Why do we need festivals? In the first of two articles about festivals, Holly Payton-Lombardo asks if we simply enjoy coming together to celebrate culture − or is it more than that?

Image from festival parade in Edinburgh

In the twenty-first century some say the word ‘festival’ is becoming somewhat overused. We see the chain pub change its menu for a week and calling it a ‘fish festival’ or our local supermarket have a wine festival because it wants to boost sales. When you say festival to the younger generation they think Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds, but the truth is there are thousands of festivals of every conceivable type happening every day of the year all across the globe.

We are spoilt in the UK by our professional and vibrant festival scene. We have some of the leading music and arts festivals in the world right on our doorstep. It is not just the performing artists who travel here from across the globe, but audiences and industry professionals visit our festivals armed to pick up tips, test the market, network and be inspired. The UK is a hotbed of quality culture, both emerging and professional, from performance to visual arts, and our festivals manifest the talent we produce.

The UK is a hotbed of quality culture, both emerging and professional, from performance to visual arts and our festivals manifest the talent we produce

Festivals are important if we are to understand our history, from social trends to the economy. They record the patterns of cultural change, bring communities together and broaden our cultural horizons. But in reality the answer to ‘why do we need festivals’ will be very individual, meaning something different to everyone asked. The question is how does a festival differ to an individual event and what is the point of having a programme of events held under one umbrella?

To audience members the festival expands their knowledge; it enables them to see a collection of work from the old favourites to the rising stars and to try something new. For performers it is a chance to be part of something that is bigger than their individual production. And for businesses it provides an opportunity to expand their market. Are any of these more valid than the others, or are they symbiotic?

Festivals are rooted in the social and cultural life of the community they are hosted in, and there are endless studies to prove that arts festivals enhance and benefit their environment. We know through many urban impact studies that festivals generate wealth and employment. Income is developed via ticket sales, and for business through expenditure on infrastructure. It is the festival-goer who is most valuable to local authorities and businesses for their secondary spend. They travel, need accommodation, eat out, go to local retail outlets and other businesses in the area, and it is this which makes a festival a very important time of the year for them.

Depending on the size of the festival, the economic impact of secondary spend generates income to the region. It can be significant enough to justify and enable more employment positions and opportunities in many companies. Studies show that local businesses in a festival town believe that a festival brings in new business to them and they see the event as good for the local community. Many also see them as making a valuable contribution to the development of tourism. With Visit Britain announcing that music tourists boosted the UK economy by £2.2bn last year, is this the reason why our festivals are so important?

Arts festivals also enhance local image and identity; attendees in many festival towns say they feel more positive about the place where the festival was held. This demonstrates that festivals can be an important factor in improving perceptions of places and people. Festivals can also generate and sustain audiences to a town’s year-round venues. Research shows that arts festivals create a very high level of satisfaction in the spaces they occur in. Return visits to the venues are likely, and the public gain an increased interest in arts activities.

The best example is the Edinburgh Festivals, which in 2010 generated £261m worth of additional tourism revenue for Scotland. The economic impact figure for Edinburgh is £245m. The Fringe alone contributed a staggering £142m of this. The Festivals play a starring role in the profile of the city and its tourism economy, with 93% of visitors stating that the Festivals are part of what makes Edinburgh special as a city, 82% agreeing that the Festivals make them more likely to revisit Edinburgh in the future and 82% stating that the Festivals were their sole or an important reason for coming to Scotland. Visitors to Edinburgh spent on average £35 each for every £1 in public subsidy.

Can festivals do, on mass, what individual venues and events are not able to? What reason is most valid? Urban impact is just one reason why festivals have a point, but is this what we value most or is the cultural impact more significant? To keep this conversation going and to join the debate tell us what you think is the point of festivals. We are hosting a discussion on twitter on Thursday 17 October from 5pm: #thepointoffestivals.

Holly Payton-Lombardo is on the Board of the British Arts and Science Festivals Association and Managing Director of World Festival Network.
Tw: @BritArtsFests

The annual Conference for Festivals, hosted by BAFA, is to be held in Edinburgh on Thursday 7 and Friday 8 November.

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