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Column So you want to set up a festival? Here's what you should know...

Festivals and events can bring much-needed tourism to a town, village or region, generating substantial economic and socio-cultural benefits. Feargus Dunne advises on how to organise one.

As the Irish tourism industry continues to swim against the tide of recession and stagnant tourism numbers, one area which has assumed key importance is our indigenous festivals and events sector. With Saint Patricks Day, which traditionally marks the beginning of the Irish festival season almost upon us, is it perhaps a suitable time to consider could you develop a festival of your own?

SO YOU WANT to set up a festival? People might ask why. Put simply, festivals and events can bring people into a town, village or region that otherwise would not have any reason to visit, thus generating substantial economic and socio-cultural benefits. The founders of the Rose of Tralee festival, who came up with the idea in Harty’s bar in the town one night in 1958, were seeking to re-generate the town, encourage tourism and keep the Tralee races crowd in town overnight. Fifty-five years later, the song pretty much remains the same for many Irish festivals.

In late 2011, the Government announced plans for an event called The Gathering to take place throughout 2013, seeking to encourage our global diaspora of anything up to 70 million people worldwide, to come to Ireland to celebrate their links with Ireland. While the jury remains out on the impact of The Gathering, Fáilte Ireland has in recent years recognised the power of festivals to help deliver on its objectives for Irish tourism. Grant funding for 2013 was partially adjudicated on a festival’s ability to tie in with the themes of The Gathering, so it was important for organisers to design their programme accordingly. The closing date for funding applications for this year was brought forward to mid-2012, so potential new festivals/ events should be planning now for 2014.

The idea

You must start with a clear idea or concept, something that will attract attention and can expect to generate goodwill and anticipation – but what do you need in order to make your idea into something tangible, something successful?

The Association of Irish Festivals and Events is an umbrella organisation for a large number of community-based festivals. Its executive director Colm Croffy suggests that contemporary festival organisers today need to be more consumer savvy. “People will not be fooled by another face-painting and bouncy castle tradeshow in the local amenity park,” he told me. Croffy recommends that festivals focus on developing a bespoke experience that screams ‘personally designed with only you in mind’ – but one you would like to enjoy with loads of others.

There has, of course, been an increasing demand from the public for free or partially-free events in recent years, with the onset of the recession. Many events in 2012, including the Tall Ships stopover in Dublin City docklands and the Volvo Ocean Race finale in Galway, provided a huge variety of ‘free’ entertainment. The problem is that ‘free’ events cost significant money to stage. If funding from central government, Fáilte Ireland, local councils or leader companies is not available, who pays?

Sponsors are unlikely to sponsor your festival as a pure act of goodwill, except in limited local situations. A festival/event needs to work out what the event has to offer a sponsor, regarding issues such as ‘brand fit’, niche marketing, hospitality, community goodwill and sales opportunities. Sponsors of this weekend’s Saint Patrick’s festival in Dublin are seeking to link to something intrinsically Irish and family oriented with a distinct cultural association.

Volunteers: the people who can make or break a festival

Volunteers can make or break a festival, and this was an area identified by the London organising committee as crucial to the success of the recent Olympic Games. London 2012 recruited 70,000 volunteers under their Games Makers programme, who received huge acclaim for their welcome, attention to detail and general positivity. While no Irish festival is likely to require 70,000 volunteers any time soon, festivals should take the time to recruit volunteers who share a genuine interest in the ethos of the festival. There is a role for everybody if they are enthusiastic, but attracting volunteers with skills in areas such as customer service, marketing, staging, etc, will pay rich dividends. Attempt to tap into resources such as local third level colleges, sports and social clubs, active retirement groups, family members or local business people.

At the heart of the festival however, should be a small focused team of people who can interact well with each other and various stakeholders and, crucially, get things done – often under serious financial and time constraints.

Marketing your festival

There are many cost-effective routes available regarding marketing also. Local newspapers and radio stations have large audiences and are generally very supportive of local festivals and events. This can provide effective targeted publicity at very little cost to organisers. Try organising a simple press launch or a quirky photocall (you don’t have to wear a bikini), perhaps with a local celebrity, who is well disposed towards the town or the event.

Social media has, of course, become a hugely effective medium for attracting festival audiences. Claire Heskin, a marketing expert who has worked with numerous Irish festivals in the area of social media, told me that festivals have never before had such direct access to their audience, or the tools to entice, excite, and generate interest. “From crowd sourcing, to engaging audience participation, providing sponsorship collateral, or simply being a key source of festival information, social media has fundamentally changed the way in which many festivals interact with their audience,” she suggested.

For new festivals, social media has enabled organisers to shape audience expectations, using image and video content to preview performances, and is the perfect channel to collect valuable audience feedback.

Be prepared

Festivals and events by their nature have numerous risks attached to them, and in Ireland chief amongst these is our unpredictable weather. Plan for it and consider worst case scenarios. Be prepared for event plans, safety statements, stakeholder briefings etc. Insurers also consider many festivals risky, in much the same way as they consider 18-year-old males driving modified cars risky, but there are specialist insurers who are willing to work with, and even assist, festivals and events.

You won’t please everyone so don’t try, but with a clear concept, community goodwill, creative marketing and – crucially – passion, your festival can be successful over the medium term.

Shane Dunne from Mitchelstown, County Cork, took over the running of a local street festival in the town square, with a number of friends six years ago. The festival had countless issues, including a huge debt, but has now morphed into the Indiependence festival, one of Ireland’s most successful independent music festivals. Shane emphasises, “It’s all about baby steps, developing a sustainable event over time and trying to manage costs. Try and source local funding, for example we have had a very successful link up with Ballyhoura rural development company”. Over time, Indiependence have established relationships, which have allowed them access to key promoters and an ability to attract larger acts.

One note of caution: with almost every town and village in Ireland now hosting a festival, and some hosting numerous festivals, the question should now be asked, have we reached saturation point? Food festivals, adventure races and niche music festivals have been some of the big growth areas in recent years – but spotting the next popular niche before others, will be the key to success into the future.

Feargus Dunne is a lecturer in tourism and events management at Institute of Technology, Tralee. He has worked with numerous Irish festivals and events in an advisory capacity. You can contact Feargus via Twitter (@feargusd) or LinkedIn.

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