When Saratoga First Night was canceled in 2020, it was a blow to Saratoga’s morale but, given the pandemic, was to be expected. When it was canceled again in 2021, the future of the beloved annual New Year’s Eve arts event began to look bleak. Until Robert Millis stepped in.
A born-and-raised Saratogian, Millis spent most of his business life in the tech world in New York City, Boston and Silicon Valley, before returning to the Spa City in the early 2000s. “They always say that your last job before retirement should be a passion business,” he says. “My passion is music.” So, about 10 years ago, Millis founded 398 Group, a consulting business that advises music venues and festivals from coast to coast. “My niche became fixing broken festivals,” he says. And, though the public may not have known it, Saratoga First Night was broken.
Millis got together with Commissioner of Accounts Dillon Moran, Discover Saratoga, the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce and the Saratoga City Center to propose a new plan: Drop the name First Night and reinvent Saratoga’s annual celebration as New Year’s Fest. “A lot of people don’t realize First Night is a franchise and you have to actually rent it each year,” Millis says. “There are also rules and regulations you’ve got to follow. And what we were trying to do didn’t comply with those regulations.”
For one, the team wanted to turn the festival into a two-day celebration (the annual 5K will now run on New Year’s Day). Millis also wanted to shift the music programming from local cover bands to original, national acts (Toronto-based alt-country band Cowboy Junkies will headline this year’s festival). Finally—and this is a big one—they wanted to serve alcohol (it is New Year’s Eve, after all!) at the music venues, something that wasn’t possible under the First Night franchise. Now, downtown bars including Putnam Place and Ice House will be able to host New Year’s Fest performances, making the festival more walkable than ever before.
But while there will definitely be some changes come December 31, one tradition will remain the same. “We had sponsors tell us, ‘We’ll come on board, but only if the fireworks are back in the mix,’” Millis says. “It surprised me just how important fireworks are in this community.”
For a full lineup of New Year’s Fest acts, a programming schedule, and to purchase tickets, visit eventcreate.com/e/saratoga-new-year-fest.