From the Ground Up: Building Roanoke’s GO Fest

How did GO Fest become the foundation of Roanoke’s thriving outdoor community?  The Roanoke Go Outside Festival (GO Fest) started as an idea brought up between a few passionate individuals–the kind of idea that comes out between friends lounging around the campfire. But today it’s a beloved tradition, attracting visitors, celebrating over 190 individual outdoor-minded businesses, and inspiring the lifestyles of tens of thousands of people.

So, what is the process to take a conversation between idealists and turn it into a cultural and economic driver?

Pete Eshelman the director of the Roanoke Outside Foundation, Paul Chapman the City of Roanoke’s Outdoor Recreation Manager at the time, and Wes Best the owner of East Coasters Bike Shop were a few of the original minds behind the festival. Their goal was to bring all outdoor-related clubs, outfitters, guides, advocates and retailers together so they would begin seeing their success and futures collectively: we’re stronger together.

The partnership was formed between Roanoke Outside and Roanoke Parks and Recreation (or PLAY Roanoke) and the first event in 2011 was dubbed the “Outdoor Circus.” (That title was ultimately scrapped by the comical timing of the actual circus announcing their dates on the same weekend.)

With no precedent for such an event in the area, and only a few months prep time for the inaugural year, the “founding fathers” were quite pleased when 4,200 outdoor lovers showed up on a cold October weekend in 2011. “As soon as we saw how many people were there Saturday afternoon, we knew we had exceeded our expectations. The feedback was really good too, and we knew we were onto something,” remarked Wes Best owner of East Coasters Bike Shop and dedicated advocate for trail development in the region.

This early success reinforced the belief that there was a huge market and a genuine desire for an event like GO Fest in Roanoke. And so, the partners got to work on growing the event to fill the space at River’s Edge Sports Complex by inviting local, regional, and national brands. Along with that community of exhibitors grew the opportunity to host popular spectator events, activities, and races; including highlights like the pro bike trials demonstration with Jeff Lenosky, and the pumptrack (which was later purchased by the city and area bike clubs), a fly fishing village, lumberjack show, the Wild Gear Chase, and the Beer Mile relay race.

GO Fest has been free for attendees since that first year, and each year new offerings and activities are funded from the revenue generated by the event in other ways: sponsors like Anthem, race entries, beer sales, and more.

These growing offerings became more inclusive over time to respond to the presence of families, dog-lovers, and people newer to the outdoor lifestyle.  Events like the Strider Bike Race, the climbing walls, Ultimate Air Dogs, agility dog training and more were added to the list of now over 150 free activities offered throughout the weekend.

While the festival always had live music, in 2017 GO Fest decided to go to the pros and partnered with Across the Way Productions (creators of FloydFest.) The hope was to go after national touring acts and position GO Fest as not just an outdoor event, but also as a music festival. The addition of Across the Way has continued to provide lineups that entertain and delight. Top acts over the years have included Marcus King Band, Hackensaw Boys, Karl Denson, and Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band.

On what makes GO Fest so successful, co-founder and director of the Roanoke Outside Foundation Pete Eshelman says, “First off, it’s unique. It’s not a cookie cutter festival.  We actually have other communities and festivals coming to GO Fest to learn how we do it. But the main reason it is successful is because it is a community-built festival created through partnerships. We’re able to offer so many free activities to attendees because we encourage our vendors to offer activities that engage people in lieu of vendor fees.”

This commitment to the community would be rewarded, yielding a 1,000% increase in attendance since the first year. The inaugural year clocked in at 4,200 attendees and the 2019 event anticipates over 40,000 attendees.

Eshelman would go on to highlight a few of GO Fest’s relationships, adding, “We view the festival as a platform that organizations can leverage for their personal gain, and that is why it works. A great example is how Family Promise of Greater Roanoke now has a Super Hero 5K fun run that takes place at GO Fest. This is their annual fundraiser, but for the festival it’s another great offering people can participate in.”

Roanoke’s Go Festival has managed to maintain its unmatched experience and growth rate by staying true to its roots.  The coordinators have grappled over the years with whether or not to keep the festival free, as costs associated with the event grew exponentially. This community event is growing to attract national attention, and with that comes raised expectations. For the ninth straight year though, organizers will rise to the occasion and the mega-event will be free and open to the public.  The main goal still being to convert every visitor into a regular outdoor user.  

So, what’s ahead? What else is there to know about this GO Fest phenomenon? It’s a “gathering of the outdoor tribe” and it’s incredible. Stay tuned and you’ll see.