Mariah Hanson

PalmSprings.com Spotlight: An Interview with Mariah Hanson

Mariah Hanson is the founder and CEO of the world-famous “Club Skirts Presents The Dinah,” the largest lesbian event in the world and the original version of the modern Dinah Shore Weekend of festivities in Palm Springs. More than an event promoter, Mariah is an avant-garde business entrepreneur, who in a span of two decades, has created an unsurpassed cultural and social phenomenon, which has become one of the largest and most important economic tourism boosters in the City of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.

Mariah, whose past philanthropic endeavors have included a two year term on the Board of Equality California and several years on the “Women’s Night” committee for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, continuously utilizes The Dinah as a platform to mobilize the LGBT community around humanitarian projects and social issues. She’s lent her support to various charity causes and activist movements such as GLAAD, NOH8, LOVE IS LOUDER, The San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Community Center, The Women’s Building, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Jon Sims Center, Ladies Philharmonic, Uhuru Movement, HRC, Lyon Martin Health Clinic, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Center, and Equality California. Hanson will be honored on December 5th with the prestigious “ATHENA Leadership Award” from the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce for her tremendous contributions to Palm Springs.

KB: Mariah, you’re from the Bay Area (Mill Valley in Marin County). But in 2008, felt drawn to relocate to Palm Springs full-time. Why?

Mariah Hanson: After producing the Dinah here for so many years, I’d absolutely fallen in love with Palm Springs. It made sense to own a home there as I felt I was already such a connected part of the business community. I wanted to make it personal as well. I cared about the city and wanted a voice there.

KB: And I understand you’re an avid equestrian who has four horses at your ranch in Garner Valley. What sort of riding do you do (and can I join you sometime)?

MH: Yes, I moved to Garner Valley so as to be able to have the horses on property and just love riding through the mountains around Palm Springs. I mostly do trail riding, but I have a hidden desire to just pack up the horses and drive off into the sunset, and become a perpetual horse camper the rest of my life.  I’ve seriously thought about it. And, yes, you can join me anytime!

KB: You first launched “Club Skirts Presents The Dinah” 24 years ago in Palm Springs. What gave you the idea, and why Palm Springs? 

MH: I was a nightclub promoter 26 years ago and as such I was gaining experience in event planning.  Small Dinah Shore Weekend parties were cropping up around the golf tournament, but they were not at all of the stature that they should be. Or at least I thought so. So, armed with only the bravado of youth and a couple of novel ideas, I broke into the burgeoning market, offering a different concept of the weekend potential and the rest is history.

KB: And you’ve built an impressive empire in the process—from a small, one-night event at the Palm Springs Art Museum with 1,500 participants to booking lavish locations at deluxe hotels over five days with some 15,000+ attendees and major corporate sponsors. Did you have any idea of the tour-de-force it would become?

MH: After I booked the Palm Springs Museum, I took a risk and took over an entire hotel, The Palm Mountain Resort. I was scared. But, we quickly sold out so we added The Estrella (which is now the Viceroy). I remember being so stressed about two weeks prior to the first event.  As a green meeting planner, I did not realize the hotel would handle the reservations, so I personally took them all! I was booking rooms and talent, and staff and sponsors and selling tickets, all by myself, and I just remember I wanted to crawl under my coffee table and curl into a ball. I have an immense respect for the reservation managers and staff—it’s not easy! But my formula worked and the event truly has far surpassed my wildest dreams, and I love it!

KB: You’ve got a great story about the party the first year at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Can you tell us the juicy bits?

MH: Paul Zeck, of Zech Properties, was a sort of destination management company, and negotiated a corporate sponsor party for my company at The Palm Springs Art Museum.  Shenanigans ensued at the event. A cowboy hat was stolen off a full sized artwork of a cowboy, some girls climbed up to the roof the the sculpture garden, and did a seductive dance. Needless to say, the museum powers that be were not thrilled with my corporation’s idea of a cocktail reception. I understand they re-wrote their corporate benefactor policy thereafter so I could never, never, ever, come back. And I don’t blame them! We’re much better at crowd management than I was that first year, thank God.

KB: Next year marks the 25th year of “Club Skirts Presents The Dinah,” which will be held April 2-6, 2014 in Palm Springs. Where will the events be held? Any special surprises planned to celebrate this milestone? 

MH: As the average age of my customer is 25, I think I might let the milestone pass without much fanfare! But seriously, as always, we have a fantastic event planned: a 5-day one-stop destination and international world-class event packed with non-stop activities, a series of huge pool parties, night entertainment, live concerts, comedy shows, and more.  We’re at The Hilton and it’s fitting to celebrate our anniversary there. Aftab Dada has been a great friend of the event. I look forward to celebrating this milestone with the Hilton staff.

KB: You seem to have a knack for discovering new voices—right before they hit it astronomically big (Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, The Pussycat Dolls, Colbie Callait and Ke$ha to name a few). What’s your secret?

MH: I have a secret formula that I plug in when looking at new talent. And it seems to work. One of the cool things about the Dinah Shore weekend is that you can see someone like Katy Perry in a small audience and it’s a fun, unique part of the weekend. Offering talent in a platform that’s a very special, one-time-only experience is one of the secrets to The Dinah’s success.

KB: Can you tell us who’s on tap for this year?

MH: I’ve found someone that, if I can get her, will absolutely blow this up! No contracts have been signed yet, but I’m optimistic that I can get her. Also, I reinvest a portion of the company’s profits right back into the production/talent budget, because I always want to make sure this event always remains relevant in the ever-changing LGBT community. And one of the ways it remains relevant is in its musical offerings. This coming year will be no exception!

KB: You also occasionally blog on The Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices.” How did that opportunity come about?

MH: I  was asked and of course I said yes. What an honor!

KB: I read with interest your blog on how much Palm Springs has changed over the 24 years you’ve been producing Club Skirts—from a conservative Republican enclave (“a place where one might imagine a young Rick Santorum might have played a few rounds”) to an emphatically LGBT-welcoming place. To what do you attribute this shift?

MH: I think it’s largely economic. Twenty-four years ago Palm Springs in late March was a destination for Spring Break. And Spring Break got out of hand all over. So alternative markets emerged as a great alternative to directions the City had taken that hadn’t worked so well. The new alternative markets were well behaved, spent a lot of money, and were a lot of fun, and the City started to realize the value of these markets. So long-term relationships started to develop—for instance, at one time, I had a 10-year contract with the Wyndham.

And then economics drove the liberal transformation. As more diverse markets visited, they then started buying second homes here, and now the base is so welcoming and a great vehicle of what a city should be like and stand for. What a wonderful group of people we have driving the direction of the City of Palm Springs! So welcoming, tolerant, open and diverse. Kudos!

KB: Please describe for us a favorite day spent in Palm Springs.

MH: Oh that one is easy! Did you know that, in springtime, there’s a beautiful palm tree-lined creek that runs throughout the Indian Canyons? I saddle up and head out and ride with my friend Corky. We pack a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, some great sandwiches from Gelson’s and we ride for a few hours then tie up, have lunch and wine, overlooking this amazing valley, then we head back. It’s heaven.

KB: Mariah Hanson, what is it that you love most about the community of Palm Springs?

MH: I feel like Palm Springs, the community I work in, is like a second family. I have never felt so supported in my life. I cherish this place and look forward to many more years producing one of its LGBT signature events. I am very proud to work and live here and be a part of such an amazing community.

About Kate Buckley

Kate Buckley is a brand strategist, premium domain broker and consultant, interviewer, storyteller, visual artist, and award-winning poet & writer. She’s worked in media and marketing since 1997, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the author of A Wild Region (Moon Tide Press) and Follow Me Down (Tebot Bach). A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her awards include a Gabeheart Prize and the North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Prize. She was most recently shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. A ninth-generation Kentuckian, she’s made her home in Southern California since 1998.

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