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Putting together Sailfest

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published July 11. 2013 4:00AM   Updated July 14. 2013 3:13PM

If this was Oz, the dude behind the curtain - to whom you are to pay no attention - would pull a few switches and push a few buttons. Colored smoke would swirl and obfuscate and when it cleared - presto! - the kingdom of Sailfest would magically appear on the streets and waterfront of downtown New London.

Truth told, there's no sorcery involved - just a lot of hard work.

Barbara Neff, the executive director of Neff Productions, the outfit that puts on Sailfest, scarcely hangs a THE END sign at the close of one Sailfest before she starts planning for the following year - and the goal, as always, is to be a bigger, better experience for fans, vendors, businesses and the community at large.

The 36th edition of Sailfest takes place Friday through Sunday, and it marks the 17th year with Neff in charge. But what, exactly, does that mean?

"It's funny," she says. "My sister's an attorney. My family knows what she does. But they're always asking me, 'What do you actually do?' Well, sometimes I'm booking bands, sometimes I'm booking vendors, sometimes I'm booking Porta Potties ..."

Neff probably didn't realize the commitment when she idly wondered, 17 years ago, what it would take to return Sailfest to its former glory. The once-freewheeling festival had dwindled from a three-day affair to one, and Neff was sitting in the now-defunct Bank Street Roadhouse with owner Tom Crosby.

"My best ideas come over beers," Neff laughs. "We were reminiscing about the old days of Sailfest. Not only was it fun, but it was like Christmas in the summer because all of the local businesses did really well. We decided we wanted to bring it back."

Neff and Crosby negotiated the civic system, through the New London City Council and the Downtown New London Association and, after being nominated from the floor at a meeting, Neff won the Sailfest presidency by one vote.

She spent the next year traveling to virtually every fair or carnival in New England, meeting with concessionaires and amusements folks. Crosby got busy booking live entertaiment.

Neff says she learned a ton studying the Big E Fair in Massachusetts.

"The Big E has a process where they have you set up a booth in demonstration and show you can work with the public. I also went around the Big E and looked for items that we didn't have that they might be interested in selling at our event," she says.

Neff's and Crosby's first Sailfest was a big success, but, while Crosby loved it, Neff says he couldn't keep up with his business. Neff carried on.

Until 2000, Neff ran Sailfest for no money. When the 2001 Sailfest was postponed because of OpSail, she took note that the person brought in to coordinate OpSail was paid a lot of money.

"Wow, people get paid to do this?!" Neff remembers thinking. Neff stepped down, and a Sailfest committee was formed that then hired Neff as a salaried executive director. The organization has grown; there is a 45-person Sailfest committee now, with over 200 participating vendors and a waiting list for those who'd love to be here.

Neff says out-of-town vendors pay more to participate than locals, and the goal is for Sailfest to bring in vetted concessionaires who don't offer what a local business can provide.

"People sometimes think Sailfest is a local or regional event," Neff says. "But it's not. It's really grown, and it's much larger than I ever thought it would be. Statistics tell us people come from New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island on a regular basis."

Does Neff have the greatest job in the world?"

She smiles. "Yes."

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