A crowded event does not indicate a good one, and the inaugural St. Pete Asian Lantern Fest is a prime example of this. It obviously was one of those ideas that went like this:
“Everyone loves food truck food, but what if each one delivered an Asian twist?”
“The crowd will love that more! What if we made an Asian-themed food truck rally?”
“They’ll love that more! And who doesn’t love themed decorations?”
“That’s awesome! Let’s make it 400+ Asian lanterns!”
“No way! And let’s do it in Downtown St. Pete’s waterfront during First Friday! People can eat our food then party afterwards!”
“Awesome ideas!” (Group high-fives and begins advertising without further logistic walkthroughs)
As our car approached Albert Whitted Park, insane traffic enveloped us as many cars tried to find a way into one of the three advertised parking garages (which had to turn away many vehicles as they filled quickly). At the actual event, my camera mostly stayed in my purse because the only interesting feature there was the food. With so many people, it took an hour from entering a line to getting my food in my hands. We listened a bit to the cover band, watched some of the Taiko drummers, tried to enjoy the rest of the park, but we left earlier than expected.
Days before the event began, I already sensed communication issues through its Facebook event page (seen here) which was its main distribution of information. The event was loudly touted as an ‘Asian Lantern’ festival yet the description was largely about food trucks. Luckily I sensed all this so I was *somewhat* prepared, but I know many attendees fell for the miscommunication and left frustrated.
St. Pete rarely has food truck rallies. The few I’ve attended in a nearby park weren’t advertised very well. Tampa Bay in general is relatively young to the food truck scene. However, this event was heavily promoted. People who would not normally hear about food trucks in St. Pete heard about this event, and of course they’d be interested because food trucks are still a novelty. Unfortunately, there’s also many people who equate food trucks with being fast food. At last night’s event, lines of people snaked around the event space. I’m not saying all attendees should’ve known it’d take awhile to receive their food, but better planning and layout in general would’ve helped this situation. The event could’ve added more interesting, non-food truck areas, interactive exhibits, spread out the booths, etc. The beauty of Facebook event pages is you can have a general idea of how many people plan to attend and prepare accordingly, but it didn’t seem like that happened in this event’s case.
Unfortunately, plenty of the event’s information included reading between the lines– especially with parking. Many, many comments on the page wondered whether the parking was free. In response, they just received a map showing the designated parking areas. Naturally, many were upset to find those parking areas were not free. To add insult to injury, what would normally take a five-minute drive became a driver’s nightmare as guests had to also compete for parking with St. Pete’s monthly First Friday event which draws thousands of party-goers.
The teaser image above gave the photographer in me hope. If the 400 advertised lantern decorations looked like that, then this food truck festival would be worth it for the photos alone. Instead, what greeted us were the lanterns packed tightly together and strung in a loose zig-zag pattern over the space between the two food truck rows. Because of the strong park lights, I didn’t even realize they were lit up until I stood underneath and saw the dim, measly bulb dying in the night sky. Well, at least the organizers had the sense to loudly proclaim this was not a festival where they’d be releasing floating lanterns, so thankfully, very few grumbles were heard from people who were hoping to see those.
At least there were some bright sides. I tasted a delicious bowl from Anju Korean, bright veggies from the St. Pete Taco Lady, and pulled pork from Just Smokin’ BBQ. And of course, props to the food trucks’ staff because I’m sure they could sense the frustration from the crowd and were doing the best they could within their small kitchens.
The performers were good under the circumstances although more cultural performances and displays would’ve been much preferred. As an Asian, I was a bit insulted my culture was reduced to dimly lit lanterns and food.
Once we received our food, we walked away from the thick crowds and deeper into the park to sit down and eat. We enjoyed the skyline view, the waterfront breeze, and the dark skies. Then, rather than return to the mess, we escaped to see what else downtown had to offer.
If this event returns next year, I really hope they learn from their mistakes because this could potentially be a great event.