Elvis v Tamworth: the battle for the hottest dates on Australia’s country calendar

Two of the biggest regional music events are at loggerheads after a Covid-induced date change has seen the Tamworth Country Music festival muscle in on the Parkes Elvis festival celebration.

Parkes organisers said they were already experiencing ticket cancellations and event supply constraints as fans were forced to choose their favourite regional music festival.

Tiffany Steel, the director of the Parkes Elvis festival, said that every year prior to Covid-19, the Parkes Elvis festival was held first over the second week in January to coincide with the King’s birthday.

The beauty of it was that many attendees then travelled on to Tamworth for their music festival usually held in mid to late January.

Steel said since Tamworth’s announcement she was still processing cancellations from people who had decided to go to Tamworth.

“We have had tour groups that do both festivals cancel and glamping tours that do both, who don’t have enough tents, have told us they’re cutting their tents by half,” she said.

Steel said the full extent of the impact of the date clash was still unknown as the cancellations were “still trickling through”.

Parkes Elvis festival announced on 30 September last year it would be moving the 2022 festival to April 20-24 due to concerns around Covid-19.

A week out from Tamworth’s 10-day event due to commence on 14 January, the organisers announced that the changes to Covid-19 restrictions had made it impossible to proceed with the festival, which would be postponed and held 18-24 April.

“I was absolutely gobsmacked that they’ve made that decision,” Steel said.

She said the Parkes Elvis festival kept the Tamworth Country Music festival in the loop regarding its decision to postpone Parkes’ festival, so to only find out about Tamworth’s decision via social media was “shocking”.

Steel said there’s not only a “big crossover” with festival fans but also performers, suppliers and markets.

“It would make sense to split the two up so people don’t have to choose, and people in the events industry who have lost all their income over the last 18 months don’t have to choose either,” she said.

“Parkes Elvis festival is a really big deal to Parkes.”

For Steel the success of the festival is also personal – her parents, Bob and Anne, were the originators of the very first festival in 1993.

Inspired by their love of Elvis, they opened a restaurant in Parkes in 1980 called Gracelands after the star’s home. The idea for an Elvis festival later developed as “a reason to stay in town and party” during the January period, which had historically been a very quiet and very hot time for the town.

Steel said prior to the pandemic, the festival brought an influx of visitors, an additional 25,000 people in a town of 15,000, and $13m to the local economy.

Gail Richardson, a Parkes local, said the festival “helps kickstart the economy, especially for smaller shops and businesses” with a flow-on effect that helps people get employment.

“The whole kit and caboodle,” she said.

Steel said the wider area also benefited as neighbouring towns including Forbes, Bogan Gate, Trundle, Eugowra, and Tullamore found their accommodation booked out during the festival.

The local federal member for Parkes, Michael McCormack, said it was a “hound dog of an act to do by Tamworth to step on Parkes’ blue suede shoes and now they’re all shook up”.

McCormack is one of the festival’s fans, known to dress up and perform at the festival.

“I know you get ribbed about getting dressed up as Elvis, but in January it’s the only thing on. If you don’t dress up and take a part, it’s frowned upon,” McCormack told Guardian Australia.

McCormack said due to Covid, the festival was never going to get pre-2019 crowd levels, given restrictions in place.

“But what happens now that the artists, visitors and suppliers they usually share with Tamworth, they’re going to have divided loyalties,” said McCormack. “Do I go to Tamworth or Elvis?”

Ken Keith, the mayor of Parkes, wrote to Russell Webb, the mayor of Tamworth, to express his “great disappointment”.

“Tamworth were well aware when we were going to hold ours, but they elected in the end to go for the same date,” Keith said.

He was still confident the festival would be a success, including Australian-first international performances such as Taylor Rodriguez, the 2019 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Champion.

Webb said the decision to postpone Tamworth’s 50th Country Music festival was not taken lightly and finding suitable new dates was a significant logistical challenge.

“I totally understand the disappointment from Parkes that the Elvis festival and our milestone overlap but unfortunately it simply could not be avoided,” Webb said.

“There were many reasons why 18-24 April were the only suitable dates for us to postpone our 50th celebration to. However, I am extremely confident that while both festivals will run at the same time this year, both will be a success for each community in these very challenging times.”

Webb said that he intended to write back to Keith to advise him how things unfolded last Friday extremely quickly.

“We simply did not have time to consult or call the organisers of the Parkes event before we made the public announcement about our festival on Friday afternoon – it was a real whirlwind of activity with hundreds of contractors and services providers still in the process of being contacted,” Webb said.

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