With so many festivals in the UK what makes for a successful and sustainable festival? Holly Lombardo discusses some vital building blocks.
Festivals are present in almost every space in every town across the globe. They reside in the fabric of our societies and they reach millions and millions of visitors every year. At one end of our country we have Brighton, which presents over 60 festivals and cultural events every year, and at the other there is Edinburgh, named as the Festival Capital of the World. In between, above and around these destinations there are festivals in all different shapes, sizes, disciplines and quirks. We are spoilt for choice in the UK and really do not have to travel far to experience art and culture with some of the greatest festivals in the world, breeding excellent artists and performers at a level of professionalism a step above the rest.
In what seem to be never-ending times of economic downturn, how do we sustain this vibrant and plentiful access to culture? What are the different elements that make up a sustainable festival? It is not all about money (although it helps) and it is also not solely about the programme. What makes a festival long-standing relies on so much more.
Festivals need people who have the vision and knowledge to build on achievements year on year
I believe it is the building blocks behind the scenes that make a festival solid. Before a new festival can be born there has to be an acknowledgement of need by the festival organisers. A want and support for the arts by the local community. Every year, when preparing a festival there are aspects of the administration that the organisers have an exact understanding of. They will know the programme (unless it is Fringe) and they will know the cost of producing these events. However, they will not know exactly what next year’s budget will be and they do not always know who will support them financially. It takes endless justifications to the stakeholders from the fundraisers and marketers who work tirelessly to secure what is needed. The festival will not know how many tickets will be sold or what will be successful and what might not be - they may have a good idea but there are always surprises. It is a risky business running a festival, sometimes referred to as the 'extreme sport' of the events world. So how is it done?
A number of elements need to be in place: marketing, good management, attention to detail, the people, good and clear processes, accessibility, working through the politics, but above all passion and persistence. There needs to be trust in the organisation. Trust from funders who know they will deliver. Sponsors guaranteed good exposure resulting in sales. Trust from the artists that they will be performing at a well organised event. Most importantly, the festival needs trust from the audiences, as without them the festival could not exist. The visitors need to know that the programming is innovative with an exciting vision and that the line-up will have something for them. There needs to be a market: the festival needs to know it has the audience to enable the programme to continue and it will not be a festival of empty theatres and streets. The festival has to provide a satisfying event experience as audiences become more demanding and the field is increasingly competitive.
But it is really the people running the festival who lie at the heart of its success. Without a professional and dedicated team to carry the organisation it would not survive for long. Festivals need people who have the vision and knowledge to build on achievements year on year. A solid platform of individuals working together to inspire and deliver the very best event they can.
There are important progressions within our festivals. Fringes create platforms, which enable the stars of the future to be discovered and then go on to be booked by the programmed festivals and regional venues. Students start off as interns and then become the managers and leaders themselves. Audiences discover new passions in different genres.
It is imperative that festivals remain in our society. Not only are they good for the economy, jobs and tourism but they are food for our souls. They create open conversation and play an essential part in joining and mixing up cultures, breeding confidence and acceptance. Despite a changing world, positive engagement and social interaction is what keeps us going. It is a thriving community that generates the building blocks of a successful festival.
What are your thoughts on what makes a festival successful? What are the critical building blocks to sustainability? Join the debate online @festivalhour #festivalDNA on Thursday 2 October from 9pm to 10pm and continue it live and in person at BAFA’s annual conference on Thursday 23 and Friday 24 October in Canterbury.