For dance music fans, festival season kicks off early, with the number of warm weather winter events growing apace with demand. Festivals targeting the same American audience of EDM enthusiasts took place — or will take place — this winter in Costa Rica (BPM Festival), Hawaii (next month’s ‘E Komo Mai’ festival), Florida (Groove Cruise), The Bahamas (FriendShip) and the Dominican Republic’s Paradise Festival. One of the events that made the annual winter pilgrimage for dance fans so successful the past decade, was Holy Ship, which has thrilled those who wanted to escape the cold in cities such as Chicago, and get up close and personal with their favorite DJs on a Caribbean cruise.
But this year, festival organizers (the event is produced in collaboration between founding partners HARD Events, Cloud 9 Adventures, and Bowery Presents) tried something different, perhaps sensing a sea change, or increased competition. Holy Ship debuted a new format this past weekend for its thirteenth edition, which took place in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, called Holy Ship! Wrecked. As the name implies, the floating EDM cruise is now a destination festival, taking place annually (or perhaps semi-annually in the future) at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana, a luxury resort.
“So far, the people that have been on the boat [Holy Ship] before, have been telling me ‘please don’t go back to the boat; this is amazing,’” says HARD events’ Meagan DesChenes, an executive helping to oversee the festival who has been with the brand since its founder, Gary Richards, was at the helm (Richards, who did not renew his contract with LiveNation back in 2017, has now since founded rival event FriendShip, which also takes place every January). “Everyone really wanted a boat, but you’ve got to always think ahead, redevelop, and change and keep people excited to have new experiences,” she says. Part of the reason they wanted a switch-up, was to make the festival larger, DesChenes contends.
“We can accommodate more people this way,” she adds of moving to land. Indeed, the festival site was massive, with multiple large stages and organizers pre-booking most of the nearly 2000 rooms at the property, despite the fact they suffered cancelations last year in the wake of 2019’s wave of mysterious deaths on the island. The end result was a festival that felt half full at times, and indeed it was less than sold-out (DesChenes says they had sold under 2000 packages for the four-day event). “It’s a little less than what we had on Holy Ship,” she concedes.
The end result was a mixed bag of half-empty shows for some artists, but a logistical, joyful, breeze for fans, with seemingly multiple staff members for every paying attendee, making things easy for festivalgoers who had questions (or wanted a drink).
Musically, the lineup was diverse, and impressive for a medium-sized festival. The biggest name of the bill was likely Diplo, who played two sets at Holy Ship! Wrecked, as most artists did to give fans a chance to see them early, or late, at different venues set up around the hotel (there were seven different stages at the event, not just beach stages). But the best acts at the festival, whether by accident or design, were talents from the United Kingdom or Australia. Rising UK duo Propsa, whose Prodigy-style single “Control The Party” was just added to BBC’s C-list recently, won over fans with their brand of retro-leaning club tracks Saturday night inside Club Oro. And another English duo, IvyLab, offered up much more challenging, and original, electronic music for fans who were lucky enough to catch them at their sets. England’s Chris Lake played perhaps the entire festival’s finest few hours during his marathon early Saturday morning ‘Sunrise Set’ on the beach, where fans swooned to tech house seaside.
If there was an “anthem” that permeated the entire festival, it was Australian DJ Dom Dolla’s “San Frandisco,” which has been an unstoppable underground festival staple the past six months, and fans just can’t get enough of the track (several of the DJs also on the bill, including Walker & Royce and Eli Brown, have done official remixes of the tune). Despite an early slot on the Holy Ship! Wrecked’s first night, the DJ from down under (born Dominic Matheson, pictured below) proved why he is one of the fastest rising stars on the scene, which is increasingly tilting towards tech house producers and DJs, especially in the live market.
Despite a buffet-style offering of talent booked across multiple genres of dance music, it remains to be seen if Holy Ship! Wrecked can thrive in an increasingly competitive market for winter festivals. While the all-inclusive resort at Punta Cana is pretty much the kind of vacation draw you’d expect (stunning views, multiple pools and several nice venues), the intimacy of a ship is lost, as is the ship’s proverbial ‘captain’ (part of what made Holy Ship special for fans was creator Gary Richards’ enthusiasm, embrace of attendees, and attention to detail at his events). That said, strong booking and near flawless logistics from Florida-based organizational partner Cloud9, might make this resort-based event a must attend for fans who discover it in the future.