Meet Stephan Hengst, Executive Director of the Provincetown Business Guild

Back in January, The Provincetown Business Guild (PBG) proudly announced the hiring of Stephan Hengst as the organization’s new Executive Director.

“After many years of visiting Provincetown as a tourist, I am thrilled to join the Provincetown community in a full-time capacity as the Executive Director of the PBG,” said Hengst.

“I am excited to lead the PBG in our mission to ensure that Provincetown continues to be the premier destination for LGBTQ+ visitors globally. I look forward to working with our members, advertisers, sponsors, and local leadership to reinforce what makes Provincetown a one-of-a-kind destination where everyone can be themselves, and we can showcase the diversity of the queer community.”

I had a chance to sit down with Stephan Hengst to discuss his new role at PBG and his goal to bring even more diversity and queer culture to PTown!

Stephan Hengst, Executive Director of The Provincetown Business Guild

Kyle Jackson: Hello, and congratulations on the new role!

Stephan Hengst: Wel, hello and thank you very much!

KJ: What led you to PBG? Can you talk a bit about when you knew this role was a good fit for you?

SH: Well, this new job at the Provincetown Business Guild came up by chance. I happened to be in Provincetown for New Year’s Eve. PBG, the organisation that I’m now running, produces an event called First Light, which is their New Year’s celebration. And my husband and I were in town for first flight, we were there visiting some friends who were celebrating a 40th birthday.

I went out to this bar and was chatting with a couple of them. And they said, “Oh, have you heard about this job? “You should really think about applying for this job.” So they told me a little bit about it, I was like, “Oh, okay. Really cool. Great! Thanks for letting me know.”

And then, I turned around and ran into another friend. And they were like, “Hey, are you in town interviewing for this job? Because I think you’d be perfect for it.”

KJ: Was that the third person? Because you know they always say these messages come in threes.

SH: There were actually four of them! And so, “I was like, You know what I said the universe is clearly telling me it wants me to apply for this job.” And so I got back that night, I filled out the application, I sent in my resume, and within a week and a half, I had an offer from the organization’s board. So, it was it was a very quick process.

But you know, Provincetown is a place that I’ve been visiting for more than 20 years. Having spent over 20 years going to Bear Week, I developed, you know, a huge affinity for PTown. And, and it was the type of thing where my husband of over 17 years, Patrick, and I have been going generally every year. We go sometimes multiple times a year. And last September, we went and we spent a week there in the off season. And we said to ourselves, “God, this is really great. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could be here more often?”

So yeah, between us thinking about going there more often, and then going out for New Year’s, hearing about this job and receiving the offer, everything just kind of came together. It’s a really exciting time.

KJ: Wow, that’s great! It’s really funny you mentioned Bear Week, because I was just going to ask if you go every year, and how did you find the Bear community in P-Town?

SH: My college boyfriend, Geoff, he ended up bringing me to Provincetown. I’ve been going before I met him, but he and I went once and we had a great time there. And as we were hanging out, he looked at me — because I was 21 at the time — and I’ll never forget, he looked at me and he’s like, “You know, you’re a bear.” And I was like, “Why?” Because, you know, at the time, I was just sort of a mildly, mildly thick, clean shaven culinary school student. And, at that time, we couldn’t have facial hair at the Culinary Institute of America where I was going.

But yeah, he was like, “Yeah, I think you’re a bear.” And I was like, “Okay, I don’t really know what that means. But I’ll go with it.” And I started reading about it and about the cultural influences of the community. And then, of course, started going to Bear Week in PTown, and I have gained a huge affinity for the town and found my place as part of the Bear community.

KJ: That’s so nice! I love that story So, I think you said you have over 20 years of experience managing attractions and events. What attractions have you managed and/or created, and how has that been?

SH: Well, for the last for the last 15 years, my husband and I have run a website called Big Gay Hudson Valley in the Hudson Valley of New York. And it is similar in nature to PBG in that we produce events and opportunities for engagement that bring people together and build community. We get many business leaders and social leaders and committee leaders involved in all that we’ve done here. 

So, the idea was that we lived in a place, we live in a place that we love here in the Hudson Valley. There were far too many people that we knew here who didn’t have the same appreciation or affiliation for the area, because they were either transient or they moved in and, you know, it’s a pretty rural area, and you don’t have any gay bars here. And so people were always like, “Oh, well, if there’s no gay bar, what’s the point?”

But there is a community — We were really focused on proving that there’s a huge dynamic community here. I mean, we’re an hour and a half north of New York City, we have great access to incredible talent that comes in from places like New York, and global talent also comes through New York. And so we started talking to underappreciated sites, historical sites, art museums, history museums. You know, the Hudson Valley is dotted with all sorts of amazing history. And we started producing pop up events in all these spaces that focused on art history, culture, and great food.

we realized it because obviously, as part of the queer community, we know that we appreciate those things, and other people did. And they gave us an opportunity to share the resources of the area with a broader group. So all of a sudden, people saw queer people getting together at the Vanderbilt Mansion, or the STR state and, and we actually had an opportunity to host Madeleine Albright who just passed away two days ago for an exhibition presented by Big Gay Hudson Valley about the history of her brooches, which was really, which meant a lot to us.

The ability to go into these spaces that the community didn’t normally feel welcome in and activate them in a way that everyone felt welcome by bringing in talent, bringing in resources, bringing in people and bringing a focus to them. We really realized there was something special in the sauce there. Last summer, during the pandemic, we worked with a local farm and we presented a dozen different cabaret nights outside under a covered pole barn, completely open air, and we hired people like Mizz Cracker, we hired comedians like Jessica Kirson, we’ve hired Coco Peru, Varla Jean Merman, you name it. We brought a lot of different talent through the Hudson Valley over the years. And it’s been, it’s been really great to be able to bring folks together under those umbrellas. We hired talent that the community knew, and then we also produced original experiences that we could introduce the community to.

For the last decade, we’ve produced a queer holiday spectacular, and that’s something that we produce in a variety of different settings. And I’m excited to be able to bring the cast of home with care to Provincetown this year for the first time. So we’re going to continue to produce home with care here in the Hudson Valley, but we’ll also be bringing it there.

KJ: That sounds great! Do you have any other events that you would like to bring to Provincetown, and/or any events that are particularly P-Town focused?

SH: Two years ago, we created in a gay erotic art exhibition called Barnwood. Okay, and we just decided to call it Barnwood because it happens in our old barn. So we’ve done Barnwood four times, and we’ve been able to work with over 100 different queer artists and support the works that they create and help market and sell and promote them. And we’re actually going to be expanding Barnwood to Provincetown and calling it Driftwood. Driftwood is going to be happening in Provincetown in the fall.

So it’s, it’s been really nice to be able to build some unique products here in the Hudson Valley that we can then bring to other areas, while also taking Provincetown talent and bringing it here and taking things that we’ve brought here, there. So there’s a really natural synergy between the two regions, and we’re excited to be able to leverage that even more.

And, a huge part of the work that I’ll be doing in Provincetown is actually producing the Provincetown’s annual Pride celebration. Which sounds a little funny because every day is pride in Provincetown. But this year is actually the fifth anniversary of it formally. Pride had never happened in Provincetown until four years ago, and so we have a formal recognition of it.

And then we also produce Carnival. Carnival happens in August, and Carnival is the longest running event at PBG. And it was actually created in 1978, as a way to market and promote Provincetown to the queer community. My organisation, the PBG, came together, because seven business owners in town, realized that, “Hey, Provincetown is a super gay place.”


But, you know, it’s a community that was steeped in fishing traditions. And then, and then in the early 1900s, great artists came through – writers, visual artists, etc. — and they really started building the creative community in Provincetown. So much so that, when they got to the 70s, some people said, maybe Provincetown is a little too queer. 

KJ: Wow! Excuse me? Too queer? Provincetown?

SH: Yeah, there was a huge movement within town where people were saying, “Well, you know, we don’t want all these gay people here,” and there were there was a concerted effort to try and straighten up Provincetown. There was also a Commission on Tackiness created.

KJ: A Commission on Tackiness?! How dare they?

SH: You know, in this old press clip from the early 80s, they had issues with transvestites singing in front of town hall, and they had issues with leather stores up and down Main Street. They had a long list of grievances because they felt like the town was becoming tacky, and they wanted it to be a more respectable town like those found on Martha’s Vineyard or other places on the Cape. 

So there was a huge, concerted effort that went into trying to change that. And so the queer business owners of town said, “Hey, you know, we need to make sure that Provincetown is always a place where everyone is welcome, where our interests as queer business owners are respected. And so the PBG was created to help market and promote Provincetown as a queer destination. And in the 70s, Carnival was created to be the crown jewel of what the town would promote. 

So, over the years, Carnival has grown to a huge week-long event, with over 30 different parties. There’s a five hour long parade on a Thursday afternoon, there’s boat cruises, there’s dance parties, there’s parties for the Lesbian community, there’s parties for the Trans community – everyone is welcome. But for the last couple of years, that hasn’t happened because of COVID.

KJ: So, how has it been coming into an organization and having to revamp things and reinstate a lot of activities after all the cancellations have happened with COVID?

SH: Well, there’s definitely a little dusting off of how things were done previously, that’s been acquired. You know, there were many sponsors and advertisers that haven’t been engaged in the last two years. So a lot of it has been coming in figuring out what we’ve done, who we’ve worked with, and what partners we have that are still in business and interested in working together. But also working within the municipality. 

You know, Provincetown hasn’t hosted a Carnival parade in two years. So all of a sudden, it’s like, okay, how do we do this? Again, what’s the permitting process like? What issues did we maybe have three or four years ago that never got resolved that we need to work through today? But between Pride, Carnival, Holly Foley – which is our early December Holiday celebration – there’s all these tentpole events that our organization manages, but we also help cross promote and market all of the other happenings in Ptown. So, you know, there’s Women of Color weekend, there’s Fanfare – which is a big event for the Trans community – There’s a Men of Color Weekend, there’s Bear Week, there’s Leather weekend, there’s Girls Splash and Memorial Day – which is another big women’s event. 


So our organization not only markets and promotes our own events, but then there’s also all the other events that we helped to leverage and cross promote to bring people to Provincetown all year. And that’s a huge part of why our organization is so important and critical for Provincetown’s success. Because June, July, August – everyone’s there. September and October are still pretty busy. April and May are kind of quiet. So there’s opportunities to develop new events in April, May, October, November, December, and even earlier, because we’re always trying to make sure that people are coming into town. At the end of the day, our membership is composed of over 300 Queer business owners and and we want to drive people into their businesses to support those shopkeepers and those nightclubs, restaurants and bars. And so, by bringing people in for all these events and happenings, that’s how we do that.

KJ:  Now, one of the biggest events that happens, of course – and you mentioned it earlier, is Bear Week. What are some of the things that you love about Bear Week, and what are some of the things that you would like to help maybe even change or make better? 

SH: Well, it’s important to note that that Bear Week is not organized by my organization, but by the Provincetown Bears. But, you know, I think that when it comes to Bear Week, overall, there is such a tremendous amount of community that has been built around Bears. When you go to Provincetown, or any Bear event anywhere in the world, you’re always gonna see those people that you always see at that event, and you build those points of connection, friendship, and those opportunities to continue through. 

I do think that when it comes to the Bear community, you know, there there is an opportunity to showcase the diversity of our community much better. Some organizers do it better than others. And I think that when it comes to the PBG, a huge amount of focus that that we’re putting into our programming and our efforts is recognizing that the Trans community, the Black community, the Brown community, and so many other portions of the queer spectrum are underrepresented in the program, but also just in the visual nature of inclusion. And I think that’s a huge part of it. And I think that for myself, and for my associate director, Trevor, we are very focused on also looking at the queer population because, if we look at new surveys right now that are coming out, 20% of Gen Zers identify as queer. And, and that’s not always a word that the community has been very comfortable talking about.

So when we look at, and when we look at the full spectrum of the Pride rainbow, everyone has found their flag and their place within the flag and the various flags. But we need to make sure that everyone feels visually represented, feels welcome, and feels included. Because I think that’s where a lot of LGBTQ+ organizations have fallen short. And, as a gay cis white man, I’ll say that there’s too much of me out there in a lot of what I’m seeing, you know? I don’t see enough Women represented, I don’t see enough People of Color represented, I don’t see enough members of the Trans community represented. I don’t see enough international presence in many places – the Asian community is completely underrepresented. 

So, you know, we’re doing all that we can to showcase that not only just in our visual representations, but also in our actions. We have a queer comedy night that we are making the showpiece of our Pride weekend, the fifth anniversary of it. We have a bisexual, Black woman, Frankie French, who’s part of the lineup. We have Jane McBride, who is the first out Trans comedian that’s been on Comedy Central. We have Sam Morrison, we have Kristin Becker. We’re trying to ensure that wherever we can we’re bringing diverse voices into the lineup of what we’re doing, because in a place like Provincetown, everyone should feel welcome at all times. 

I think that the PBG just looking at how we work with our business owners can go a very long way in helping to ensure that not only are we the world’s premier queer travel destination right now, but that we always will be by thinking more forward and thinking more inclusively. It’s something that I think a lot of people think happens inherently within the LGBTQ community. But it doesn’t always happen, and it takes work. And it takes effort. And it takes thoughtful decisions by leadership to say, you know, what are we doing to make sure that everyone in our spectrum of the rainbow, and the full spectrum of the rainbow is welcomed and included? And so that’s what I’m excited about having the opportunity to bring more of the projects. 

KJ: The fact that you’re taking that responsibility to make sure that this happens is a very important thing. So, I thank you for that. We thank you for that. 

SH: Thank you, Kyle. I appreciate that.

KJ: So, there was one other thing that I just have to ask before getting off our call. I’m a huge fan of American Horror Story. What do you think about American Horror Story: Red Tide, which was set in Provincetown? Did you watch it?

SH: Oh, you know, I’m a bad person asked about that. I am not a horror person. Oh, no, no, but my husband loves it. But you know, if you were to ask me anything about Drag Race, I can answer that. But when it comes to American Horror Story, it has not been my forte. If you were to ask me anything about The Gilded Age, I’d be happy to talk about that. (laughs) 

KJ: What are your favorite films set in Provincetown? 

SH: I mean, I think that I think that for me, there’s a couple of films that I always associate with Provincetown. One is the Bear City franchise. But the other one is actually Hairspray. The first time I saw Hairspray on the big screen was actually at a movie theater in Provincetown. And then, you know, the defining moment is when you when you watch Hairspray in Provincetown, and then you walk out the door and you run into John Waters on Commercial Street, because he lives there. You have that moment where you’re like, oh, like, there’s a reason why so much happens here, and why so much queer culture lives here. 

KJ: Yes, there’s a lot of queer culture. 

SH: It’s one of the things that I’m working on in this first year – to introduce queer historical tours to Provincetown. Because, as a visitor, you drink, you go out to restaurants, you get laid, you go lay by the pool or the beach – But there’s a tremendous amount of art, culture and history in Ptown that all exists just beneath the surface, or even on the surface. 

There’s incredible art museums, galleries, and there’s an entire district that just focuses on arts. There are institutions like the Fine Arts Work Center, which presents hands on workshops and activities. There’s The Pilgrim Monument, which has really been talking about race, culture, Indigenous people, and the Pilgrims effect on all of those communities. It’s telling the story in a historically accurate way, but also trying to be more inclusive by telling the stories of everyone that was affected by those actions and where they all now live today.  There’s also the Provincetown Theatre, which produces incredible live theatre events. But it’s kind of off the beaten path. So if you don’t know what’s there, you’re not going to seek it out. 

So what I’m hoping to do is obviously let people know that they can continue to dance, drink and have a good time. But, you know, while they’re there, if they want to have those moments of art history, culture, they can do that too. And I want to help people to find those resources. If there’s an opportunity to tell more of our queer history and story through those opportunities, all the better.

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Kyle Jackson

Kyle Jackson (He/Him) is Senior Staff Writer at Gray Jones Media, and additionally works as a writer, editor and theatre artist/actor. A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, he studied at Dillard University, received a BA in Theatre from Morgan State University, an MS in Arts Administration from Drexel University, and completed the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer in Oxford Programme in 2017. Having lived in Baltimore, the Washington, DC area, Philadelphia and New York City, he now resides and works in London, United Kingdom.