HARLINGEN — The countdown clock on the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival website says all anybody needs to say.
Just 559 days to the next festival.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but given the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus, the festival board decided to cancel this year’s event and focus instead on next year’s version, which as usual will be held in early November.
“It just became an impossible task with not being able to get together and plan, not knowing what would come back in the fall, and the demographic that we serve are those that are the most vulnerable, so it was a very heavily weighed decision,” Sue Griffin, chair of the birding festival, said Wednesday.
Given the uncertainty of how the coronavirus pandemic will play out in the months ahead, Griffin said it would have been irresponsible to crowd birders on tour buses not knowing if they were being exposed to COVID-19.
“In this year of social distancing, how could we put 40 people on a bus and send them to one location and feel good about that?” Griffin asked. “So if you start saying, well let’s just put one person in each seat, then it’s not viable to pay for the bus without having to raise our prices so exorbitantly.”
This year would have marked the 27th annual birding festival here in the Valley, an event that has gained an international reputation, each year drawing participants from more than 30 states and more than a dozen countries.
It also has evolved to provide a significant economic boost to the city.
Griffin added that organizational financial considerations also played a major role in the decision to postpone this year’s festival.
“At this point we’ve had very little out-of-pocket expense,” she said. “As we go forward, then that begins to build. The first of May is usually when we have completed our schedule, which we have, and we have started notifying our guides that they’re going to have a job, we started contacting sponsors, vendors, all of that.
“And then we start a very intense advertising campaign which is very costly,” Griffin added. “So we felt that we had to make the decision now, because if we were to go forward and spend all our funds and then have to cancel at a later date, we would have no reserve funds to start another festival in 2021.”
More than 80 vendors sold products like high-end binoculars and spotting scopes, as well as global birding trips, at last year’s festival, which for the first time was held in the new Harlingen Convention Center.
Sponsorships, both local and national, are a significant funding source for the festival, and given the global economic distress caused by the coronavirus, even long-time backers were suspect about their ability to provide money this year.
“We already knew that some of our sponsors were not going to be able to support us this year,” Griffin said.
Griffin said the birding festival is weighing the possibility of having some presence around November, even if it is online or a scaled-back type of individual tour.
“One of the things that we will consider doing is we will be considering some virtual field trips that people can go along with us on social media and we also will be considering some self-guided trips for those people willing to come on their own and enjoy the Valley,” Griffin said.
“Hopefully by next year everything will return to normal, and we will have had just a little hiccup in our run of 27 years, and pick up where we left off.”