort Collins because of this relationship.”
Featuring New Belgium craft beers, the first Telluride Brews Festival kicked off in 1994 and it was a hit. Each year the brewery event grew and grew. In 1997, Gumble remembers feeling a kind of unspoken pressure from the town of Telluride to enhance the event with elements beyond craft beer – which is when the transformation truly began. Now, not only does the festival feature legends like The Allman Brothers Band, James Brown, ZZ Top, BB King – the list goes on – but there is a whole experience included.
“Telluride Blues & Brews Festival is really a recipe of it being in Telluride, the music, the experience, and the vibe of the festival – it’s not just a music festival. We create an experience with yoga, 5K runs, hikes in the morning, all kinds of things. You put those elements together, it’s just special.”
The town of Telluride immediately loved the enhanced event, which resulted in a change of name to what we know today – Telluride Blues & Brews Festival. “Each year it catapulted from there, each year more and more people came.”
Today, 26 years later, an average of 9,000 people travels from near and far to Telluride to enjoy this world-class, three-day event.
Adding to his repertoire, Gumble created Durango Blues Train in 2011 – yet another very popular event that sells out almost instantly. In addition, the Board of Directors for Telluride Jazz Festival hired SBG Productions in 2017 to manage their festival. The existing Director was retiring, so Gumble and team stepped in to generate more interest with their knowledge of what makes a festival successful.
So, what does entice international travelers to come to Telluride year after year for these one-of-a-kind events? Gumble shares most of the testament to Telluride itself, but also to the hard work put in over the years.
“Blues & Brews was a little ol’ beer festival in 1994, but now it’s one of three major festivals here in Telluride. It’s a testament to Telluride itself. Worst-case scenario you are in Telluride, which isn’t a bad place to be. People who come, they don’t forget it and they always come back.
Not only do we sell out, but we sell out earlier and earlier. This is our 26th year and we have so many repeat customers. Word of mouth is our No. 1 form of marketing – which says a lot about the experience.”
To Gumble, Telluride is such a unique destination and a perfect hot-spot for festivals. With a strong summer economy, there are now festivals almost every weekend starting Memorial Day through the end of September. Colorado as a whole is also adopting the festival scene, and why not with 75 to 80-degree weather and the beautiful mountains. “What Colorado has that many places don’t have is the incomparable, natural beauty.”
Even broader, festivals are becoming more and more present throughout the country. But a word of wisdom from Gumble is to have critical attention to detail and to set realistic expectations. “When you do any kind of event that involves the public, you set the expectations at a realistic level – then you blow that out of the water.”
Gumble claims that he is extremely fortunate for the level of success in Telluride, but it wouldn’t be possible without the rest of his team.
“We’re not just colleagues, we’re friends. Everyone that works here and helps out has a stake in the festival – we all live here and we want to make Telluride proud.”