A National Gathering In Rural Nevada: How Does Elko Do It?

Feb 6, 2017

For many cities, an influx of a few thousand people for an event might not be a big deal. But for Elko, it can take a lot of planning for something like the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which wrapped up this weekend.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick looks into the logistics of putting together a large-scale national event in rural Nevada.

“I’ll give you the thumbs up from back there to start,” says Devon Blunden, who spent much of last week helping performers get ready for their shows—by making sure audio and visuals worked seamlessly.

“So everything we just did was a second test, but you never know if some ghost is going to sneak into the machine and run amok,” he says.

This is Blunden’s eighth year doing technical support at the Gathering and he also does marketing for Travel Nevada, the state’s tourism agency. He represents just one cog in an intricate planning and operations machine.

Parking is a premium at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, so shuttle vans take visitors back and forth between the main venue at the Elko Convention Center and the Western Folklife Center in downtown.
Credit Noah Glick

“It’s a festival that takes place in multiple venues, and so all that set up is crucial,” he says. “It can feel kind of crazy, it can feel pretty hectic, but by this point in the week, the thing kind of starts to run itself.”

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has evolved over its 33 years, and now includes a wide range of musical acts, panel discussions, workshops, films and dancing. This year, approximately 5,000 people attended, which represents nearly 25 percent of Elko’s population.

The event is put on by the Western Folklife Center in downtown Elko, but the main venue is the Convention Center across town.

Don Newman is the executive director for the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority.

“For us we probably begin initial planning probably six months out,” he says.

Because of the event’s wide reach, Newman says one of the biggest priorities is making sure visitors can easily move between venues—or have more options at each one.

“Last year was the first year we opened our new conference center and that gave them the ability to consolidate some of their peripheral events under one roof at the convention center.“

Visitors browse crafts and wares in the Mercantile Marketplace, located in the newly-opened Elko Conference Center.
Credit Noah Glick

Newman says the convention center now has more space for amenities. A mercantile marketplace allows silversmiths and leatherworkers to sell necklaces or hides. And local food vendors, including a Basque deli and a farm-to-table food truck, offer visitors a chance to grab a bite between sessions.

Elko Mayor Chris Johnson says the new addition could be just the first of many.

“The convention center was built in the 70s and it has paid off immensely to be able to have different events here,” he says, “and I think we could probably look at another expansion.”

But that’s just one venue. For the Western Folklife Center, which organizes and hosts the event…

“The Gathering is a year-round cycle of work for us,” says Gathering Manager Katie Aiken.

She says the Western Folklife Center begins taking applications and listening to submissions in March. Then there’s coming up with the year’s theme, finding the right mix of talent, and making sure there’s chemistry among performers.

“I have a really large corkboard wall with post-it notes, and we do sort of a mix-and-match process and just see how things feel to us,” she says, “try to match people together who might have some good energy on stage.”

Cowboy Classics Old and New brought together veterans Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Don Edwards alongside up-and-coming musician Andy Hedges.
Credit Noah Glick

Aiken says she interviews performers and tries to pair people on stage based on a variety of things, like mixing old-timers with newcomers, but she says artists often do that amongst themselves.

And even though she’s involved in most of the planning, she won’t take credit for it.

“Well the great thing about the Gathering is it really is an Elko-wide event. The whole community sort of turns out for this and really contributes to it. We have almost 400 volunteers every year, some of whom are from out of town, but many of whom are local.”

A lot could go wrong during the week-long festival, but even if it does, AV guy Devon Blunden says most of the cowboys are pretty understanding.

“With TED talks, I feel like a malfunction there would be judged a little more harshly than it would here in Elko,” he jokes.

The Gathering wrapped up Saturday night—with no major glitches.