What started out as a conversation eight years ago at a monthly meeting of the Two Rivers Business Association (TRBA) turned into Kites Over Lake Michigan (KOLM), and just concluded its seventh year over the Labor Day weekend. At that meeting, the president of the TRBA was asking for suggestions on what the community can do to get more people to visit the area and make a positive economic impact as a result. I had suggested a kite festival and when the question of when to hold it was asked, a local hotelier piped up and lamented the fact that his hotel was not full Labor Day weekend and would love to see it happen then. I told the TRBA members what I needed in terms of funding, volunteers, equipment and most important, kitefliers. Thus, KOLM was born and it has been held every Labor day weekend at Neshotah Beach in Two Rivers, WI, on the quiet side of Lake Michigan.
At the first event, we had a two day attendance of about 5,000 people. Most of the attendees had no idea what to expect at a kite festival, and the positive feedback after that was overwhelming. Everyone had a memorable experience and could not wait for the following year. We had the good fortune of having David and Susan Gomberg coming over to help with the inaugural kite festival, as they usually are in some exotic locale celebrating their anniversary. They made an exception to come out to help get this event off the ground and we were very thankful for this. We had some notable kitefliers like Barbara and Alex Meyer, Bob Rymaszewski, Al Sparling, Paul Fieber, Jeff Hale, Pam and Dale Bowden, Mike and Barb Wagner, Dennis and LeAnn Lauer, Fire and Ice, O2 and numerous members from the Wisconsin Kiters Club who filled the sky with colors that weekend. The whole weekend consisted of kite flying, precision team performances, running of the bols, glider and candy drops. We made it a point to only involve the service clubs (non-profits) offering food and beverages so they can raise funds for their groups. The biggest surprise was beer sales. Everyone knows Wisconsin is synonymous with beer, but the total beer sales for the two days were 18 cans. Yes, 18 cans! And the two guys manning the stand accounted for half the sales. After that, beer was taken off and this became a great family friendly event ever since.
As with anything new, we all learned a lot on how to improve the event, thanks to the suggestions from those who were there. We went from borrowing a couple of speakers and basic sound system from the Parks and Recreation Department to getting a DJ to donate his time and professional equipment. The number of flying fields was increased, and so was the size, to accommodate the ever growing number of invited kitefliers who have now made this their “must come” kite festival annually. What started out as a modest list of invited fliers requiring 15 hotel rooms turned into one that requires over 30 rooms. The invited fliers were our best ambassadors, recommending other fliers to come and check us out.The attendance grew each year to number over 30,000 for this two day festival, making it one of the largest in the Midwest. With growth came new challenges, but each was met head on. We could not do it without the support of the City of Two Rivers’ various departments. We had picnic tables, garbage cans, bleachers and anything we needed from them.
We try to add at least one new element each year, and over the years we’ve added a night fly, bonfire on the beach, Fireworks Finale, mass ascensions of Sky Lanterns, free kite making for kids, kite exhibits, learn to fly fields, banner shows, burger and brat drops and celebrity running of the bols, Tesla Coil demonstration, world’s largest chicken dance and hokey pokey, among others. We also reconfigured the food tent area, turned the beach access road into a one-way street and added more Porta Potties! We don’t have the Midas Touch as not everything we did was successful or well received. We kept those that were popular and discarded the ones that did not meet our expectations. Our goal was for everyone there to have a great experience, be it watching the kites up in the sky, participating in the bol races and for the fliers, a great time showcasing their talents and kite collections. One of the biggest surprises was that the nighttime events drew as many people to the beach as the daytime activities. We added a free shuttle bus service to alleviate traffic congestion and parking problems and had to extend the hours to 10.00 pm Saturday night because of the number of people going there.
We could plan for everything, have the best logistics and setup but what if we don’t have the fliers? Simple, then we have no kite festival. We have been blessed that the kiting community really embraced this event and made it what it is today. People who have been coming here and be a part of this, aside form the “pioneers” include Team 180GO, Ann Vondriska, Elizabeth and Zach Gordon, Devin Corbleigh-Morrison, Larry Day, Darryl Waters, Tony and Ann Killip, Mike Gee, Ed Grys, Randy and Linda Larkey and many, many others. Each and everyone add to the whole atmosphere. The precision stunt teams and individuals keep the public mesmerized with their incredible routines. The single line fliers have their unique show kites and spectacular ground displays of banners, crowns and line laundry to fill the sky and the beach. We are glad that the list of suggestions on how to improve the event gets shorter each year, and it means that after seven years, we are doing it right!
We don’t have any secrets as to why we have a very successful and well attended event. All we do is invite our kitefliers, treat them well and make sure the spectators are entertained. We make sure we spend a little non-flying time catching up, providing a meal or two and making sure they are having fun. We have been fortunate we didn’t have any major crises or dramas that hope to keep it that way. The community support has been nothing short of exceptional, from sponsorships to volunteering to being good host to out of town visitors. As long as the support is there, Kites Over lake Michigan will take place annually on Labor Day weekend here in Two Rivers. Remember the hotelier who lamented the fact his hotel was not full on this weekend? His hotel, along with many in the county, have been fully booked for seven years in a row. Who knows, one of these years we may be able to entice the world renowned iQuad team to show up in our little slice of heaven here. Won’t that be a thrill?