Why did night market end in ‘disaster’? Organizer cites parking woes, unexpected bus cancellation

Published 8/24/2022 2:28 p.m. EDT, Updated 8/24/2022 9:52 p.m. EDT

Thousands of people attended the sold out Asia Collective Night Market in Howard County Saturday, August 20.

The organizers of an Asian food festival that brought some Howard County roads to a standstill and drew condemnation from ticket holders and police say they underestimated the challenges of organizing an event intended to draw 25,000 people.

In addition, Asia Collective Night Market organizers said even expected issues, such as needing overflow parking, became a problem due to unexpected challenges — as when shuttle buses they booked for the event fell through.

The group said they are responding to people who have emailed them about the event and are working to issue refunds.

“We would like to sincerely apologize to those who were stuck in the traffic and were not able to get into our event,” Yumin Gao, one of the organizers, wrote in an emailed statement, “especially those who travelled hours to visit and families with youths.

“Certainly, we underestimated the challenge of parking at Howard County Fairgrounds; given the scale of our event and lack of experience/expertise, we were not able to park cars efficiently.”

The Saturday festival was called a “disaster” by attendees, who described disorganization resulting in hourslong waits in traffic, lengthy lines for food, no shade from the August sun and little safety preparation.

Gao, along with friend Ben Wang and their partners, Sophie Shi and Pauline Liu, formed the collective in December of last year and previously told The Baltimore Banner he and friends had been disappointed by other food festivals in Baltimore and Washington D.C., including a D.C. festival which experienced issues with crowding and long lines. One reason Asia Collective Night Market charged $10 per ticket, they said, was an attempt to limit crowd size.

In the months and weeks before the Asia Collective Night Market, organizers worked with Howard County Police to prepare for a huge influx of people and cars to the fairgrounds’ parking lot.

The permit and operation plan, obtained from the Police Department, show the Asian food festival was expected to attract 20,000 to 25,000 patrons as well as heavy traffic congestion in the area. For the event, organizers allotted about 1,000 parking spots, and law enforcement planned to use lots at a nearby farm museum for overflow parking. Howard County Police provided a traffic plan that included deploying 22 officers intended to keep cars and pedestrians moving.

The group shared receipts showing contracts for signs, lighting, fencing, shuttle buses and other preparations.

When it came to implementing the plan, things fell apart.

Sign Up for Alerts
Get notified of need-to-know
info from The Banner

Police spokesperson Sherry Llewellyn said organizers did not follow recommendations provided by the Police Department, hired inexperienced parking attendants and let people into the festival without tickets. Though the event was permitted for 25,000 attendees, “far more” attended who were not ticketed, Llewellyn said.

In a meeting three days before the event, police suggested a number of changes, including moving the event from the Howard County Fairgrounds parking lot into the fairgrounds itself, she said.

“This was the first time this event was held in Howard County and due to the poor coordination, we don’t expect to allow it to be hosted in our jurisdiction again,” Llewellyn wrote in an email.

Gao said the group was not able to book volunteers or staff who had prior parking experience at the fairgrounds and shuttles to bring attendees from an overflow lot never arrived. The organizers had booked two 24-passenger charter buses the day before the event, according to a receipt. Gao said by the time police recommended shifting venues on Aug. 17, it was too close to the event and would have been very difficult to make the suggested changes.

The Howard County Fair Association, the nonprofit group that oversees fairground rentals, did not return requests for comment.

The turnout at the Asia Collective Night Market shows that there is a demand for more Asian-centered events, said Robbin Lee, an organizer of the Baltimore-based Charm City Night Market who provided early guidance to the co-founders of the the Howard County event.

“When we only try to have them once a year, we have this swell of demand that is quite hard to manage,” said Lee. “To me, one of the solutions is to do more of it and to get more chances at it.”

The stakes for food festivals are high, and people often have high expectations, she said. Running festivals is risky and hard.

In its first year, in 2018, the Charm City Night Market attracted 12,000 people to two city blocks and ran into similar issues with long lines and overcrowding, Lee said. Criticism was muted because the event was free and open to the public, she said.

“We’re given the time, space and grace to try something because we knew there was demand for it. We learned what we could do better,” she said. Its second year, the event expanded to six blocks and 20,000 attendees. “You could see we learned so much ... on how to create flow, spread people out and how to time things.”

“We, as Asian-centric event organizers, need the time and space to get it right,” Lee said.

Lisa Yee, who drove to the fairgrounds from Gaithersburg, enjoyed the dance and music performances and the activities she went to with her daughter, like the face painting and games vendors. Conceptually, the festival had seemed an amazing experience that would celebrate a wide range of Asian cultures, she said, but the execution was what fell short.

But Yee is sympathetic to the organizers, saying they are young and they had a great idea. Some of the backlash they are receiving is valid, Yee said, and she thinks that those who want and need a refund should receive it. But others are taking it too far by publishing the organizers’ personal social media accounts and encouraging others to call their places of work. That type of reaction is “awful,” she said, and unwarranted.

“Yes, they should pay for their mistakes,” she said, referring to giving people their refunds. “But that doesn’t mean you attack them outside of this particular event.”

Instead, Yee said, she hopes for more constructive criticism. She wants to see more events in Maryland like the Asia Collective Night Market that celebrate different Asian cultures. She suggested dividing the event into multiple sessions or using technology to create virtual waitlists for vendors.

Ariane Demesa, who co-owns pop-up food vendor So Sarap, has been in the business for two years selling Filipino street meals at events.

“[The Asia Collective Night Market] was probably one of our busiest pop-ups that we’ve ever participated in,” she said.

By the end of the festival, they had gone through almost 10,000 pork, chicken and beef skewers, she said. Other food items, like pork and chicken intestines, were the first ones to sell out.

The organizers took care of the vendors and did their best to provide them with what they needed, Demesa said. She said they let them know the event was going to have more people than they had previously anticipated. It wasn’t really an issue, she said, and they were better prepared. Things like that sometimes happen at festivals.

“It definitely went well for us,” she said.

She said it was sad to hear that customers had complaints about the event. But it was the first time the Asia Collective Night Market was being held, she said. Organizers and vendors don’t need to focus on the negative, she said, but should listen to what people are saying so they can do better.

“It’s a learning process,” she said.

Read more: