CINCINNATI -- One evening in 1996, then-Cincinnati Reds chief operating officer John Allen and then-marketing director Cal Levy were having dinner at the Montgomery Inn Boathouse and jotting ideas down on a napkin.
Etched among the barbecue sauce stains was the initial blueprint for an offseason event to help ease the winter chill for Reds fans and get them excited for baseball a few months early.
That night, Redsfest was born.
"Coming off the strike of '94, '95, I did a lot of walking around the stands and talking to people and took phone calls," said Allen, who retired from the Reds in 2007 after 13 seasons. "The two things that stuck out in my mind was they wanted more interaction with the players and more indications of the team's history. I said, 'Let's do that. Let's get baseball out there in the minds of fans in the dead of winter.' "
The timing was right. Redsfest succeeded in reconnecting fans to the team after a few tumultuous years on and off the field with the players' strike and the suspension of club owner Marge Schott. It thrived as a modest gathering for the first few years, drawing around 10,000 fans for the inaugural event in January 1997.
Redsfest was held annually through 2003 before the expansion of the Duke Energy Convention Center forced a two-year hiatus. Allen said an alternate location had been sought, but nothing worked. As it turned out, absence made the heart grow fonder.
"There was a pretty loud uproar when we canceled it," said Allen, who now resides in his home state of Kansas. "I felt bad, but I was pleasantly pleased. It told me this is for real."
The 2019 Redsfest will be held Friday and Saturday at the Duke Energy Convention Center.
What fans will see is a far cry from what fans saw in the event's early days, when it encompassed only a portion of the convention center's first floor with a few memorabilia vendors, autograph areas and a relatively small stage.
"It really was a team effort back then," said Allen. "There was a time when we had 50 employees in the front office. Everybody worked Redsfest, the secretaries, everyone. The whole organization came together."
Shortly after the ownership group led by Bob Castellini took over the club in late 2005, Redsfest began to evolve into one of the largest fan festivals in all of baseball, something to rival the Cubs Convention, which Allen dubbed the "Cadillac" of fan fests.
"We wanted to cast a bigger idea," said Karen Forgus, the Reds vice president of business operations who joined the organization in 2006.
The Reds' creative minds -- chief operating officer Phil Castellini and vice president of promotional events Zach Bonkowski -- attended the All-Star Game FanFest in Pittsburgh in 2006 with the idea to model Redsfest after Major League Baseball's signature annual fan event. They also looked at similar events at the Super Bowl and NBA All-Star Game and took the task of transforming Allen's vision.
The Reds hired Philip Myers, who serves as an executive producer and creative director for numerous high-profile clients, including MLB, in 2008. He took Redsfest to the next level, literally. The event space expanded from one to three floors at the convention center. The main stage went from a few risers to an enhanced experience of light and sound.
"It morphed into a true production," Forgus said. "The player introduction on Friday night has theatrical lighting. Our players are our brand. We want to treat them like stars and have them connect with the fans."
Officials from BaAM Productions, who help produce the All-Star Game FanFest, attended Redsfest in 2013 after it was announced that the Queen City would host the 2015 Midsummer Classic. BaAM came to survey the convention space and to offer some expertise, only to discover that the Reds already had created an event on par with theirs.
As Forgus put it, "Their jaws hit the floor."
Attendance at Redsfest has seen steady growth, with understandable peaks and dips related to weather or team performance. Attendance reached around 23,000 between the NL Central titles in 2010 and 2012; a record 23,737 fans attended Redsfest in 2011. Around 14,000 attended the 2013 event, which was held during a snowstorm. Last year's crowd was a little more than 16,000.
"Experience is the point of the spear," Forgus said. "We can't control the weather or (on the business side) whether the team wins, but we can control the fans' experience."
There is also an underlying baseball-related benefit to hosting an offseason event of this type in early December by bringing current and former players, minor leaguers, coaches and their families back to Cincinnati, where they can establish and strengthen team bonding.
"We want to bring in the players and have their families come, so they can all connect," Forgus said.
This year's Redsfest will feature more than 70 current and former Reds players including Joey Votto, Tucker Barnhart, Billy Hamilton, Eugenio Suarez, Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias, Tom Browning, Ron Oester, Rob Dibble and Leo Cardenas. Top minor-league prospects Hunter Greene, Nick Senzel and Jonathan India also are expected to attend.
There will be autograph and photo booths, interactive games and game-used and authentic memorabilia. The kids-only press conference always is a must-see.
With 2019 as the 150th anniversary of baseball's first professional team, expect a heavy focus at Redsfest on the planned season-long celebration. The first 11,000 fans through the gates at Redsfest each day will receive a commemorative Reds 150th anniversary ornament and drawstring bag.
Among the signature events each year at Redsfest is the celebrity poker tournament, which will be held on Saturday. Last year, David Wise of Reading outlasted 582 other participants to win the $11,000 cash prize. Redsfest Bingo will take place Friday night.
All proceeds from Redsfest benefit the Reds Community Fund.
"Getting the Reds Community Fund involved was a big piece, getting that charity component," Allen said. "It has grown every year. I just can't take credit for it. Phil's (Castellini) got such a creative mind. It really took off."
3-10:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, and 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1
Duke Energy Convention Center
525 Elm St., Downtown