Downtown Memphis' rooftop season has officially started.
Last Thursday night, the season opener for the Peabody hotel's Rooftop Parties, the lobby was packed. Girls in sundresses and heels mingled with guys in polo shirts and shorts. And a crowd waited in a line 30-deep to catch an elevator to the roof where national recording artist Kevin Rudolf and aristocrunk rappers Lord T & Eloise were performing.
"Thursday night was one of the largest I've ever been to. They were turning people away at the elevator," says downtown resident Brian Crider. "It was pretty packed by 7 p.m. I had a few friends that never made it up."
About 1,500 people hit the Rooftop Party over the course of the evening, according to hotel staff.
Two years ago, that would not have been the case.
"In 2008, 700 people on the roof would have been a really good night," says Kelly Earnest, the director of public relations for the Peabody. "Last year, 700 people would have been a really light crowd."
The 2008 season was not good for the Peabody Rooftop Party. It rained 40 percent of the time, and attendance got so bad that the hotel even considered canceling the next season altogether.
"One night we had 150 people. [The event] was fizzling," Earnest says. "We knew we had to make it work or cancel it. Nobody wanted to let a legacy event like the Peabody Rooftop die on our watch."
Rooftop Parties have a long history at the hotel. Originally called Sunset Serenades, they started in 1939 after the Skyway Ballroom was added to the top floor. When the hotel was reopened in 1981, the Rooftop Parties started anew ... and continued for the next 27 years.
Other than the weather in 2008, the hotel staff wasn't able to attribute the lackluster season to any specific cause.
Instead of canceling the parties, however, they decided to look at the event from every angle. The first change they made was to front-load the line-up with larger-name acts.
"The idea is to build a buzz and a momentum that will see us through the season," Earnest says. "Once people see that the Rooftop Party is the hottest in town, they'll tell their friends."
The hotel also decided to increase its initial marketing and advertising.
"We never want to be three or four weeks into the season and hear people say they had no idea the Rooftop Parties had started," Earnest says.
They also brought in a new radio partner, Q107.5, that has enlisted more name acts, such as Rudolf. They increased their social media presence on Twitter and Facebook and added a rooftop cigar bar.
Whatever they did worked. During last year's season opener, which also featured Lord T & Eloise, it was raining. Though the hotel moves the party into the ballroom when it rains, it could have been another disappointing night.
"We had 1,900 people attend and we went, wow. We did something right," Earnest says.
This season, they've continued to tweak the formula: adding new bars as needed, getting rid of drink tickets, and offering a $50 season pass that includes VIP access and valet parking. They've also raised the admission price for the first time since 1981, but that now includes a drink.
"We wanted to be able to provide better entertainment," Earnest says of the $10 cover charge. "Last night, we brought in the Beale Street Flippers just to have a little fun, and they brought a drum line with them."
The changes haven't gone unnoticed. Last year, they sold 50 season passes. In the first week of this season, they've already sold twice that many.
Frank Howell, an accountant at FedEx, says he tries to go to as many of the parties as possible, because he enjoys the atmosphere.
"It's kind of a cross between a mini-club atmosphere and a concert atmosphere. It's a big party, but they also make sure they bring big acts up there," he says.
As someone who once walked up 13 flights of stairs to get to the party, Howell says better crowd control has made the party more accessible and fun.
"Adding the lines to the elevator makes it so much faster," he says. "Before, there was no line for the elevator, and it was a free-for-all to get on the elevator to go up. It was the same thing coming down.
"Even though the crowds have grown, it's a lot better."
For more on this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's "In the Bluff" blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/InTheBluff/.