Kansas Citians won’t have to leave the city to enjoy a tropical escape during Labor Day weekend. The freshly announced Lei Away festival is expected to bring the spirit of the islands to the plains.
“We are highlighting all the wonderful things that are tropical-centric in Kansas City, which is ironic because it’s so landlocked,” said Johnny Dawbarn, owner of HITIDES Coffee and founder of Collective Ex. “But surprisingly enough, I think that works in our favor because people want to get back to the beach.”
Lei Away events are set for Sept. 1-3 at several locations in the Crossroads and North Kansas City, with HITIDES Coffee serving as the central hub, according to Dawbarn.
Attendees will be able to build their own schedules from Friday afternoon through Sunday evening, he added, choosing from a wide range of events such as rum tastings, ukulele lessons, and movie screenings, all of which will require the purchase of tickets.
The festival will also feature several free events, including a makers marketplace at HITIDES on Friday and Saturday, and a traditional Polynesian dance performance outside the coffee shop on Saturday evening.
Click here to view a full schedule of events.
More than two dozen local makers and vendors are already booked for the makers marketplace, Dawbarn added, noting that the event offers an opportunity to showcase the work of Kansas City’s artisan community.
“These are great players in town doing amazing stuff, so we’re just really trying to be that catalyst for highlighting all those great things,” Dawbarn said.
While the festival is expected to attract lovers of tiki culture, Lei Away will intentionally avoid using the term “tiki,” Dawbarn said, in order to make sure all attendees feel welcomed, whether they’re hardcore collectors or new fans.
“That, in our minds, is really about making it more inclusive and more immersive for everybody to join in,” Dawbarn said. “There are enthusiasts out there who believe there’s only one type of tiki, and we just don’t agree with that. We think it’s for everybody.”
Dawbarn partnered with four fellow KC-based tropical enthusiasts to organize Lei Away: Bryan Azorsky, founder of the Tiki Bar T-Shirt Club; Jordan Waterman, owner of The Black Flamingo; Ian Seiter of Creeper’s Cove; and Heather Getz.
Collaborative efforts have been the hallmark of Lei Away, Dawbarn said, noting that more than 40 local vendors, venues, and sponsors have joined the effort.
“It’s really come together way bigger than what we thought it would this first year,” he said. “It’s very flattering to feel like we’re providing something right out of the gate that people clearly want, and want to be a part of.”
On Saturday, Cinder Block Brewery in North Kansas City will launch a new beer called Kaiāulu, which means “community” in Hawaiian. The beer will be a fruited sour made with pineapple orange guava, or POG, a traditional Hawaiian drink, Dawbarn said.
Kansas City-based restaurant chain Hawaiian Bros has agreed to be a food sponsor for Lei Away, he added.
On the creative side, seven local makers collaborated to create a limited edition, collectible tiki mug, which Dawbarn said will be available for purchase to attendees who buy an escape ticket package.
Dawbarn also teased that some merchandise collaborations with local makers are in the works, including a limited collection with MADE MOBB.
“I think Kansas City is so good at connecting those dots,” Dawbarn said. “Kansas City is so networked, that when you put together something of this caliber, Kansas City is ready to support and check it out, especially in the creative scene.”
Beyond the first-year festival
Lei Away organizers are working to reciprocate the generosity of local partners, Dawbarn said, starting by encouraging attendees to visit all seven venues.
Guests will receive a custom-made Lei Away passport, which will be stamped at each event they attend throughout the weekend. Those who receive a certain to-be-determined number of stamps will be entered into a special giveaway, Dawbarn added.
“We don’t know what that number is going to be just yet, but we’ll make it pretty accessible,” he said. “I think just a few stamps and you’ll probably be entered. Hopefully it is an incentive for people to go see and support these different spaces.”
Lei Away organizers plan to have a “concierge service” at all seven locations to inform walk-up guests about other festival events and get their tickets purchased onsite, according to Dawbarn, who said more volunteers are needed.
Extra proceeds will go toward organizing next year’s festival — with the goal to make Lei Away an annual event, Dawbarn said. The organizing team has plans for exclusive merchandise drops throughout the year to keep supporters engaged.
A portion of those remaining funds will also create a scholarship fund for young Polynesian creatives in the area to pursue their artistic goals and careers, Dawbarn added.
“The idea was that those funds would go toward creative endeavors that this younger segment [of the Polynesian community] would be able to utilize,” he said. “That’s something we can contribute to beyond Lei Away, so we’re excited about that.”
Community is the common force powering Lei Away, Dawbarn said, both in terms of the organizers’ desire to create an atmosphere of fellowship, and the city’s support.
“It’s all about getting together and finding those common interests, finding that common ground where we all connect,” Dawbarn said. “It is community. That’s why we named the beer ‘Kaiāulu,’ because that means community, and to us that’s really what makes Kansas City so fantastic — not only all the great things that happen within the community, but also how great and supportive that community is.”