WinterFest, a holiday market that popped up in the parking lot of the Brooklyn Museum around Thanksgiving weekend, was supposed to be Brooklyn's answer to the popular Union Square Holiday Market. Instead, visitors have complained that it's more like Fyre Fest: Christmas Vacation, with incomplete attractions (including a headless Little Drummer Boy) and paid attractions that are considered by some to be total rip-offs. Vendors have also become increasingly upset, with several dropping out of the event due to what they describe as serious organizational problems.
Some vendors who are still hanging on now say that all the negative press around the event is hurting their bottom line: "After all of the bad press that has been issued...it has seriously hurt us, the vendors," said Jessica White, who runs JWhite Original. "This has been an unfortunate circumstance since the first week, and it only gets WORSE with negative press. We have over 40 dedicated small businesses committed to this market and they need to be uplifted by press and supported by the Brooklyn community."
"Please tell people to come shop with us and help save our holiday!"
Others say that they feel they are in a lose-lose situation: "The vendors are scared right now," said vendor Johanna Guevara-Smiley. "A lot of vendors don't want to speak, a lot of the vendors feel like they're gonna come and their merchandise is not gonna be there, or something's gonna be burnt down, because we're at that level of ridiculousness."
Guevara-Smiley and her husband SirRoan own Dropping Seeds, a Brooklyn-based multi-use herbal blend company, and paid $10,000 to have a booth at the event. They have participated in several similar holiday and festival markets around the city before this.
Organizer Lena Romanova, whose company Millennial Entertainment is running the holiday event, allegedly became enraged by Guevara-Smiley's comments to Bklyner last week. "What we said was that the situation started off really bad, nothing was ready in terms of the festival, and then things just kept getting worse because the days were shortened," Guevara-Smiley said, referring to the fact that organizers decided to reorganize after the initial criticisms by firing their local event production and management companies, and by cutting back the fest from six or seven days a week to just four (Thurs-Sun). "And [Romanova] is saying that we decided for the days to be shortened. We did not decide, we the vendors, none of us had agreed."
Guevara-Smiley also criticized Romanova in that article for promising there would be "10,000 people daily" and for not better promoting the event to local Brooklynites.
Then the emails started.
Last Saturday evening, Guevara-Smiley received the email below from WinterFest spokesperson Jennifer Crosby saying she had broken her contract with Millennial Entertainment by speaking to the press:
This serves as confirmation that we are terminating your license agreement. Your actions are harmful to the event and the other participating vendors. In particular, but not limited to, your statements as reported by Bklyner on 12/13 are not only defamatory and false, but they knowingly mischaracterized the obligations of Winterfest as clearly stated under clause 19 of the agreement. These activities now and before violate the provisions of the signed agreement. Under the rights afforded to us in Clause 1 of that contract, we hereby request that you leave the market immediately.
You should remove your product by tomorrow, December 16th , 12 pm. Failure to do that will force us to remove you at your own cost.
"We looked up the clauses that she was stating, and none of those clauses had anything to do with non-disclosure agreements, or not talking to the press, or anything," said Guevara-Smiley. "We didn't break anything, there was no grounds."
Clause 1 in their contract states:
1. This agreement sets forth the complete agreement between the Licensor, Millennial Entertainment Group LLC, its successors, and assignees (“Licensor”) and Vendor at the Holiday Shopping Village (the “Market”), from November 23rd to December 31, 2018 (this excludes vendor set-up dates). No exception, change or other agreement is binding on the Licensor unless such is in writing and signed by a designated officer of the organization. If Vendor violates this agreement, Licensor may, in its discretion, ask Vendor to leave the Market before December 31, 2018, without a refund and/or refuse permission to participate in future events presented by Licensor.
And Clause 19 is the following:
19. Licensor shall not be liable for any failure to perform under the agreement if such failure is caused by an act of God, fire, flood, strike, sabotage, labor dispute, insurrection, war, terrorism, or any other cause beyond the control of Licensor. Nothing herein contained shall require the Licensor to take any action contrary to law or to any order or regulation of any government or governmental agency. Additionally, Licensor offers no guarantee or assurance whatsoever on the visitors numbers to the market, vendor’s own performance, financial or other, or the market’s general performance, financial or other.
Guevara-Smiley reached out to other vendors and press organizations to try to publicize the story before she was kicked out. The next day, the organizers reversed course and instead gave Guevara-Smiley a "last warning." Here was the followup email directly from Romanova:
At the request of several vendors, we decided to rescind our termination of your contract. It comes however with a final warning that should you engage in defamatory statements, give falsified information, or take any action that affect or hurt the reputation of the event, and its vendors, you will be terminated immediately and removed from the market according the terms of your signed vendor license contract.
It is highly regrettable that at the time that we are struggling to keep the market open and drive traffic to all vendors, you found it useful to propagate misleading statements and make untruthful comments. By your actions, not only you feed into a malicious campaign against the event but you hurt every vendor in the event.
Please keep that in mind.
Every time we make efforts to drive traffic to the event, we are hit by yet another article spreading negative news by containing all kind of malicious and false statements. This is harmful to our efforts to market the event and remedy to the low traffic. I wish Dropping Seeds made truthful statements and other statements to encourage people to come visit and shop at the market.
Pamela Barsky, one of the vendors who did drop out and who has reported the organizers to the Brooklyn DA's office, previously said she paid more than $6,000 to sell bags inside faulty stalls, which she claimed constantly leaked and lost electricity. "This wasn’t just disorganized, I think they had every intention of scamming everyone."
Guevara-Smiley said that despite all the negativity, the vendors have all gotten closer and have been working to promote the event on their own to try to make something positive out of all this: "I would say as a Brooklyn person—a person [whose] kids were born in Brooklyn, my husband was born in Brooklyn—Brooklyn deserves a holiday market," she said. "Brooklyn deserves these types of beautiful gatherings of the neighborhood, especially all these Brooklyn businesses, each one creating their own products out of their own love, wanting to make a living doing what they love."
"Before the festival even happened, [the organizers] spoke about it in that large, Rockefeller Center-type of energy, type of festival," she said. "And that's the same way we were sold on this festival. So of course we were gonna be like, 'Yeah this is gonna be amazing and great.' And just like none of it has happened."
She also connected WinterFest with other scams going on globally, saying, "We have to on every level come together and show that people just can't come and take advantage of people, especially here in Brooklyn. This is Brooklyn, and we don't just stay shut and let things happen."
In a statement, WinterFest spokesperson Jennifer Crosby told Gothamist, "There are just far too many false allegations out there which ultimately affected the event and its vendors," and complained of a "few disgruntled people [who] have hurt those who wanted to do business and sell their products and wares, and the press has given a platform to far too many malicious and false statements."
Here's her statement:
Winterfest was intended to bring a festive holiday destination for the community and a platform for local vendors and artists to sell their goods and wares during the holiday season. It is 100% privately-funded.
Since its opening, it has become a target of sustained negative press and comments which as a result have damaged the prospects not only of the event but also for the participating vendors. In particular, disgruntled vendors continued to make defamatory statements and raise absurd allegations which ultimately affected follow vendors, and made things worse.
The reality is that the percentage of complaining customers is 0.016% of total visitors. We take each complaint seriously but certain local press has amplified the issue. Same, 2 vendors took it to the press, wrote anonymous comments and emails, and made false accusations with no objective but to hurt the event and destroy the opportunity for everyone. We instructed counsel to take legal action.
We have no issue for any vendor talking to the press. The parties you are referring to lied in their statements and harmed the event and the rest of the vendors. We found that they are in breach of the agreement. Instead of promoting the event to drive traffic, they are harming it. For instance Dropping Seeds never paid $10,000, they only rented half of a chalet for $3100. The power was never out for 12 days, we had issues the first 2 days and had united rentals solving issues immediately. We have plenty of advertising and PR, the line up of attraction is exactly what has been agreed with the museum and permitted by the City, etc.
Winterfest conducts extensive PR, social media and area outdoor while the museum and garden advertise to their fans. The market is in its first year so it takes time to build for sure but the negative campaign, out of our control, has taking its toll and hurt the event as a whole.
Reducing the hours was actually demanded and supported by most the vendors as the event got no traffic during the week. It was intended to reduce the cost for the vendors so it is not true that the decision was taken lightly.
She added that they are not aware of any DA investigation, but the Brooklyn DA's Senior Communications Officer, Oren Yaniv, confirmed to Gothamist this week, “we are reviewing the complaints.”
If you are looking to support local businesses, here's a list of the vendors currently at WinterFest:
J White Original
Live Poultry Designs
Lion City Coffee
Little Poland Gallery
Cashmere From Kasmir
My Mighty Magnet