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Chefs — yes, chefs — headline SI Swimsuit fest

Event promoters know they need Beard-quality bites in addition to beach babes and beats to draw a big crowd

Wondering how far a chef or restaurant brand can be extended? 

We’ll get some answers in Houston this weekend, when the city hosts Vibes by Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, a two-day event that celebrates the magazine’s just-released and always provocative swimsuit issue.

This is the third year SI Swimsuit has sponsored a fan event, but the first time high-end food will be part of the package. 

It’s a big production — 65,000 fans attended the free inaugural festival two years ago—but Sports Illustrated hopes to make it even bigger. Last year’s event in Nashville, Tenn., included food trucks, but SI hopes the addition of well-known chefs and a musical component will boost attendance. 

The larger goal: turn the event into a moneymaker. This year, VIP tickets cost $150 per day, while Saturday-only general admission is priced at $35. The event venue is Post HTX, the repurposed former U.S. Post Office building in downtown Houston.

Sports Illustrated

The caliber of chefs who will be on hand makes the ticket prices seem like a deal. The food component will be supervised by 2014 James Beard Best Chef Southwest winner Chris Shepherd from Houston’s Underbelly. The rest of the chef lineup includes:

•   Frequent Top Chef judge and 2012 James Beard Best Chef Southeast winner Hugh Acheson, who runs four restaurants in Georgia (Five & Ten, The National, Empire State South and The Florence);

•   Chicago standout and frequent TV chef show judge Graham Elliot, who also oversees the multi-restaurant Chow Town food lineup at Chicago’s epic Lollapalooza Festival;

•   Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel Gardner of Houston’s much-lauded The Pass & Provisions; and

•   2011 James Beard Best Chef Southwest winner Tyson Cole, chef/owner of Austin’s Uchi and UchiKo.

This standout crew gives attendees one good reason to come to Vibes. Concerts by a pair of Grammy-winning musical acts, R&B singer Miguel and DJ/producer Diplo, are another. But the big draw, of course, is the bevy of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, past and present, who will be on hand. The list includes supermodel, former SI Swimsuit issue cover girl and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen; 63-year-old Christie Brinkley, who appears in the 2017 SI swimsuit issue alongside her two grown daughters; and 2016 Olympic gymnastics gold medalists Simone Biles and Aly Raisman.

“This year’s ‘VIBES’ event will be an all-new and expanded experience, offering fans a cultural festival that spotlights not only the amazing stars of the iconic Swimsuit issue, but the best in food, music and more,” said MJ Day, SI Swimsuit editor.

Just to make these sure culture-seeking fans don’t get carried away, organizers plan strict enforcement of their “prohibited Items and activities” list. On it are standard event no-nos such as alcoholic beverages, weapons, outside food and drink, drugs, cameras, audio and video recording equipment, plus smoking or e-cigarette and vaping devices. Also nixed are a number of items seldom seen at chef-driven events: tents, inflatable furniture, laser pointers, drones, hula-hoop hammocks and just plain chairs. Hipsters take note: “large wallet and waist chains that exceed 12 inches in length and width of 1 inch” are banned, too.

The Vibes chef-participants will earn a good one-off payday, plus they and their restaurants will gain valuable exposure to a demographic they might otherwise never be able to reach. Their inclusion helps make the case that there may be many opportunities to extend a restaurant brand through events that don’t necessarily seem like a natural fit.

In this case, keep in mind that even though the iconic SI Swimsuit issue has a total readership of 60 million, its owner felt it necessary to add a chef component to ensure good attendance at their event. The operator takeaway: Your restaurant’s brand may have more value to others than you think.

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