DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – The day before music started on the main stage at WE Fest, things were already buzzing backstage.
A small swarm of bees were flying outside the media trailer, stirred from their nest in a hay bale used as a barricade.
As a group of staffers removed the bales and took care of the bees, John Gourley, director of marketing at WE Fest, was all smiles
"Yet again another gorgeous week for WE Fest," he said.
Bees aside, Gourley and the festival's staff have a lot to be happy about.
Braving through road construction in the area, campers streamed into the festival's grounds Wednesday. The 33rd annual version of the three-day fest, which starts today, is close to a sellout, with limited tickets and campsites available, as of Wednesday afternoon.
The biggest purchase, however, was announced in November, and will bring a few changes to Soo Pass Ranch that WE Fest regulars will no doubt notice.
Connecticut-based Townsquare Media, th
e third-largest collection of radio stations, bought WE Fest last year, making the largest country music and camping festival the largest of Townsquare's seven events.
Of Townsquare's 310 stations, five are in North Dakota, all in Bismarck, and 24 in Minnesota, the closest to Detroit Lakes being in St. Cloud.
The purchase gave WE Fest staffers tools needed to move the festival forward, as Townsquare has its own Web content developers such as country news websites Taste of Country and The Boot.
"Merging what we do so well with the digital world is a great marriage," Gourley said.
He's also excited about a WE Fest app Townsquare made that allows concertgoers to pin their car, campsite or where they'll meet friends.
The app also connects to the schedule so you can plan out who you want to see and employs beacons that will beep as you approach a vendor offering a deal.
Not all of the improvements to the festival experience are digital.
New showers in the campground, additional food and beverage options as well as goods like firewood are being made more available in the campgrounds.
"The beauty of social media is that we hear back right away about what people want," Gourley said.
Festival organizers also arranged to have the car service Uber on hand to give patrons rides. Gourley directed first-time Uber users to go to the WE Fest website, www.wefest.com, and get a promo code allowing for a free ride up to $20.
Gourley said one of next year's headliners will be announced around 10 p.m. Friday, just before Miranda Lambert takes the stage. Still, ticket sales for 2016 have been solid, even with no acts announced.
"That's a testament to people knowing we'll do the best show on the circuit," Gourley said.
He said the full lineup for 2016 would be announced by the end of the fall.
But on Wednesday, country fans weren't looking past Saturday night when Blake Shelton closes out the festival on the main stage. That's who Samantha Norton, 19, and Ashlyn Jorgenson, 17, were both looking forward to seeing. Their friend Adam Booth, 18, was looking forward to seeing Shelton's ex-wife, Miranda Lambert. The friends all drove up from Elk River, Minn., for their first WE Fest.
Booth added that he was looking forward to the people watching.
"I want to see what it's like to be here," said Jorgenson. "I hear all these stories. Some good, some bad. But those people always come back."
People like Derek and Ann Tesch of Alexandria, Minn., who have only missed one WE Fest in 20 years.
"WE Fest is what you make of it," said Ann. "If you want that hardcore partying, you can do that, but if you don't, you don't have to."
For Derek, WE Fest is all about family. In addition to coming up with his wife, Ann, he's been bringing along his parents, John and Lillie Tesch for years. Now that his daughters, Katie and Amy, are old enough, it's three generations of the family getting together.
"For us, it's a time to come up and be with family. We love camping," Derek said. "It's our summer vacation."
Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander cautioned drivers to be aware of construction in the area, particularly on U.S. Highway 10, and the potential for rain showers throughout the day.
"We want people to have fun and just use common sense," he said.
WE Fest Schedule
2:45 p.m.—Maiden Dixie
6:15—Big & Rich
8:30—Hank Williams Jr.
2:45 p.m.—Randy Rogers Band
2:45 p.m.—Swon Brothers
6:15—Eli Young Band
If you go
What: WE Fest
When: Today, Friday and Saturday
Where: Soo Pass Ranch, Detroit Lakes, Minn.
Info: Only general admission tickets remain, $99 per day or $175 for all three days. www.wefest.comor (800) 493-3378
In The Forum: Look for live coverage of WE Fest daily through Sunday, including reports from the Soo Pass Ranch and concert reviews.