WINCHESTER — There’s a lot that goes into making the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival a success, and Executive Director Bradley Veach said that most of it happens behind the scenes.

The 95th festival finished its 10-day run on Sunday, and Veach said that cleanup efforts in downtown Winchester were so efficient that no one would know anything had happened.

He praised the city’s Public Works employees as “unsung heroes” for “making the streets look beautiful.”

The fluid progression of the festival was all the more satisfying because the COVID-19 pandemic had greatly stunted the lineup of events over the last two years.

After canceling all but the earliest Apple Blossom’s Got Talent events in 2020 and holding a few outdoor events in 2021, the festival team came back swinging this year with nearly 50 events including all the carnival days.

“All in all the festival was a tremendous success,” Veach said. “As I was walking around just seeing all of the seats filled along the parade route, it was a great sign that we were back.”

One gauge of the festival’s success is in how many people buy tickets and show up to the events, he said, and, by all respects, they had a great turnout.

Overall, he said the festival went as planned, except for one big glitch that few likely noticed.

“Our biggest hurdle, and folks probably didn’t even know about it or hear about it, was our security,” Veach said.

Normally the festival partners with several law enforcement agencies — Winchester Police Department, Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, Virginia State Police and the Virginia Defense Force, an all-volunteer reserve division of the Virginia National Guard — but he said the Defense Force had other assignments during festival week and couldn’t offer the level of security the festival was used to.

Instead, he said, the festival worked with Winchester’s Emergency Management team to hire a private security company to manage intersections during the downtown events to block off traffic along the parade route and divert drivers to other streets.

During the parades, “Downtown is basically totally locked down to vehicular traffic,” Veach said.

“Folks don’t see those things with the festival, but they’re very important,” Veach said. “We take our security very seriously.”

Another essential behind-the-scenes action that he said tends to go unnoticed is the hundreds of volunteers who help out each year.

“It’s impossible until you actually experience it to see our volunteer force within the festival,” he said.

Ultimately this festival is all about showcasing our community,” Veach said.

“There’s just a lot of community pride that goes into this festival,” he said. “It’s something that the Winchester-Frederick County community should be proud of. … Folks come from all over the place who celebrate spring here in Winchester.”

Veach, who started as executive director in the fall of 2019, has waited two years to lead a full festival.

“I remember as a child, vividly, experiences that I had during the Apple Blossom Festival,” he said. “[Part of] the overall excitement of the festival is creating those memories and those ‘wow’ moments.”

Though the festival reportedly lost $152,000 in its 2018-19 season, according to Guidestar, Veach said that small changes made this year can have a big difference in keeping the festival going for many years to come.

Because the weather is an uncontrollable factor that can hurt festival funding, Veach said his team has focused on methods they can better control, such as costs for parade seating, community partnerships and which celebrities they pursue.

This year, they did away with the skyboxes along the parade route, which he called “a tremendous expense,” instead focusing on more ground-level seating along Handley Boulevard.

“I will say that our ticket sales were very strong,” Veach said. But ticket sales can only go so far.

With the parades, he said, there’s only a certain number of seats they can sell since the rest of the parade route is allotted to youth organizations such as Scouting and church groups that sell chairs to raise money for their efforts.

This year, the festival partnered with additional organizations including the James Wood and Handley high school bands on a new fundraiser through which they sold souvenir programs.

This had the dual purpose of raising money for the school music programs while also increasing local interest in the festival.

Because paying for celebrities to sign on and travel to Winchester can be one of the festival’s biggest expenses, Veach said they’ve been focusing their sights, where possible, on celebrities who have a connection to the festival or the region and might be a little more invested in visiting.

Queen Shenandoah XCV Mia Dorsett, daughter of NFL great Tony Dorsett, and Grand Marshal Terry Bradshaw had been scheduled for 2020 and then were pushed again from 2021 before finally traveling to Winchester this year.

“They basically said yes to us three times,” Veach said.

“Mia obviously knew about the festival because her sister, Jazmyn, had participated several years before she was to do it. I think she was very committed to making it happen,” Veach said.

“Fortunately for us, they loved the festival,” he said. “So it was a good thing for us and we’re glad that it worked out for her too.”

During the pandemic, the festival team had to get creative to keep their operations going.

“The festival struggled during COVID just like any other business,” Veach said. “We had to rely on some PPP money,” he explained, referring to the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

But sponsorships also play a huge role, he said, and allow for the festival to keep costs low as well as offer various free events, such as the fireworks, which he said were sponsored by local companies American Woodmark and Trex.

“And the community got to enjoy that for free,” he said.

Hoping to remain relevant into the future as well as throughout the year, the festival last year partnered with Concern Hotline and the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber on a BBQ & Brews festival over Labor Day weekend. Coinciding with the Concern Hotline’s annual Fish Fry fundraiser, the festival plans to do it again this Labor Day.

“We’re always in the back of people’s minds that Apple Blossom is going to be next spring,” Veach said.

“Hopefully we can create that Labor Day experience again,” he said. “Inject the festival into the community outside of those 10 days in April and May.”

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(1) comment

Mark Gunderman

By definition, festivals attract visitors. Visitors spend money which boosts the local economy both on and off the festival site. On-site spending includes vendor fees, food, beverage and souvenir sales—and more. Attendees spend an average of $50 at festival sites. Off-site spending related to festivals generates revenue for communities, too. For example, visitors stop at local gas stations, main street shops, and restaurants.

The Apple Blossom Festival spurs social interactions among town residents and nurtures a positive image of this historic community. From year to year, many people schedule family reunions during this time, so old friends are always back in town. It’s like an enormous, fun packed, family filled get-together.

People enjoy this festival for family, for friends and for community. The festival also provides free marketing and advertising for local businesses as visitors talk about their terrific experiences when they travel back home. If visitors post comments and photos about their experiences on Facebook or other social media, so much the better. The economic benefits will ripple throughout our local economy, affecting tourism and non-tourism-related businesses.

God bless Frederick County.

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