For throngs of BottleRock spectators over the weekend, the festival experience began even before they entered the Napa Valley Expo – in the form of ambassadors like Jason Conley.
Equipped with a red vest, two-way radio and a bottomless well of good cheer, the Napa resident was in constant motion from three hours before each day’s opening until two hours after closing time – 15 hours and up to 35 miles in his running shoes. From BottleRock’s main gate on Third Street to the houses along Juarez Street, Conley pulled multiple duties as observer, team leader and cheerleader to fans, police and residents alike.
“Gettin’ ready to BottleRock? Right on!” he called out to a dozen spectators on Burnell Street clad in ponchos against a rare spitting rain over BottleRock. “It’s gonna be a great day! A little rain ain’t gonna hurt nothin’!”
Turning onto Juarez Street, he greeted two families setting up picnic tables for a neighborhood cook-out that soon would be serenaded by performances washing in from four Expo stages. “You good? You guys all OK?” Conley asked one woman, who replied “Hopefully nothing today!”
“It’s funny – my head is constantly on a swivel, and I’m saying hi to everybody,” he quipped.
When BottleRock debuted at the Expo in 2013, Conley said he felt great pride having to host front-line musicians visiting his hometown – but also noticed a sense of disorganization that included traffic congestion and the constant spillage of amplified sound over sometimes-indignant neighbors.
“Having been a light and sound engineer, and knowing about noise levels and the amount of people trying to enter and exit the venue, I knew there would be logistical issues,” said the 47-year-old Conley, who originally served as a volunteer and has supervised the program for five years. “When I learned there was a group trying to act as a buffer and go between attendees and neighbors, I was super excited to be a part of that.”
Festival ambassadors — Napa residents who are now paid for their duties by BottleRock’s producer Latitude 38 Entertainment — patrol neighborhoods surrounding the Expo, including Third, Burnell and Juarez streets and Fairview Drive.
Some 65 ambassadors staff both fixed positions and bicycle patrols, monitoring potential incidents, assisting staff and guests with water, maps or directions, and checking on the needs of those living closest to the fairground. Team members also are trained in dealing with patrons who are under the influence and getting law enforcement, medical staff or other ambassadors to the scene.
“We try to act as a buffer between the event and the neighbors, and make sure neighbors get their needs met,” Conley said, adding that such aid can include arranging for fences and barriers to protect properties against inebriated or misdirected fans. “Some residents may have special needs; there’s one woman I check on every hour, because the crowds can be frightening for her sometimes, so I check on her to make sure she’s OK.”
An ambassador’s duties can shift from stop to stop on a shift that typically lasts six hours – and unexpected event occasionally lead them to lend a hand in new ways.
On Saturday, when a male spectator disrupted a performance by Madison Beer on the Bai Stage, ambassadors were told to watch for any unusual activity at the gates in case fans tried to hurry out, according to Conley. One helper met a young fan at Third and Juarez streets and contacted her parents to inform them their daughter was safe, he said.
During one hour-long circuit Sunday afternoon, Conley turned his attention to details unnoticed by the crowds passing by. Returning to the ambassadors’ station just past the Expo’s main gate, he noticed a black electrical cord sagging a few inches beyond a curb – a potential tripping hazard for the unwary.
“Ambassador leads, can I have a check-in please?” he called into his two-way handset, asking for someone to bring a roll of tape to safely fasten the cord in place.
Strolling south down Juarez Street – with the evening swarms of Mumford & Sons and Santana fans yet to come – Conley allowed himself a brief moment of reflection.
“In these quiet moments, nothing else exists,” he said. “Nothing else exists – just me and people and the smiles.”