City, businesses welcome Festival and attendees

City, businesses welcome Festival and attendees
August 06
00:00 2015

In above photo: Dana Suggs, owner of Body and Soul helps a customer. (Photo by Todd Luck)

With more than 60,000 attendees expected at the National Black Theatre Festival this week, it’s the biggest event Winston-Salem hosts.

“It’s a big party,” said NBTF executive producer Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin. “Every two years, I do a party and I invite everyone.”

The economic impact of the biennial festival, which consists of a week of plays done by black theatre companies from around the world, is huge.

Visit Winston-Salem President Richard Geiger estimated that there would be 65,000 play tickets sold and 4,000 hotel rooms booked.

“Room pick-up has been very strong thus far,” he said last week. “I think we’re in store for a very exciting festival, but a very successful one from an economic perspective, as well.”

The NBTF was started in 1989 by late North Carolina Black Repertory Company Founder Larry Leon Hamlin.

The first festival had 10,000 attendees.

Hamlin’s widow, Sprinkle-Hamlin, took over the NBTF leadership when her husband passed in 2007, and the festival has continued to grow into an event that organizers estimate has a more than $13 million economic impact.

Sprinkle-Hamlin said she doesn’t have final numbers yet, but she already knows ticket pre-sales are up from 2013 and some shows were sold out before the festival even began.

She said the large selection of excellent productions with tickets that are a fraction of the cost of a Broadway show are a huge draw.

She said notoriety of the festival has grown over the years and credits word of mouth for much of its success.

“Friends have told friends they need to be here,” she said.

The NBTF goes out of its way to welcome attendees with 1,200 volunteers helping with the massive event.

Some of them work at information tables at places like the lobby of the Marriott hotel, providing visitors with information on city bus routes from the Winston-Salem Transit Authority and guides to local restaurants and other attractions from Visit Winston-Salem.

Downtown businesses are also gearing up for the festival, with expanded days and hours of operation.

Many have signs welcoming National Black Theatre Festival attendees and decorations in purple, which is the signature color of the festival.

One store that goes all out is Trade Street cultural gift shop Body and Soul, which has store decor and employees adorned in purple and black for the week.

Store Owner Dana Suggs said it’s the biggest sales week outside of the holiday season.

“This is a huge time for us,” she said. “We’re ready, we’re excited about this whole opportunity of the theatre festival. It’s just wonderful for us as retailers. It’s like Christmas.”

Suggs has many out-of-town customers who make sure to visit her store when they come to the NBTF.

She has a book filled with photos of all the celebrities that have stopped by her store.

She said the line to her sole cash register can get long on NBTF week, but her customers are always patient.

Many new businesses will greet out-of-towners.

Two new businesses, Rusty Bumper Ice Cream and Twin City Cigar Company and Lounge have opened in the last few weeks in the building that houses Body and Soul.

Across Trade Street, the Winston-Salem location of Mast General Store, which opened earlier this year, is hoping to attract festival-goers too.

Mast is also among the many sponsors of the NBTF.

“It’s a great cause,” said Mast General Manager Zach Lail. “It brings a lot of people to Winston. It brings a lot of people to downtown.”

Festival attendees will also need to eat, and a multitude of restaurants will be more than anxious to serve them.

Vivian Joiner, co-owner of Trade Street southern soul food restaurant Sweet Potatoes, said she also gets theater festival regulars.

“It’s kind of like a family reunion, seeing old friends,” she said .“You don’t stay in contact with them throughout but when you see them, you kind of catch up.”

Joiner said those at the restaurant try to be good ambassadors for the city and that she was looking forward to this week’s rush.

Mayor Allen Joines said the whole city works hard to embrace the NBTF.

He said this year the City is taking its festival week teen activities up a notch with a Teentastic Weekend, which includes a K Camp concert, at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds.

He said the festival brings many benefits to the Twin City.

“Not only does it have a direct economic dollar impact, but it has a very intangible value of giving the city great exposure nationally and, really, internationally,” he said. ”Hopefully, it really demonstrates that we are a city that embraces its cultures and really opens ourselves up.”

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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