UK event suppliers are already sought after worldwide, but few festival organisers have successfully replicated their events in new climes. Could this be about to change?

 

“Why don’t we have Burning Man UK or a Glastonbury Nevada?” asks Chris Tofu MBE, managing director, Continental Drifts (pictured left). The answer, he attests – and a who’s who of industry experts agree – may lay in the psychology of organisers, and the anthropology of their setting.

In contrast to the festival market, the modus operandi of exhibition organisers has been to spot an event idea, and create offshoots globally. Comic-Con, an event that blurs the line between a festival and an exhibition, for example, has been eagerly received in countries including Japan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Poland, Canada and in various States across the USA, to name a few.

So, given the global reverence for ‘the UK festival’, why are there so few international iterations of our prized format?

 

Suppliers and demand

Certainly, there are ample requests abroad for UK suppliers, and they often have vast networks in place to cater for organiser demands. There’s also anecdotal evidence of calls for the UK’s festival magic to be sprinkled a little wider.

Robert Dumas, co-founder, Pete the Dragon tells Access that his French festival takes a lot of cues from the English outdoor tradition, and also looks to English suppliers to inspire its look and feel. 

“The English festival tradition is very much admired in Europe,” he says. “The English are great at providing innovations and experiences that the French market aren’t aware of. For us, these suppliers are very unique, and this is the case across Europe. I think that there’s a big opportunity for UK suppliers to build on their dominance and grow this niche.”

The wider outdoor event industry also testifies to the UK’s level of expertise. The Ryder Cup’s match director Edward Kitson tells Access that a lot of the key suppliers of the legendary golfing event, which took place in Paris (25-30 September), were from the UK. But what often sets them apart is their networks across Europe.

“There’s various things that make UK suppliers attractive,” he says. “We put tenders out across Europe, but pricing was more favourable in the UK, and suppliers understood the scale. They also galvanised European support. Creative Technology, for example, did the screens, but the parts often came from across Europe. 

“GL events did all the grandstands, and a lot of the team came from the UK, but the equipment used was often from a French company. The same applies to Aggreko, who have been involved in sporting events all over the world. They delivered the power and distribution, but utilised a lot of French gear. It was a UK led team, but they worked with French components.” 

For catering, a similar picture emerged, Kitson adds: “Lenôtre, part of Sodexo, provided the catering and did 50% of the hospitality, but Mecca did the other part and delivered a good package, using their network.”

Raven Founder and managing director Ian Kerr caught the attention of the Ryder Cup European Tour through the delivery of table top exercises for many Flagship European Tour Events and through working relationships with the tour’s Scottish-based health and safety consultants.

“After identifying the Ryder Cup as a fantastic opportunity for Raven, our digital incident logging software, we were able to set up a meeting with the tour’s senior executives and key event management staff. This enabled us to demonstrate how Raven’s use of real-time data and information sharing capabilities can join up communication and facilitate the effective management of a range of incidents, reducing the burden on mission critical personnel.

“Following the meeting, the Ryder Cup’s operations director commissioned Raven for the tournament and invited us to an exercise in Paris where we trained all parties on how to use the system. The event was a fantastic experience and definitely showed the value of building connections within the sports and events market”.

There are other reasons why the UK’s suppliers have succeeded abroad, according to Tofu: “Our workers are able to get work in most places. This is down, surely, to our dominance, the English Language, and a super respect for the UK Music industry. 

“Ironically, as someone who goes worldwide, I’d say you’re just as – if not more likely – to find Australians on the big productions because of the successful Olympics, and a small market meaning they have to travel, resulting in some of our Aussie brothers and sisters being involved in a 365-days-a-year festival life.”

Bestival Toronto, 2015

Clone wars

So, with many UK suppliers carving a proven track record internationally, is it surprising that there’s not more UK festival clones or franchises world-wide?

Certainly, festivals locked by name to a geographic location (The Isle of Wight Festival, Glastonbury, etc) might struggle to clone their brands. And, many wrongly assume Kendal Calling and Standon Calling to be affiliated, but there are several case studies of when English festival geo-cloning attempts – to borrow an Americanism – “go bad”.

Bestival, which spawned much-lauded sister festival Camp Bestival, suffered a touch of ‘brand-stretch’ after announcing that 2016’s Bestival Toronto (the second in this city), and the inaugural 2017 Bestival Bali, would be their last, although they did, at the time, state an intention to return. 

Metal festival Download, meanwhile, has successfully geo-cloned in locations including France, Japan, Spain, Australia and Scotland, with uniformly stellar line-ups. 

Much of Download’s international wingspan can be put down to Live Nation’s clout and influence, according to Laurie Kirby, co-president of FestForums, a North American festival conference based in California. 

She says that events like Download and Lollapalooza, created in 1991 by Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell, have been able to swell in their reach because of their conglomerate backing. “Live Nation and C3 have vast resources, name recognition and boots on the ground to execute on a massive scale. Others that have attempted this have not been so successful, so I believe festivals stay in their lanes for these reasons.”

She adds: “Festivals are expensive and complicated to produce. Permitting, a local matter, is at the heart of the festival’s ability to thrive. That is most often based on good community relationships. Scaling up also engenders complicated issues such as staffing, liability, brand awareness, production teams, marketing, and overall logistics.”

Keeping it local

The issue of local knowledge cannot be underestimated, according to The Fair CEO Nick Morgan. “There can be a lot of unknowns when brands try to run their show themselves abroad. They often don’t work simply due to lack of knowledge of the local economy, audience, logistics and production, etc.

“Club culture abroad, in countries like the US, is very different to the UK. For example, Creamfields took on the US, and was cancelled in New York due to logistics and poor ticket sales. Taking a brand out of territory is a huge risk and the key to succeeding often lies with franchising.  

“The franchise needs to know the local economy, audience, and local production companies in order to succeed, Morgan continues: “This can be a massive risk, so brands franchising a show need contracts in place, money up front and importantly, for the experience to be kept on-brand.”

The heart and soul of a festival is the community of people who attend, and this can be a very local niche, according to Olivia Diamond, senior business development manager at Shed Creative Agency, Universal Music Canada tells Access. “That spirit is not necessarily replicated when the location changes. Not to mention that festival sites are an important part of the event’s DNA and affect so many aspects of the experience. The new site needs to make sense.”   

Diamond references MUTEK (Barcelona, Montreal) as a successful festival in multiple markets. “The organisers are inspired by the energy of both cities, and the ethos of the event – showcasing digital creativity – resonates in both markets. There are inherent risks when geo-cloning a festival brand: cost, of course, and building partnerships that allow organisers to manage the immense task of having two festivals in separate markets while maintaining the integrity of the brand and the experience on-site. 

“Brand partnerships can also be challenging, since brands’ strategic and budgetary plans are often market-specific. This means an opportunity may be appealing and feasible for the brand in the UK but not in Canada, for example.”

For these reasons, Ella Nosworthy, creative director at Nozstock Festival (pictured left) tells Access she’s never seriously considered geo-cloning. “This is partly because of the financial risk and the unknown market, and partly because, as a small independent festival, we don’t have the man power to start from scratch in a new country. There’s only so many hours in the day and we pour all our love into Nozstock. It doesn’t leave much room for anything else.”

There’s also something more foundational, Tofu adds, grounded in the roots of the festival movement. “Festivals are a composite of all festivals and events that have ever happened. They contain so many tiny DNA strands, and working practices shared across thousands of gigs and – if I may be so bold – thousands of years.

“Once you get beyond the idea that at least 90% of the world’s festival organisers are not just out to make cash (a good by-product) but for wider community reasons and cultural factors, a different picture emerges. Quite often the organisers are the programmers. That is a rarefied and unique position, and one that connects them to the atmosphere. Even if they don’t book the bands, they are still the ‘vibe masters’.” 

He concludes that cultural factors also play a role, citing Italy and France’s aversion to camping as an example. “The English get the award for staying out in the worst conditions. There are just not enough big camping events abroad compared to here, despite the better weather. 

“Finally, the role of the media in creating events, and the need for young people to explore, and often experience, their first time away from home, is also cultural. In some countries the young go on Summer Camps, some go to proms, and some don’t even have a free youth.”   

While not every location is suited to every festival, With some regionally-specific adaptations, the UK is well-placed to spread its ‘event net’ wider. More often though, we’re happy having our festivals stay where they are. And the great festivals we do have might be all the stronger for it. 

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