MOREHEAD CITY — It was a relatively quiet weekend along the Morehead City waterfront, where the streets would normally be filled with crowds taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the North Carolina Seafood Festival.
The N.C. Seafood Festival Board of Directors announced in July the 34th annual festival, typically held the first weekend of October, would be altered in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The large event, complete with food and craft vendors, live music stages, carnival rides and more, was canceled, but organizers are holding virtual events throughout October.
“We held out hope until the very end that we could do something (in person), but it all came down to the risk, and our board felt it was too great of a risk to bring that many people (into Morehead City),” N.C. Seafood Festival Executive Director Stephanie McIntyre told the News-Times Monday.
Ms. McIntyre said she and the board members felt it’s important to keep fans engaged even without the in-person event, so the festival is leveraging its social media platforms to share videos and photos from past festivals and host giveaways and other planned events throughout the month. She said the festival can track participation by analyzing social media metrics, and so far, the response has been positive.
“Our main goal was to stay in contact with our fans, that’s what really keeps us going,” she said, adding that social media has proven to be a valuable tool for educating people about how to source local seafood, one of the key goals of the annual event.
This is the second time in three years extenuating circumstances have forced the N.C. Seafood Festival to cancel its waterfront celebration, which was also called off in 2018 due to Hurricane Florence. Ms. McIntyre said the recent events have been a financial blow to the festival, but the board is already planning next year’s celebration to take place Friday through Sunday, Oct. 1-3.
“For us to miss two out of three years is really difficult to swallow, but it’s prompting a lot of conversations,” she said. “We’re looking at a five- to 10-year plan and how to sustain the festival going forward.”
Festival organizers also haven’t completely ruled out holding some kind of scaled-back, in-person event once it becomes safe to do so. Ms. McIntyre said the board brainstormed numerous alternative event ideas, even throwing around the idea of a drive-thru festival, before deciding to go entirely virtual.
The annual event brings in upward of 200,000 visitors to the Crystal Coast, meaning the lack of a festival has an impact on the tourism industry, as well. However, Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority Jim Browder said the blow is somewhat softened by the fact Carteret County just experienced one of its strongest summer tourism seasons on record. Preliminary numbers show the trend is continuing into the fall.
“At least that momentum is helping carry us into the fall,” Mr. Browder said. “…I think if the Seafood Festival had been held, it would have been exceptional.”
Among the virtual event offerings, the festival is hosting virtual road races until the end of the month, in which runners can enter for a 5K, 10K, half marathon or the tri-challenge, which is all three races.
Information on other virtual events being offered throughout the month can be found at the ncseafoodfestival.org.
Contact Elise Clouser at firstname.lastname@example.org; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.