Nino Eilets is the co-owner of International Bear Convergence (IBC), which happens to be one of the biggest and best loved bear runs in the United States. In honor of the event’s 10th anniversary this year (taking place from February 22 – 26), we sit down with Nino to get all the details for this year’s event and to get to know the man behind the curtain.
Nino Eilets, along with his business partner, George Frank, took over IBC in its infancy in 2017. Since then, it has grown year over year, consistently selling out its host hotel and attracting guests from around the world. The event attracts world class entertainers including musical acts such as CeCe Peniston, Ultra Nate, Martha Wash, and DJ Tony Moran in addition to some of the best comedians and drag queens working today.
As for Nino himself, he is an Air Force veteran who has resided in Palm Springs, where IBC takes place, since 1996. After working for many years as a journalist with local magazines in the area, he started his own publication, The Standard Magazine, a digital LGBTQ lifestyle magazine back in 2013. Since taking up residence in ‘Hollywood’s Playground’, Nino has been very active in the local community culminating in his being awarded the Spirit of Pride Award in 2022 from the Palm Springs Honors committee.
Get to know more about Nino Eilets and what to expect from this year’s IBC in our exclusive interview with him below.
John Hernandez: Hi Nino! Thanks for joining me. What do you think sets IBC apart from the other bear runs, and what’s the secret to its success?
Nino Eilets: Well, we have everything happening at the host hotel. We have all of our night parties, concerts, drag brunch, comedy shows, pool parties, and lounge events happening in one spot. That is different from a lot of the other bear runs that I’ve been to where you have the host hotel and they have some events there, but the bulk of the events are happening outside the hotel with partner nightclubs and partner bars and that sort of thing. So, folks still have to leave the site to get the whole experience. Here if you don’t want to leave the hotel, you don’t have to. You come out here for the four days, or however many days you want, and just hang out at the hotel the whole time and not worry about a thing. You don’t have to worry about driving, drinking, anything at all, just hang out and have a good time.
John: Yeah, that’s a huge plus for someone like me. I love having everything take place in one spot. SO convenient. Tell us about the host hotel.
Nino: We’re at the Hotel ZOSO. We’ve actually been at this hotel for seven years now. When we first took over, the event was at the Renaissance Hotel, but we moved it here. It was the Hard Rock Hotel at the time. The hotel has always been very welcoming to us. They’ve bent over backwards for our event. We’re the biggest event that they have here. We always sell out the rooms, including this year I’m happy to say. We do have a secondary hotel, for folks still interested in coming. It is the Hilton Palm Springs, which is right behind the Hotel ZOSO. Our location is prime because it’s right around the corner from the Arenas District which is where a lot of the gay bars are located. So, if the guys did want to leave to go do something else, it’s right there.
John: Again, can’t beat that convenience! You’re speaking my language Nino! (laughs) What entertainers do you have this year?
Nino: Crystal Waters is going to be our headliner on Friday night. She will be performing at our Disco Inferno Party with DJ Galaxy. We’re encouraging everyone to get dressed up in their best disco attire and the best dressed will win passes for IBC 2025. On Saturday we’re partnering with a local organization called PSLOD (Palm Springs Leather Order of the Desert) to have an underwear party. We’re calling it Maximum Thrust and DJ Marcos Moreno from Barcelona will be spinning. On Sunday evening we have a new comedy show with Brad Loekle, Sam Morrison, and Daniel Webb that’s not to be missed. There will also be a hospitality bar on Sunday night as a sign of our appreciation to our attendees.
In addition to all that, we will have a couple of smaller events like speed dating, barbeques and some lounge singers throughout the weekend. We’re going to have drag brunch again; we have that every year. Several of the Queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race like Morgan McMichaels and Jasmine Masters are going to be performing.
John: Sounds like a blast! And with regard to the bear community in general, when did you discover it and how do you stay active within it?
Nino: In some ways, I feel like I’ve always been involved with the bear community in one way or another. I used to and still go to a lot of the bear runs. I support the bear community whenever I can, even before I became part owner of IBC. I’ve partnered with Sitges Bear Week in Spain. This past year we did an IBC tea dance during their Bear Village events, and we also had an IBC night at Bear Village where all the bartenders and the waiters wore our T-shirts to promote our event.
In that way IBC has really turned into an international event because we bring in a lot of folks from all over the place now. Going to other bear events like TBRU and Big Bear Run Off, it’s just part of my DNA. There’s a lot of fun to be had and we’re a fun group of people.
John: We sure are! It’s good that you’re so ingrained in the scene, it helps you plan and run a better event yourself, I’m sure.
As the co-owner of one of the most successful bear events in the world, you already occupy a very unique position within the bear world and the bear community and that’s also compounded by the fact that you are a bear of color. What has your experience been in the bear community? And what do you think can be done to promote inclusivity?
Nino: Well, it’s all about exposure. We try in our event to include everybody, every shape, form, color, whatever, into our event and we promote it as such. I came to the States when I was 18, I’m from Puerto Rico originally. I went into the Air Force and when I was growing up in Puerto Rico, ‘color’ didn’t exist. Even though Puerto Ricans range in color, we’re all Puerto Rican. I’m very light skinned, so, I’ve dealt with racism here in the States only once or twice in my whole life. I lived in Europe for a long, long time and I never had to deal with any of that. I’ve thankfully never really had to deal with it within our community at all.
I think exposure and communicating and talking to people about our events and our community is helping quite a bit. There are organizations out here in Palm Springs that deal with these issues regularly. One of the organizations is called Brothers of the Desert, it’s a group of black gay men but they also include everybody else who wants to join and be part of their events. They’re getting quite a bit of exposure in this community, because black representation was lacking here in Palm Springs, and it’s a great organization.
I’ve been very fortunate. People are very kind and very, very nice to me. I’m very involved with the community. I’m constantly doing things with IBC and my magazine as well. I support and sponsor a lot of the events here, so my face is out there, and people know me and recognize me and hopefully I’ve been a good example of what to do and what not to do as a member of the community.
John: Oh, you definitely have. I think your posters are a big clue about how inclusive the event is. I love the IBC posters. I believe you use one of our favorite artists Don Chooi, right? His artwork is always wonderfully diverse.
Nino: We’ve used Don for seven years now, he’s been with us from day one since we took over the event. Every year I talk to him, and I say OK this year I need the cover for the program to be like this, and he immediately knows exactly what I’m talking about. We’re making hand fans again this year featuring his artwork. It’s all very inclusive, four or five guys on the fan and they’re all sizes, shapes, colors, everything. That’s so important to me and to our community. It just needs to happen more.
John: It really does. How would you encourage someone who hasn’t been to IBC to come and check it out?
Nino: Basically when people say to me, “I’m not a bear” or “I don’t see myself being part of this” etc etc, I tell them that being a bear is a state of mind. If you are a person who enjoys life, who wants to have a good time, who wants to meet people, and just be yourself, then come on down, because you’re gonna have a blast, meet friendly people and you’re gonna have such a good time; that’s why we have people coming back every year.
For the last seven years, folks have said that when they come to our event it’s like the good side of going to a high school reunion, where you run into people that you really want to see. You will reconnect with old friends and make new ones. It’s brilliant.
John: And I know it’s all put together by a massive team. Tell me about that.
Nino: Well, obviously there’s my business partner, George Frank, he’s awesome. And so are our partners. He has two partners and I have my partner and they all help with the ideas and brainstorming each year. it is a collaboration of several minds. We also have approximately 110 volunteers that help run the event. Our volunteer coordinators are amazing. I have a guy who handles my gogo dancers. I have a guy who handles the volunteers at the registration desk. There’s a lot of things to get done. We delegate quite a bit and they’re very good at what they do and we couldn’t do it without them.
John: Well, it’s a well-oiled machine, that’s for sure. Congratulations Nino to you and the IBC team on your 10th anniversary! I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years bring.
Nino: Thank you!
For more information and to book your 2024 IBC passes click HERE.