Friday, October 7, 2016

My New Jersey VegFest Experience

When I heard that someone was planning a vegfest in New Jersey I was excited. The biggest problem with New York vegfests always seems to be that the space is too small and the event space too crowded. If there's anything New Jersey has to offer, it's space. But as soon as I heard the tickets were $39 I was disappointed to the point of apathy. I've spoken at length about my thoughts on charging admission to vegfests, most recently here, but after much inner dialogue, I decided to purchase tickets to the the inaugural NJ vegfest when they dropped the ticket price from $39 to $25- $39 tickets for those wanting to hear Dr. Fuhrman speak. In the end I'd decided that $25 each for VM and I seemed worthy of a look-see, particularly because the organizers had begun touting goodie bags for the first 1000 people to purchase tickets and I love goodie bags. More on that later.


It being suburbia and all, we- like most attendees, entered the Morristown Hyatt from the parking garage. There was no signage, nothing pointing to the lobby as a check-in area, and no one to greet and direct. We ultimately asked a policeman, who pointed us toward what turned out to be the vendor room. We were stopped at the door, tickets in hand, by 3 organizers/volunteers who, in unison, asked us for wristbands we didn't know existed. They seemed exasperated already- this was only 15 minutes after the event had started, and pointed us towards the lobby. The group of us that had excitedly arrived at the door at the same time all ambled a little aimlessly in the general direction of the pointed finger, and then one of the volunteers decided to escort us.

When we arrived at the lobby, it was a bit of a clusterf*** of lines; VM immediately dubbed it "a disorganized mess." There were signs at eye level, but the crowd prevented you from being able to see that three lines were for pre-purchasers to show their existing tickets in order to acquire said wristbands and one very long one was to purchase tickets at the door. I can't imagine that the volunteers were blindsided by the turnout since they'd known 1000 tickets had been sold, but they seemed so nonetheless. They barely made eye contact- let alone greeted us with any excitement or welcome, so we were not exactly filled with warm fuzzies when it was our turn. We'd seen them handing out blue, vegfest totes which we'd assumed were the goodie bags, but they instead handed us each a small, flattened brown bag. We asked what it was and they insisted it was the goodie bag. When we asked specifically about the blue bags they told us those were only for people who had purchased $39 tickets. This seemed odd because the goodie bags were not advertised in tiers and so it seemed like a kind of a bait & switch.


We walked away, perplexed, and peeked inside the "goodie bags." Aside from 2 coupons and some stickers, the bags each contained various paper advertisements, a pack of smarties and a raw rev bar that I ultimately donated to an unsuspecting squirrel because it was not delicious. A crowd of others curious about the contents of the bags had joined us at the lobby table and we all looked at each other in shared disbelief. "$25?" one person lamented. "Seriously?" said another. In direct contrast to the information we had received, a fellow attendee shared that she had been told that the larger goodie bags were only for the first 100 tickets sold. We were all disappointed and perplexed; it wasn't a good way to begin the event.


I knew from a blurry NJ Vegfest facebook post that nearby Morristown Game Vault had donated a Ms. PacMan for the event, so I was able to gratefully decompress for a minute with my fave game before we went any further.


We then returned to the vendor space, which turned out to be two rooms. We entered the smaller room first, where most of the vendors were set up around the perimeter with a couple of tables that didn't require a set-up area behind them in the center. It was pretty packed there already- mostly thanks to the Ledgewood Loving Hut and their significant amount of offerings for a 4 X 8 conference table! We'd skipped breakfast, so we immediately partook in an order of crispy fried wontons, which were served by an exuberant and friendly bunch and tasted exactly as authentic as I'd hoped. We visited The Skylands Sanctuary table, entered a Whole Foods Raffle, and said hello to the hardest working man at the fest: Carlo from V Marks the Shop. It was a little awkward to eat the fantastic wontons while moving around a crowded space, but it was do-able and reminded me of a vegan-friendly street-fest, only indoors and vegan.


When we entered the 2nd room all of my positivity dissipated. The room was PACKED. I know what you're thinking, "Success!" Well, yes and no. Yes, this was definitely a success in terms of interest and attendees, but as far as claustrophobia and maximum occupancy were concerned...I began to scan the room for xanax samples in a panic. Others agreed.


There were vendors along the perimeter of this larger room, as well as some semblance of rows of vendors throughout. Most rows did not wrap around, so once you walked to the end of one, you'd hit a dead-end wall and have to retrace your steps back through the crowd in order to exit the row. Because many vendors who needed a private set-up area behind them had little or none, that meant that you might take a step back from waiting for your cauliflower wrap and broccoli & cheese empanada from fan-favorite Freakin Vegans, and inadvertently step into super-popular Yeah Dawg's prep area because there was just nowhere else to go. To add to the confusion, a handful of vendors dealt with intermittent power outages that didn't seem to help tensions any. The most perplexing part of it all was that since quite a few vendors had backed out (including stars Peaceful Provisions, Cinnamon Snail), it left you wondering where exactly they would have possibly fit.


Most of the vendors had signs hanging from their tables or table top that were obscured by the sheer volume of people, which caused attendees to cluster once they could finally squeeze in near a table- happy for the opportunity to peruse offerings and to have even the most rudimentary of conversations with vendors where possible. Unfortunately, this kind of necessary standstill was terrible for the small remaining path left through which other attendees were left to navigate past. Tables offering food samples? Forget about it: bottleneck central. There were so many great things to see and partake in, but very little opportunity to do so leisurely. Perhaps I'm in the minority when I say I do not enjoy scenarios where the atmosphere can be described best as frenzied.

But, we sucked it up and squeezed through: making small talk with fellow attendees where possible and grabbing snacks as we went. But therein lay the next problem. Sure there were plenty of prepared foods to purchase, but where to enjoy them? There was seating for about 40 outside the front entrance of the first vendor room, but for the people who had already made it through to the back of the second, crowded room, there was only an escape hatch of sorts into a hallway where the options available were to sit on the floor or use an errant baby grand piano as a somewhat disrespectful, makeshift, bistro table.

 

It was here where we had another impromptu piano roundtable discussion with other attendees about the entrance fee. All agreed that the event was too crowded and the goodie bags were a joke. But, to my surprise, many had never been to a vegfest before and had no idea that some were free. One person, in particular, said that he was curious about vegetarianism and veganism, but could not convince any of his friends to join him since it meant paying a significant amount to participate in an event just out of curiosity. And therein lies the first problem. The second, of course, being that you shouldn't have to pay $25-$39 to attend an event so that you can spend money with vendors who also paid a significant fee to be there; there must be a happy medium. But, if you decide that it's okay to charge an exorbitant sum since, frankly, New Jerseyans seemed eager and willing to pay, at least do so in a manner that is appreciative: with decent goodie bags (hello, sponsors?) and room to breathe.


One respite from the craziness was our chat with Peter from Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary where I spied this tote that I will covet until I visit.


AND, this advertisement (shameless plug) for The Animal Show starring Michael Harren!


Always good to see Grape Cat and I finally snagged the retired Liberation is Love tee from Compassion Co.; such a beautiful design and it's finally mine. It was the chickens at Woodstock- Coco in particular, that convinced VM to finally go vegetarian.


We also grabbed some great desserts for later from Good Karma: this wowing cookie-filled rice crispy treat (yes, that's what I said) and a humongous smores.


We were so glad that Good Karma represented because they are quintessential NJ veg and there aren't many of those!


Oddly enough, though, there were quite a few NJ vegan institutions that were glaringly absent: Veganized, Positivitea, Veggie Heaven- to name a few. And, in an unexpected move, there were non-vegan restaurants offering vegan-friendly grub at this event. I'm as glad as the next guy to find vegan options at an omni restaurant where possible, but would have preferred more vegan owned & operated gems at a fest celebrating veganism.


In the end, VM and I made it to as many tables as possible, but ultimately gave up and went to the Hyatt bar to kill time before the speaker panel. We sidled up next to some veggies and ordered off the cocktail menu. The person who made our drinks curiously consulted the menu as she did so- ultimately telling us that she'd followed the ingredients, but had no idea how much of each to put in; it was rather mind-boggling. Then we walked through the lobby where a sharp object sticking out of one of the dirty and worn upholstered chairs ripped my pants. I notified the front desk and three people immediately ran out and called a meeting encircling the chair. I reminded them that my pants were ripped and the response was a shrug and an offer of a sewing kit. Keeping it classy, Hyatt Morristown! UPDATE 10/11/16: The Hyatt concierge contacted me via Twitter and was extraordinarily apologetic during our phone conversation. They have gone 100% above and beyond to make it right.


Finally it was time for the Future of Food Panel. I'd unknowingly spoken to the parents of the speaker, Liz Dee, of Smarties Candy Company & Baleine & Bjorn Capital LLC just prior to the panel; they seemed shocked and impressed by the event's turnout. As the granddaughter of the founder of Smarties, Liz shared that it was as a result of consumers contacting the company to discern the veganity of their products that she went vegan and she urged us to all keep contacting companies: asking questions and letting our voices be heard, because, in many cases there are whole departments dedicated to documenting and addressing such inquiries and requests. Also joining the panel, Dr. Ethan Ciment of Vegan Mos and Rachel Dreskin, Compassion in World Farming. Much of the panel was dedicated to talking about advances in vegan food sources that mimic non-vegan food. Hampton Creek was discussed at length (although no mention of the recent allegations), as well as The Impossible Burger, which has apparently cost millions to develop. There were some fireworks when one of the attendees admonished Rachel Dreskin during the Q&A for having made an innocuous comment in her welcome "lumping vegans and vegetarians together" even though "vegetarians are no better than meat-eaters." Rachel cited individual journeys in her response and I admired her kindness to both the source of the complaint and those not-yet-vegan members of the audience, but was really disappointed that someone would be so openly dismissive- particularly at an event intended to attract people to a compassionate lifestyle.


Luckily, just afterwards Chef Adam Sobel of The Cinnamon Snail spoke warmly and informally about genuine kindness and compassion. He imparted a refreshing amount of information about living a compassionate and non-violent life, as well as what that means beyond just following a standard vegan ethos. He was disarmingly open about his own family and lifestyle- which truly engaged the audience. As a contrast to the previous panel, it was interesting to hear his thoughts on the amount of waste in time, effort, and money that goes into relatively non-nutritious analogs that may act as gateway foods, but certainly seem not to provide either nourishment or new vegans commensurate with what goes into making them- from development to delivery (fossil fuels, etc.). It was so refreshing to hear this perspective and it gave me pause to consider that vegan panels, which are notoriously lacking in diversity, can use a shake up in other respects as well.

I was feeling quite zen and incredibly glad to end the event on such a high note, but halfway through the talk there began to be radio/walkie-talkie chatter...and then actual chatter between Hyatt employees behind a double door just beyond the podium. It was distracting and rude, but to Adam's credit he did not falter in the least. I thought it would have been helpful if a fest volunteer had been present to address the issue. When his Q&A was over, Adam offered to stay a bit to answer any further questions and hug anyone who wanted one, but Hyatt staff rushed in rolling large tables and stacking chairs from underneath people in such a flurry that one stack fell on the nearby equipment of a photographer in the haste. For me, this put an unwanted, anxiety-laden period at the end of the frenetic event.


Thankfully, there had been a lot of vegan messagewear to get me through the day; this was my favorite ensemble overall:


Don't get me wrong. I know it's hard to pull off an event of this magnitude and easy to come in as an observer and point out all that was wrong with it. And, to be fair, I'm also coming from a place where I am extraordinarily lucky to be part of a New York vegan community that offers me the opportunity to shop at many of these and other terrific, vegan vendors at my leisure and without a cover charge (glowing example: Vegan Shop Up). I do not dispute that New Jersey definitely needs a vegfest- it was made abundantly clear by the extraordinary response to this inaugural event. But surely there's a way to pull it off that doesn't perpetuate the idea that you have to be rich to be vegan, or come off as one group of vegans taking money from another. I wish the future of NJ Vegfest every success.

UPDATE: Since this posted, the people behind NJ vegfest- Kendra specifically, have initiated and continued a dialogue, been extremely open to any criticisms and understanding of critique, as well as intent on vast improvement for future events. To say I am impressed by their kindness and openness is an understatement.

25 comments:

  1. It's interesting to see a review from the perspective of an attendee, and I have a feeling I would have felt the same way as you. I have to say, that although I've never attended a vegfest that wasn't over-crowded and hard to navigate, this one sounds especially annoying. And $25 to get in? A cousin (my first cousin's daughter, to be exact) was one of the vendors, and she posted a very positive review of her experience. She makes Big Red House soups, and said the fest was a great success. Maybe it depended what side of the table you were on!

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    1. Andrea, every vendor I've heard from- either directly or indirectly, admitted that while the circumstances weren't ideal, it was an amazingly successful event for them. That is a good thing!

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  2. I'm more lenient towards organizers if it's a free event. If they presold 1000 tickets they knew a majority of the ppl would come when the doors open and should have been better prepared. The exact same thing with signage and lack of food vendor space happened in NYC. Feeling claustrophobic at an event you paid for is no fun.

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    1. It was kind of ironic that a suburban Vegfest was just as crowded as the NY vegfests that turned me against them. I'm so glad that there are smaller but mightier events such as Vegan Shop Up that are manageably crowded and very successful. You should join me at one!

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  3. Thanks for posting such a thorough review! When I saw the original very-high ticket price I got a weird feeling about this event and passed on it.

    (Despite the "dirty and worn upholstered chairs" the Hyatt was probably too expensive a venue for a free event. Maybe they'll look elsewhere next time.)

    I hope the hotel replaces your pants!

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    1. Thanks, MM; they actually contacted me. I think I was more surprised by their response than anything else.

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  4. Wow! What an experience! It really could have been great, but it sounds a bit deflating. I'm glad the speaker panel was good, in the very least!

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    1. Pros and cons. Judging by the response of the organizer, they are aware of any shortfalls and are working to improve, which is more than anyone could ever ask for. I'm very impressed.

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  5. Thank you so much for coming and your honest review! This was our first event and we def know there were things that could have been better. We literally are just two people who wanted to make this happen, and while we did get a few pretty awesome sponsors, the tickets sales helped us cover the space, speaker fees and all that stuff. I'm also super sorry you were disppointed with the goody bag; when we were putting them together we discovered that very few of the people giving us goodies actually sent 1000 items, so while the first 100 got their awesome goody bags, the goodies were def not that good later in the day. If you want to message me at njvegfest@gmail.com, I will do want I can to fix it for you.

    Many thanks for coming to this first event! Kendra

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    1. Kudos to you (as 1/2 of the organizers of the NJvegfest) for being so open and understanding. Much, much respect to you.

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  6. Also, message me about your pants! That's not cool. I'm really sorry you had this experience.

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    1. Hyatt contacted me and were exceedingly more professional on the phone than they were in person. All taken care of, but thank you for the offer. I guess it could be a joke that I "lost my pants" at NJvegfest? LOL

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  7. As an ethical vegan, you should be aware that there is a difference between vegan and vegetarian as a moral baseline. The dairy and meat industries are intertwined and dairy is even crueler than the meat industry. Rachel Dreskin's comment was not innocuous. The message should never be presented that being vegetarian is "good enough" or equal to being vegan. She was given an opportunity to clarify and provide the right information, but instead reinforced the wrong message with a disappointingly weak response. I agree that the goodie bags were an insult. I was one of the first 100 people to get a ticket and although I got one of the blue bags, there was not much more in it other than discount coupons and paper ads. That was pretty disappointing since I was promised a super special goodie bag for being one of the first people to buy a ticket. This was totally misrepresented. I was also horrified at the small space into which all of the vendors and attendees were crammed. I arrived early so was able to get samples, but the space got crowded early as a lot of others arrived early as well. By 11:30 vendors were already out of some items and by 4:30 many vendors had already left or were packing up, but the fest was not supposed to end until 5:30. It would have been a disaster if Cinnamon Snail had come to the event with their usual long lines in that tiny space. I don't know how the organizers could have looked at that space and thought it was large enough for this event. I also don't know why they would have been selling tickets at the door since it was supposed to be sold out. The fire marshal was walking around the whole time.

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    1. Hi Vegan Girl, I am a longtime ethical vegan and I totally get what you're saying about the difference between vegans and vegetarians. No disagreement there. However, the success of a vegfest can be measured by the attraction to people new to the lifestyle and that kind of confrontational language is not exactly welcoming behavior. I took Rachel's welcome as being all-inclusive to the spectrum of attendees and her response to the criticism as being respectful of other people's journeys. I can't speak for her, but in the same situation I probably would have done the same, while promoting veganism as the ultimate goal.

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    2. Thanks for your response Abby. The issue for me is that Rachael stopped short of promoting veganism as the ultimate goal. I am not suggesting that she should have taken a confrontational stance, but it is a disservice to the animals to be so afraid of offending people that you fail to tell them the truth or give them the facts. I think she missed an opportunity to promote the vegan message. People are not motivated to change if they think what they are doing is ok.

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    3. You're right! Honestly, it seemed as though she was caught off guard and her reflex was to be as kind of possible in the face of confrontation. I don't know much about her, but I would assume she's a vegan advocate. However, you're correct; the ideal response would have been to welcome everyone where they were coming from, with the push for ultimate goal being veganism sooner rather than later. I know that sometimes can get lost in the message; for instance, the Oh She Glows forums used to have people no closer to veganism in the years since they'd joined and it was rather infuriating that they seemed to be missing the point.

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  8. My experience was similar. I paid $39 each for 2 tickets to see Dr Fuhrman as well. When I arrived, I unknowingly walked in without going to the check in desk, there were no signs and the workers were not giving any information. When I finally got to the check in desk the people there were less than friendly, not even looking up, I even had to ask "is this where I get my wristband?". Then I walked away with my wrist band but saw other people walking around with brown goodie bags...I went back to the table and asked for one, but they told me they had run out. It was 12:15 PM.

    I was so happy to see the amount of people interested in veg lifestyle, the animal advocate tables, but it was really disorganized. And I asked volunteers questions as to where to find a food vendor I saw a pic of online and her response was "I don't know, I saw that picture too!" No one knew anything.

    And during Dr Fuhrmans lecture the back door kept opening and people kept coming in and out was making it so noisy from the crowd in the lobby. People trying listening to him speak had to actually step outside and tell the volunteers standing at the door, to keep quiet. A really expensive fest, that has potential but needs to be re-evaluated for next year.

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    1. Oh, that must have been infuriating during Dr. Fuhrman. In hindsight, my only guess is that the volunteers put in so much work in advance of the event that when it actually arrived they were relieved and perhaps a little lax. From the response I've gotten from the organizers, there's an extremely high indication that they will fix whatever wasn't ideal; I'm really impressed by their positive attitude.

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  9. Thanks for the linkup to my site! Glad to see I wasn't alone in thinking it was a tad crowded, bigger venue would help for sure next time.

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    1. Very welcome; thanks for the great post :-)

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  10. I have been to several veg fests. I would never pay to get in, as they have always disappointed. It sounds like this one was the same.

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  11. That's too bad! The NYC veg fest is expensive too, but I always have a great time at them. Crowds don't usually bother me and I'm usually psyched to see everybody come out to support veganism. I am a vibe-based person, so if something in the beginning of an event, like what happened with the missing signage and lackluster goody bags, I am very prone to sour on it from the start! Too bad for the lack of vegan restaurant presence, like Veganized, Positivitea and Veggie Heaven didn't make an appearance! But it's good to know that the vegan scene is brewing in NJ, the birthplace of my veganism!

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    1. It's good to know so many people were interested! I hate being disappointed. Sounds like next year will be much improved.

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  12. Hey Abby, so excited to see that my denim jacket caught your eye! Did you see all my vegan pins that were on the front of the jacket?

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    1. Oh my goodness, I never saw you from the front! I should have known it was even better. Rock on with your vegan self; LOVED IT!!

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