How TomorrowWorld is pumping millions into Atlanta’s economy

Last year, the electronic dance music festival in Chattahoochee Hills generated $72 million in regional impact
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

They serve sausage, grits, eggs, you name it, at Charlie’s Store. Every morning, the locals come in for a plate and maybe a scratch-off. Then they gas up at the Texaco pumps and head to work somewhere off Cascade Palmetto Highway.

As popular a stop as it is most days of the year, Charlie’s in late September is something else entirely. It adds two registers to keep lines moving. A cashier might put on a pink wig. Thumping club music plays from the speakers. The store doubles up on beer. The reason? TomorrowWorld, a three-day electronic dance music festival that draws upwards of 160,000 people to a patch of farmland near Charlie’s, in Chattahoochee Hills, about 30 minutes south of Atlanta.

Maybe electronic dance music—better known as EDM—is, to you, a bunch of bleeps, boops, and digital drums that frantically build and build and build until you want to pull your teeth out, and then the bass drops like a piano on your head, and your head explodes, and then everyone dances on top of your brains. Or maybe you hate it. Either way, EDM is huge. Once confined to late-night raves and sweaty Ibiza clubs, the music has gone mainstream; last year, revenues associated with EDM—from downloads to club dates to festivals—totaled $6.2 billion. Like any genre, EDM has its superstars, and these DJs are paid superstar figures: Calvin Harris gets $400,000 a night in Las Vegas.

As it turns out, EDM is also huge for Georgia. The state has hosted TomorrowWorld since its inception in 2013, when brothers Michiel and Manu Beers decided to create a sister event to their festival in Belgium, Tomorrowland. Although Belgium and Chattahoochee Hills may seem like unlikely siblings, Tomorrow­World’s location—8,000 acres of farmland that’s used mostly for horse shows—is owned by Carl Bouckaert, a carpet manufacturer from Belgium who was on the country’s Olympic equestrian team. His son wanted to get into the music industry, so they started hosting festivals on the property in 2007. Bouckaert offered up the site for TomorrowWorld and welcomed the massive construction effort it required—building bridges, putting down more than 100,000 square feet of wooden flooring, and erecting numerous stages.

The airport was a big draw, too, given that most TomorrowWorld attendees came from outside metro Atlanta the first year. Total attendance hit about 126,000 in 2013. The next year, 160,000 fans showed up to see top DJs like Diplo, Steve Aoki, Avicii, and Skrillex. That’s double the typical crowd at Bonnaroo, the laid-back jam-band music and camping festival that has been held on 700 acres in Tennessee since 2002.
Locals who went to TomorrowWorld last year spent about $97 per day while out-of-towners (which includes foreigners from some 75 countries) shelled out $148 a day, which translates to about $72 million in economic impact in the region, according to a study by analytics firm ICF International.

Compare that with other big events in the metro area. In 2014, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game translated to $23 million in economic impact. The SEC Football Championship? $39 million. Dragon Con? $55 million in 2013. Only AmericasMart Atlanta International Gift and Home Furnishings Market boasts bigger numbers than TomorrowWorld, with $106.3 million from its July show and $132.8 million from its January show.

Doing the economic impact dance

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Jamie Reilly, TomorrowWorld’s project director, says the economic impact in 2015 could grow by as much as 20 percent over last year. But Bruce Seaman, an associate professor of economics at Georgia State University, is skeptical, given that attendees spend most of their time and money on the event’s grounds. They might fly on Delta Air Lines, but does that money really go directly into the state’s economy? If they arrive early and leave later, are they staying in hotels or crashing with friends? During the five-day camping and three-day music festival, most fans stay in DreamVille, the campground on-site, where accommodations cost anywhere from $417 (bring your own tent) to $42,500 (for a 12-person luxury tour bus).

“A lot of the money will leave right away,” Seaman says.

To keep more of the money here, the festival organizers in July hosted their first vendor fair in Fairburn, looking for local businesses to do production, heavy machinery, special effects, operations, catering, and transportation work.

NG Turf of Whitesburg is sodding the grounds so they’ll be more durable in bad weather. Atlanta Paving and Concrete Construction Company of Norcross is smoothing out some of the roads on the property to reduce the dust kicked up by golf carts. And Atlanta Pools of Cumming is designing a swimming spot for the festival’s VIP area.

“The past two years, we had eight stages, and this year we have nine,” Reilly says. “The main stage will have a much bigger and much more complex technical and logistical setup, and that will require a lot more staff. We’ll also need more staff to support bigger attendance.”
And then there’s the impact on businesses like Charlie’s Store. “In one weekend,” says Brooke Lochore, Tomorrow­World’s liaison in Chattahoochee Hills, “they do the amount of sales a larger grocery store would do in a week. A business can make its entire year with TomorrowWorld.”

Vital stats

$30 million
Cost to stage last year’s festival

Cost for 12 people to rent a “TomorrowWorld Manor,” which includes VIP tickets and an air-conditioned tour
bus for sleeping.

Number of years in TW’s permit in Chattahoochee Hills

This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue under the headline “TomorrowWorld = Today’s profits.”