With almost 140 festivals in the UK attracting audiences of over 4 million in any one year, what is that makes a festival a festival? Geoff Rowe explores their role and how they fit into the arts industry.

According to research conducted in 2002 by the British Arts Festivals Association (BAFA), 137 arts festivals provided well over 5,000 events that year, which resulted in over 1,730 days of programming. 101 festivals spent £37.4m, resulting in spending elsewhere in the economy in excess of £90m. These festivals employed 3,387 staff, excluding the thousands of self-employed artists and technicians who delivered the programme. In 1998/99, 4.2m people attended events or took part in activities organised by 95 British arts festivals. In addition, a recent MORI poll for the Arts Council of England found that 21% of the adult population had attended or participated in a festival or carnival in the previous 12 months.

So, what makes a festival? BAFA doesn?t seem to define this on its website but the Collins Dictionary defines a festival as ?a day or period set aside for celebration or feasting; any occasion for celebration?. So, not because ?Our Council thinks it would be a good idea.? or ?We?ve got a load of similar events on at our venue so we?ll call it a festival.? Type festival into a search engine and you?ll get over 2,500 listings but are they all examples of occasions for celebration or feasting? I think not. The term is used loosely and is often misleading.

Creating a festival

Festivals need to be festive; they need to offer something different from the normal experience. They need to offer things in strange places, special events and performances that would not normally be seen ? and excitement. There needs to be a buzz about a festival and you don?t get this by just producing a separate piece of print. So, how do you get it? By involving people and making sure the events are owned and enjoyed by a wide variety of people and organisations.

This might sound straightforward, but how many festivals are you aware of that are produced by someone sat behind a desk, or by a committee which makes all the decisions? Festivals need to be democratic and they need the energy and participation of individuals. Leicester Comedy Festival works with over 70 promoters who organise the various events, and if you include everyone who has some involvement in working on the festival, then it would run into hundreds - all sorts of people from professional promoters to community organisations to artists to churches to pubs and museums.

And then there is the audience. Festivals need to be accessible and allow people to participate in a variety of ways. Clearly they can be involved as audience members, but people can also participate by performing, promoting their own events and entering (and maybe winning) competitions. They can take part in workshops and provide feedback which is listened to and acted upon. One of the reasons most commonly given by Leicester Comedy Festival promoters for their participation is to attract new audiences as people wander from venue to venue, often visiting venues for the first time to see performances.

And these venues and performances need to be different and exciting. Venues can be marquees and tents on fields or car parks; they can be stages in the middle of town squares; they can be football club conference rooms which are transformed into theatres; they can be old cinemas opened for one night only for a live performance; or they can be old abattoirs or swimming pools. Performances need to feature famous people doing unusual things (preferably in a small, intimate venue), and never-to-be-repeated events, and involve fireworks and big, inflatable creatures; or involve a competition where the audience gets to choose the winner. They must not under any circumstances be predictable, dull, tired or just there because they?ve been going for years. Festivals should not be afraid to try new things and should continue to develop their venues, programme, marketing and audiences.

Funding and sponsorship

Festivals need sponsorship. Nearly a third of the income for the annual Leicester Comedy Festivals comes from a range of local, regional and national companies. Funnily enough, we take sponsorship very seriously indeed. We understand the commercial pressures on a business, and we know that any investment needs to deliver. The Leicester Mercury said the festival is ?a marketing consultant's dream come true?. And how do we do this? By having a dedicated sponsorship manager who believes in the festival and understands how to exploit what we have to offer in exchange for cash investment. Sponsorship cannot be successful if it is managed by a committee, by someone who doesn?t have time to commit to it or if benefits are not delivered.

Festivals do need the co-operation and support of local authorities and Regional Arts Boards. Not only is there significant funding required (and both Leicester City Council and East Midlands Arts have been funders of Leicester Comedy Festival since it started), but there is also support with licensing issues, permission to use buildings, marketing, distribution and other services essential to the success of a festival. Support from local authorities is vital in contributing to a festival being ?owned? by the community.

Real enjoyment

As festivals become more ambitious in their programming and audiences become more demanding and sophisticated, things will continue to develop and grow. As we learn more about the social and economic impact of festivals, we can advocate for them and ensure sufficient resources are available. We can make certain that there are a variety of real festivals stimulating real enjoyment.

Geoff Rowe is Director of the Leicester Comedy Festival. t: 07973 548309;
e: geoff@comedy-festival.co.uk; w: http://www.comedy-festival.co.uk