Early on in the pandemic, Courtney Gibson and Caitie Phillips dreamed of going to a local bar with some girlfriends, throwing back a few White Claws and belting out a bunch of Taylor Swift tunes at the top of their lungs.
That might have been a regular Saturday night for these two millennials before COVID. Instead, they’d been shuttered indoors for months on end, desperately craving a sense of community like so many others.
“What if one day we hosted a Taylor Swift-inspired dance party for more than just our circle of friends?” they wondered.
Taylor Swift fans — who affectionately call themselves “Swifties” — are known throughout the world for their unwavering loyalty and steadfast dedication to the iconic singer-songwriter. Swifties have formed one of the largest fan bases on social media, attended album listening parties, camped out for concerts and most recently shelled out thousands of dollars for Eras tour tickets. Time and again, Swifties have made it abundantly clear they are willing to shake it off and show up in the name of Tay.
So when bars and nightclubs reopened in April 2021, Gibson and Phillips decided to make their dance party dreams come true. Gibson, 33, who was producing event-in-a-box-type affairs for her business La Petite Fete, and Phillips, a 31-year-old tech marketing coordinator, hit the strip in their hometown of Orlando in search of a venue.
Neon Beach Tiki & Kitchen, the first establishment they approached, agreed to partner with them on a ticketed event that June. Suddenly, their pop culture fantasy was about to become a reality.
“It’s really important for women and members of the LGBTQ community to have a safe space where they can not only celebrate but also feel celebrated, especially now in such a difficult political climate,” said Phillips, who also designs the bulk of their Swift-inspired merch. “As women, we’ve had to fight for our place at the table in a male-dominated field like the music and entertainment industry, which has allowed us to not only grow in our careers but also help mentor other young people who may be considering getting into this business too.”
The first event sold out: They hosted 300 Swifties and even had a waitlist for guests. As diehard Swifties themselves, the pair knew the key to planning successful pop culture dance parties was to really lean into them from a fan perspective — and that they did.
The party offered everything from DJs rocking a tailored Taylor playlist and big screens featuring music videos to a curated cocktail menu and giveaways with custom-themed slim can Koozies. There were Insta-worthy photo ops, all inspired by the legend herself.
But what the women didn’t know at the time was that within 18 months of their first party, they would have hosted over 60,000 Swifties in more than 40 U.S. cities and would be dancing all the way to the bank to the tune of seven figures.
Last fall, around the same time their business hit the million-dollar mark in revenue, Swift released her “Midnights” album. The pair assumed a concert tour announcement was imminent, prompting them to consider ways to align their business with upcoming shows.
“Our first thought was how great would it be to text your group chat, plan your Eras Tour outfits, grab tickets to the ultimate Swiftie pre-party, and come together in the hours leading up to the concert,” Gibson said.
Phillips, who also serves as the chief marketing officer for Le Petite Fete, said they started by focusing on what would be most important to them as Swifties. The answer? Good cocktails and an event in close proximity to Swift’s concert.
And that is how Tay-gates, a play on traditional tailgate parties, was born. At Tay-gates, Swifties can trade friendship bracelets and create social media content with candy-colored neon signs inspired by song lyrics — all before heading over to see Swift in concert. There’s also an Eras-themed costume contest and lip sync battle for a chance to win prizes and bragging rights.
Tay-gates are hosted in much larger venues than their dance party counterparts and according to Gibson, take on more of a trade-show vibe, with attendees coming in waves. She said they are also somewhat calmer in nature since most fans are conserving their energy for the concert itself.
Tay-gaters, who are primarily women, fall into three camps: the early birds who arrive in the afternoon in an effort to avoid the intense concert traffic, those who use the event as an official meet-up destination to catch up with other concertgoers, and those who roll up at the last minute and grab a cocktail or quick bite before heading over to the stadium.
Gibson and Phillips had already built a devoted dance party fanbase in Texas, one of the first stops in the Eras tour, and it made for a great starting-off point for their events.
The pair partnered with Texas Live, a venue in Arlington about a 20-minute walk from AT&T Stadium. Over the course of three nights, they hosted more than 10,000 Swifties, with tickets ranging from $5 to $15 a pop.
“It just kind of exploded from there,” Phillips said. Soon after, venues were reaching out to them.
Their business now employs five DJs, six event assistants and multiple brand activation ambassadors in each city where they host an event. Since their Texas events, they have seen another 8,500 guests between shows in Tampa, Atlanta and Nashville, with Philadelphia, Chicago and New Jersey still on the horizon.
Tay-gate tickets range from $5 to $70 a piece depending on the city, venue and offerings; the pre-parties have grossed nearly $150k and counting in ticket sales alone.
Nicole Schwensen, 26, from Peachtree City, Georgia, attended the Atlanta festivities at Wild Leap. She said one of the best things about Tay-gates is that you don’t need to have tickets to the actual concert to attend the pre-party.
“My best friend and I were looking for a way to be around other Taylor fans and dress up and have fun without having to spend $1,000 a ticket and this was by far our best option,” Schwensen said.
Schwensen and her friend Abby enjoyed a full day of Taylor-themed slushies and food trucks and an “All Too Well” sing-a-long while regularly refreshing their phones in a last-ditch effort to find affordable tickets for the show that night. They didn’t have any luck.
But the rock ’n roll gods must have been looking down on them ― they managed to find a grassy area in the Mercedes Stadium parking lot where they set up a blanket and were able to see Swift perform on a big screen angled in their direction.
Michael Slagel, 25, an activities director for a retirement community in Tampa, was a bit luckier on the concert-ticket front. He won a pair of tickets to the first night’s show on the radio and managed to score tickets in the nosebleed section the other two nights with his sister and their friend.
A regular at their dance parties, Slagel attended the Tampa Tay-gate and even competed in the costume contest. He wore a Red tour-inspired Eras outfit and called the event “a super fun way to hang with fellow fans and celebrate Taylor being in town.”
For both co-founders, what once was just a dream to get out of the house and onto the dance floor has become both an exercise in community building and empowerment.
When it comes to fandoms, Gibson said there’s often a double standard at play; it’s accepted for men to spend ridiculous amounts of money on football and other sports, but it can be seen negatively when women drop a lot on Taylor Swift concert tickets and get together and party.
“The biggest difference is in a football game, there’s always a losing team but with a concert, especially a Taylor Swift one, everybody wins,” Gibson said.
Eleven people on their 13-member team are women. They are also intentional about partnering with women vendors and small-business owners in different cities.
Gibson said the fact that so many people come to their events alone and leave having made friends speaks volumes.
“People were hungry for a common thread,” Gibson said. “And it means the world to us to be able to create a welcoming environment where fans can come together and just be comfortable being themselves.”