For nearly 20 years, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts has hosted outdoor concerts in a 16,000 seat amphitheatre in upstate New York.

Located about 90 miles from New York City in the town of Bethel, the outdoor venue can be found within grounds that once acted as home to nearly half a million concertgoers during the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August of 1969.

While pop culture vehicles like Dirty Dancing and Mad Men have glorified the once booming presence of music, comedy, camp and summer stock set within the picturesque Catskills, the Borscht Belt nevertheless began to fall upon hard times.

Founded by upstate native Alan Gerry, the Bethel Woods Center has roots dating back to the 1990s and was specifically designed to bring not just music but people back to the area.

Today, the Center boasts not only the outdoor concert amphitheatre but a recording studio, museum celebrating Woodstock’s history and a carefully-curated slate of programming aimed at both children and adults, maintaining a crucial bond with the surrounding area.

With a 2024 concert calendar already set to feature acts like Alanis Morissette, Joan Jett, Hozier and ZZ Top, Bethel Woods is ready to launch its initial foray into extended stays, with an inclusive array of camping and glamping options now available to fit any budget.

“That was part of the whole concept of the original Woodstock festival: which was creating a festival that wasn’t in a parking lot of an arena or like some of the other festivals that took place in some of the bigger parks in huge municipalities or concrete jungles,” explained Eric Frances, who’s been with Bethel Woods since opening night in 2006, moving from CFO and GM to CEO in 2020. “I think there’s always going to be a price point and different amenities that people are going to be seeking out. But we want that person that can walk in with their tent, put it up and stay here. And just a few hundred yards away might be that RV that costs more than my house,” said the CEO with a chuckle, embracing both camping and glamping for the first time during the upcoming 2024 Bethel Woods concert season. “The thought was to get people out of their element for three days of peace and music. It was pretty simple. And I think that’s what appeals to us too,” he said. “It’s just a very special place. You can feel the history – there is a vibe.”

I spoke with Eric Frances about being raised on the tales of Woodstock, operating a concert venue as part of a 501(c)(3) public charity, a memorable moment with Carlos Santana, Woodstock as it turns 55 and embracing nostalgia while pushing today’s concert experience forward. A transcript of our video call, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.

Jim Ryan: I heard that since the Bethel Woods venue opened, you’ve only missed one show. So, I take it you’re a music fan… But did you grow up as a Woodstock fan? Was that fascination there for you at an early age?

Eric Frances: I was always a classic rock fan. And my family had a second home up here. So, we were up here quite a bit. And we always heard the stories of my grandparents loading the car up with my dad and my aunt to get up here that Woodstock weekend and how treacherous it was – and, also, how people sort of stayed around for weeks and weeks after the festival and were just wandering around the county. So, there was always sort of a lore about it. And, of course, when I was a teenager and getting into heavy classic rock and all of that, Woodstock just became this thing. I had to watch the movie. So, I was always interested in it, yes.

But, I have to say, I’m younger. I’m 47. I wasn’t around for it. But, when you talk to the people that were there – and we’re actually in the middle of a pretty big oral history project right now trying to get people who came to leave their stories behind – but you realize just how important this event was for the rest of their lives. How they treated people coming out of Woodstock and going into regular life after the festival, it really framed their lives.

So, it’s a very interesting thing that happened here and it’s our job to keep that torch alive.

Ryan: Well, non-profit cultural center, that’s obviously vastly different than the way we think about most concert venues. How does that designation sort of set Bethel Woods apart?

Frances: I’m not sure how familiar you are with the history of the Catskills. But we had a lot of major hotels up here that started to close in the 60s, 70s and 80s, where they hit some rough times. Our founder Alan Gerry’s thought was that there needed to be an anchor in the area to bring back tourism and to increase people’s interest in the Catskills and bring second home ownership back.

So, the thought was that anchor could be the one thing that Sullivan County was known for, which was the Woodstock festival. So, the thought was to develop it as a non-profit so that it would just get a broad base of community support and then eventually use the campus and all of the accents around it to capitalize on the concept that we wanted to bring more people to the area and bring this area back.

Alan was born in this area and decided to stay here for his whole life. He wanted to see it come back in his lifetime – which it has done.

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Ryan: The role of the Bethel Woods Center in the local community seems to be a very important one. How important is it?

Frances: It’s one of the big drivers of tourism into the region. And we’ve seen that grow over the last 15 years.

When we first opened, there were many little towns in the Catskills around us that were just boarded up. There was not much there – maybe a gas station. And we’ve seen little towns like Callicoon and Livingston and these towns where the plywood came off the stores and there’s breweries and coffee shops and all of these great things happening.

The theory that “if you build it, they will come” has actually manifested itself.

Ryan: What inspired the idea of camping and glamping on site as we look ahead to the 2024 concert season?

Frances: It’s been a couple of things. We did a couple of multi-day festivals a couple of years ago. We had an EDM festival called Mysteryland. We brought in Mountain Jam, which was a jam band festival from Hunter Mountain. And we figured out that it was a great amenity to offer people that were coming to the area that might not have a second home. And, of course, our hotels are limited. So, when we do have a busy weekend, we fill up hotels locally and even down in Orange County and some of the neighboring areas.

When we surveyed our guests, one of the things they always said is, “Oh, I wish we could stay.” So, in response to that, the thought was to build a small campground here that we’re going to launch to sort of figure out how it will best work: Are we going to see more people gravitating toward five star glamping, which will be an option, or will we see more people come for that bucket list trip to see the museum from across the country in their RV? And then of course having regular tent options where you can just spend the night because you wanted to not drive home after a long concert night.

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But the other thing is, we’re very blessed in New York State to have a mass gathering permit for up to 30,000 people – which we would always view as something where we would maybe activate the original Woodstock field for a concert. And, if we do that, 30,000 people is quite a load on the county. So, getting some of them to stay here actually helps with traffic and takes some of the pressure off.

So, hopefully, we’re trying to make the place into the premiere festival site in the northeast, where we could see some anchor festivals throughout the summer season and maybe one day have something as significant as Bonnaroo or Coachella here.

Ryan: Obviously, fans camped out at the original Woodstock festival. Does this idea sort of embrace that concept a bit?

Frances: Absolutely. That was part of the whole concept of the original Woodstock festival: which was creating a festival that wasn’t in a parking lot of an arena or like some of the other festivals that took place in some of the bigger parks in huge municipalities or concrete jungles. The thought was to get people out of their element for three days of peace and music. It was pretty simple.

And I think that’s what appeals to us too. Once people come to the site and they feel the magic that’s here? It’s just a very special place. You can feel the history – there is a vibe. We always say, if you stand at the top of the Woodstock field, or even at the bottom of it looking up, there’s a vibe. So, bringing people back to the country to just relax and enjoy a couple of days is part of our mission.

Ryan: I would imagine the artists get excited about it too. Is there a significant moment with an artist that got to come back again and see this that sticks out?

Frances: There are a few. But I think it was two summers ago I had Carlos Santana sitting in my office. He had asked to speak to a lot of the management team of Bethel Woods. And we sat around to listen to him. Aside from the fact that it’s Carlos Santana sitting five feet away, he talked about how we have to keep this alive and how important it was. And how it was just an amazing group of people and how it was just humanity when he looked out into the audience. He said he saw all of humanity out there. And the types of music played were so eclectic – Ravi Shankar and all of these artists. It was a pretty amazing thing that happened.

But to hear somebody that played Woodstock and who stood at the original field say, “This is ground zero for peace and love” really put it into perspective. Carlos has definitely been a real takeaway, for me, of someone who lived it and breathed it, you know?

Ryan: Well, a venue on the site. A museum. Now glamping. It seems like you’re able to nod in the direction of nostalgia while still finding unique ways to push everything forward. How important is it to straddle that line and embrace both at the Bethel Woods Center?

Frances: I think based on the stories we’re hearing from people, and how important it was to them, we feel like part of our mission is bringing high school and college-aged people here to create experiences that they’re going to then bring their kids back to years from now too. Because that’s what’s happening now. The baby boomers are coming out and they’re bringing family with to say, “Here’s what happened here. Here’s what I did here.”

And while we have to try and keep that message alive, I think our job is also to do things that are just as significant here – and create that memory. So that 50 years from now, the next generation is coming back, you know?

published 2024-01-25 01:30:25