The Northeastern region of the U.S. is full of top group tour destinations, ranging from some of the country’s largest cosmopolitan meccas to historical sites that deeply resonate with people of all ages and interests. Many of these places are a group tour planner or operator’s bread and butter—spots your clients routinely return to in search of these quintessential American travel experiences.
The well-deserved popularity of trips to massive group tour markets like Philadelphia, Boston, or New York is complemented by the addition of festivals, craft fairs, holiday markets, or other events celebrating local culture. Many cities and towns have festivals or fairs that highlight a unique aspect of their home, like a top agricultural product, a showcase of musical talent, or a celebration of a specific culture. With a bit of strategic planning, you can include excursions to these celebrations and expose your group to new, authentic travel experiences that will make for an unforgettable trip.
The reasons to include festivals and fairs on your next group tour itinerary are endless. These events provide ample opportunity for independent exploration and making memories together, both within your group and with the community they’re visiting. Festivals also combine all your group’s favorite travel experiences in one location. Group members can sample local delicacies, listen to a live performance from up-and-coming musicians, shop the creative works of talented local artists, and best of all, share in a rich sense of joy and community.
Festivals vary in theme and duration throughout the year, so surveying your groups’ interests and keeping scheduling in mind is key. Groups can bond over beer and brats at an Oktoberfest celebration, attend a jousting tournament at a Renaissance Fair, or feast on oysters at a seafood festival along the Atlantic coast. Contact the convention and visitors bureau of your planned destinations to see if there are any intriguing events you should include on your next itinerary or read on to find recommendations for festivals, fairs, and other events that transcend typical tour experiences.
Savor The Flavors
Who doesn’t love a food festival? Attendees can sample hundreds of small bites, taste vendors’ different takes on their favorite foods, or learn a new recipe that’s sure to impress dinner guests when they return from the tour. Food festivals often draw from the agricultural products and wildlife available in that region, offering a multifaceted farm- or ocean-to-table dining experience and opportunities to appreciate dishes unique to a particular place.
For example, each fall the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts puts on the annual Boston Local Food Festival, a celebration of the local food producers of New England. In addition to sampling vendors’ fresh foods, groups can attend demonstrations and discussions related to sustainable food habits and healthy living. Also in Beantown, the Boston Seafood Festivalattracts thousands of visitors to the Fish Pier in the Seaport District for chef demos, seashell decorating, an oyster shucking competition, and of course, lots of fresh seafood. This festival is a perfect addition to a group tour itinerary that explores Boston’s top-notch foodie scene or storied maritime past.
Speaking of seafood, every October, Wellfleet, Massachusetts, pays tribute to the region’s world-famous oysters at Wellfleet Oysterfest. Groups can indulge in freshly shucked oysters as they enjoy live music, shop from arts and crafts vendors, and attend cooking demonstrations and educational programs on oyster cultivation and food sustainability.
Rockland’s Maine Lobster Festival is held annually in August and promises “five days of fun and feasting” for attendees. Dine on lobster rolls and lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, plus participate in other maritime-themed activities like cooking contests and the coronation of the Maine Lobster Festival Delegate. A highlight of the festival is the International Great Crate Race, when participants attempt to run across floating lobster crates without falling into the harbor.
Exploring the Adirondacks with your group? Each spring, the Vermont Maple Festival is held in St. Albans, a picturesque town nestled along the eastern shores of Lake Champlain. The festival pays homage to Vermont’s long tradition of maple syrup production through its Maple Festival Parade, market of maple-infused products, and behind-the-scenes tours of the family-owned sugarhouses that make this a local delicacy. In the summertime, celebrate another of Vermont’s culinary treasures—cheese. The location and venue vary, but no matter where it goes, the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival attracts tons of visitors with its celebration of the art and science of cheesemaking. Sample the creations of more than 30 award-winning cheesemakers, attend talks with dairy farmers, and learn how to pair different cheeses with complimentary fruits, herbs, and wines.
Where Creativity Meets Culture
Come meet the makers at arts and craft fairs across the Northeast! Shopping for travel souvenirs is made more meaningful when you can learn about an artists’ process firsthand or gain a deeper appreciation for an art form through hands-on experiences. Film buffs, music lovers, and amateur crafters can bond with group members who share their hobbies at these creative festivals.
Held in April each year, the Boston International Film Festival (BIFF) is dedicated to showing a diverse and dynamic lineup of films from around the world and from local Massachusetts filmmakers. In addition to movie screenings, the festival hosts workshops, panels, and discussions aimed at discussing the filmmaking industry and trends in creative storytelling. Consider having your group attend a screening for a film with topics that corresponds with one of the museums or attractions included in the rest of your Boston itinerary.
Come hear the improvisations of world-class musicians at the Montclair Jazz Festival in Montclair, New Jersey. Located less than an hour from New York City, this musical festival has played host to performances ranging from Grammy winners to up-and-coming artists over the past 10 years. The festival culminates in a Downtown Jamboree, a full day of concerts on multiple stages, so group members can pick and choose their musical experience. Plus, there are plenty of art exhibitions and savory and sweet snacks to go around.
Immerse your group in Providence, Rhode Island’s famous arts scene at the annual PVDFest in September. Artistic energy spills from Providence’s many galleries and museums and into the city streets, where groups can wander artisan markets to shop and see craft demonstrations. Providence has another signature event, WaterFire, a captivating art installation, that features 100 bonfires that hover above the three rivers that flow through downtown. Groups can watch black-clad performers tend to the flickering fires, hear the crackling flames, smell the burning wood, and listen to enchanting musical performances. This multisensory event series typically takes place on Saturday evenings twice a month, from May through November.
A visit to a culturally focused festival is an excellent opportunity for group members to explore their own roots or directly engage with different cultures. The Kutztown Folk Festival in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, is the oldest continually operated folklife festival in America. Nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, the festival is a journey back in time. Groups can observe traditional crafts like blacksmithing, quilting, and woodcarving, and peruse the marketplace of handmade treasures for a special souvenir. This summer festival perfectly pairs with a tour of nearby Lancaster County, which is home to some of the oldest Amish communities in the country.
Other festivals connect diaspora communities with their heritage and promote cultural exchanges between attendees of all backgrounds. The Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival is held in Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River. The festival explores the spiritual significance and life-sustaining power of water, drawing on traditions rooted in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. The event schedule includes colorful boat races and dance performances by several local troupes.
The African Festival of Boston is a massive multicultural celebration of the African diaspora in New England. Held annually, this summer festival draws on traditions from across the African continent. This event provides a platform for people to share their heritage while also inviting people of all backgrounds to join in on appreciating music, dance, crafts, and cuisine with roots in Africa. In addition to attending this festival, groups can explore Boston’s Black Heritage Trail, a 1.6-mile path that winds past 15 historical sites, including the country’s oldest surviving Black church and the Museum of African American History.
The Celtic Fling & Highland Games is a spirited festival held annually in Manheim, Pennsylvania, each June. Groups will be delighted by the sounds of bagpipes, Irish step dancers, and the regalia of Scottish clans in a weekend-long homage to Celtic history and contemporary connections to Welsh, Scottish, and Irish heritage. Spectate at the Highland Games, where competitors showcase their athleticism in traditional Scottish sports like the caber toss. This festival is held on the same grounds as the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair, another great group-friendly events series held on weekends throughout late summer and early fall.
Main Image: WaterFire Festival, Providence, Rhode Island, Credit: GO Providence/N. Millard