Sounds of Success
Doris Sims Helps to Grow Louisville’s Music Festival Scene
After 30 years of service with the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Louisville Tourism), Doris Sims was looking forward to some well-earned time off when she retired in January of 2018.
Instead, she hopped nearly right back into the workforce as senior vice president of strategic partnerships for Danny Wimmer Presents, the company behind the Hometown Rising, Bourbon & Beyond, and Louder Than Life music festivals that take place on consecutive weekends in September. Collectively, the events have become known as the Louisville Trifesta.
“I was retired for about 28 days,” Sims says with a laugh.
Her relationship with Danny Wimmer Presents goes all the way back to when the organization first began to scout Louisville as a potential festival site in advance of Louder Than Life’s premier in 2014. The Louisville Mayor’s Office sent an inquiry to Louisville Tourism to research more, and Sims quickly realized that her youngest son Dale had been going to Rock on the Range, the organization’s rock and metal festival in Columbus, Ohio, since its inception in 2007.
“I knew that Danny Wimmer Presents would be bringing a legitimate destination festival to Louisville,” Sims says. “I recall the Grateful Dead days when people were sleeping in their cars and vans, not really bringing an economic impact. I knew this festival would be different, with attendees filling up hotel rooms and eating at nice restaurants.”
Louder Than Life came at a perfect time for Louisville, when the city was looking for more nontraditional festivals and events to help supplement business that would be lost during the downtown convention center remodel and closure. The festival opened to much success, paving the way for Bourbon & Beyond in 2017 and Hometown Rising in 2019.
Sims’ professional background in tourism has been a great asset for the festivals, as she has helped to strengthen the bond between the Los Angeles-based producers and the local partners at attractions, hotels, and city and state agencies both in Louisville and other cities where they operate festivals.
“When I came on board with Danny Wimmer Presents, we didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but we knew connecting the dots was something I do well,” Sims says. “When I go to a city we partner with, I’m an advocate for that city too. I want to make sure they’re generating as much business as they can for themselves because they partner with us much better in the future.”
For example, Sims highlights that around 60% of attendees at the Louisville festivals are from outside of Louisville and Kentucky. This generates a lot of hotel business, which in turn generates a large sum of tax dollars coming from nonresidents.
Sims works hard to foster relationships with local businesses to give the festivals an authentic, homegrown feel. In Louisville she helped bring on GE Appliances as a sponsor for the culinary stage because of their strong local presence. She and the other festival employees also work closely with best-selling author and bourbon expert Fred Minnick, who happens to be a local and has provided them with many connections in the bourbon world.
The 2018 festival series left much to be desired, with Bourbon & Beyond’s day two being cancelled, and Louder Than Life being scrapped completely due to extremely muddy conditions and rain at Champions Park downtown.
“Champions Park was green and lush, but logistically it was tough,” says Sims, noting that the site off of River Road had only one driving lane going each way. “Danny Wimmer has always said if people don’t have a good experience getting there, it’s going to set the tone for their experience, period.”
The producers knew they wanted to keep an open-venue concept, and laid the groundwork for a new festival site for 2019, named the Highland Festival Grounds. Located at the Kentucky Exposition Center, the square-shaped venue has a mixture of paved and grassy areas. With the main stages located side-by-side near the entrance, fans maximized their music viewing time while cutting down on walking from one end of the venue to the other.
“Our goal over the next few years is to help the Expo Center create an area that is more park-like,” says Sims, noting that they are looking into planting more trees in the area.
The new site also provided space for the campgrounds, and several hundred hotel rooms are within walking distance of the site.
As the Louisville Trifesta series continues to grow, so does the audience. Hometown Rising’s premier marked the first time for Danny Wimmer Presents to enter the world of country music, with superstars Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban headlining the inaugural year.
“Danny is always coming up with ideas,” Sims says. “There’s no telling what the future will be, but I’m on board. I like change and new projects, and Danny wants to be as involved in this community as possible.”
Of course there are some perks to the job for music lovers. Sims counts Ozzy Osbourne among the top stars she has met in her new gig, and celebrity sightings go all the way back to when she was working for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“I was walking backstage and saw ZZ Top on their golf cart at a porta-pot,” Sims says with a laugh. “The first years were a little more rural. I thought, ‘We really need to get real bathrooms down here,’ and we finally did.”
The challenges from COVID have been substantial.
“2020 was not easy,” Sims says. “We had to cancel all of our festivals and lay off 75% of our staff. We weren’t even sure we would have any festivals in 2021. We had to plan for the worst-case scenario and look for other solutions to accommodate the restrictions that were in place at the beginning of 2021.”
“We knew we would not be able to have the same number of festivals in 2021 as in the past,” Sims continues. “We reduced the number of festivals nationally to four and moved them all to the fall. We made the decision to keep Louder than Life because many of the tickets sold for 2020 deferred to 2021 so we had a good start. We decided to wait until 2022 to bring back Hometown Rising and Bourbon & Beyond.”
In the midst of all the challenges, there have been some new opportunities.
“We partnered with the Louisville Waterfront Park to create a concert series that would not only be conducive to social distancing, but the concerts could be brought to you by Hometown Rising or Bourbon & Beyond,” Sims says. “The Live on the Lawn at Waterfront Park Concert Series allows us to start out small and grow as restrictions are lifted. We are planning to have 10-plus concerts through September. So far, 30% of ticket sales are from outside of Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, with 28 states represented from California to New York. Music is not only helping to bring people together, it’s helping to revive the economy in Louisville.”
Even though her retirement was short-lived, Sims seems to have no qualms about where her new path has taken her.
“Not only do I get to enjoy music I love and am passionate about, I get to take a lot of the things I’ve learned over the last 30 years in the hospitality industry and apply it to the musical festival world,” Sims says. “It’s exciting in this stage of my life to be able to be doing something new, yet able to bring my talents and things I’ve learned over the years to this industry.”