Set to be the first major festival to take place after June 21, Stage 4 of the Government’s conditional reopening roadmap, Black Deer is pioneering the journey back to full-capacity live events. Access All Areas goes backstage with the team.

In just three years, independent Americana and country music festival Black Deer has grown 300%, with its capacity having doubled each year since the inaugural edition in 2018.

After being cancelled in 2020, the event was rescheduled for 18-20 June this year with a line-up including Van Morrison. Within days of the prime minister’s 22 February announcement of the reponing timeline, the Black Deer team had rescheduled again for June 25-27, with plans for a full 20,000-capacity event.

“The reaction from the industry, suppliers and festival-goers has been absolutely fantastic, people love the fact we are willing to go forward,” says the event’s co-founder Gill Tee.

“Some people think we’re a bit crazy, but they want us to be a bit crazy because it feels like by us going ahead we are opening things up and we are giving more people the confidence to do things this year.”

Run by Black Deer Live, Black Deer Festival was founded by Tee and Deborah Shilling in 2018. The event attracted 5,000 people in its first year and 10,000 the following year. It takes place at Eridge Park, Kent, which is owned by Christopher Nevill the Marquess of Abergavenny. The estate has a license to accommodate 30,000 people.

Shilling says Black Deer’s expanding community of attendees has proven extremely loyal despite two consecutive postponements: “After the first one we had an 89% ticket retention rate. We were concerned there might be a large number of refund requests when we opened up the process again because our attendees had been through a full year of the pandemic. Thankfully, we had less than 10% request refunds and ticket sales have been really strongly, we’ve already surpassed 2019.”

There has been some major festival casualties already this year, and much industry frustration around the Government’s unwillingness to help underwrite an events cancellation insurance scheme. There also remains uncertainty around the results of the Events Research Programme, but Black Deer Live MD Chris Russell-Fish says every eventuality has been considered.

Russell-Fish has been the event’s operations director since its launch in 2018, and its MD since September last year. He says the team has been monitoring the ever-evolving situation around Covid-19 and is well prepared for any changes to event guidance from Public Health England and the DCMS.

“We are fortunate that we are on the Eridge Estate with some 3,500 acres, and being a relatively small festival, our onsite build is just a few weeks in length, allowing us to react very quickly to any last-minute demands, to ensure the safety of all our attendees, crew, merchants and suppliers,” he says.

Having introduced RFID cashless technology in 2019 across the whole site in partnership with PlayPass, Russell-Fish says the technology worked brilliantly and, Covid-19 or not, the contactless tech would have been used again this year at the festival. Should extra functionality such as ‘track and trace’ be required, it can be integrated into the RFID system.

“RFID brings substantial benefits to our event, simplicity and security for our festival attendees, ease of accreditation across crew and artists, seamless engagement between merchant, vendor and the public, and clear transparency in real time, across the whole festival footprint – whether that’s gate ingress, sales behavioural activities, incentivisation programmes or simply revenue interpretation,” he says.

Tee, whose wealth of experience in the events industry includes working on the Hop Farm Festival with Vince Power, says the team is working with long-term trusted suppliers that have proven willing to be flexible in unprecedented circumstances.

“We have been able to talk to our suppliers and push the payments a little to help cash flow,” says Tee. “It’s a matter of working together as a team of people who really want this to happen.”

NW Live director Joe Nichols has been with the event since the outset and oversees all the site design, infrastructure management and operational delivery.

He says this year will be very challenging due to supply chain issues with infrastructure and some staff taking a break from the festival season but the event benefits from the wealth of experience and expertise among the team.

“This year is very much about fine tuning our site design and improving on the experience in 2019,” he says. “Our campsite, live in vehicles field and fancy camping fields are all considerably larger. Although some of the changes might look small we have reviewed and tweaked everything from waste management to water provision.”

Trust Events Stages MD Spike Brookes has known Tee for close to 20 years and has worked on Black Deer since the outset, providing 10 stages and platforms.

“We are providing three bridges as well this year, with one going over some water so that’s going to be interesting to build – I can almost guarantee it will be me building that,” he laughs.

Brookes says the Black Deer team are a joy to work with and, like all the suppliers, he is hugely appreciative of the work: “My last project for the firm was on the 8 September 2019 – we have had 18 months of nothing and zero help from the Government. Everyone involved in Black Deer supports each other, we talk to each other and provide emotional support. To be able to go ahead and produce Black Deer will be a healing process for a lot of people.”

Another key team member is Emma Reynolds, who has been Black Deer’s technical production manager since the outset. She worked with Tee on Hop Farm, and went on to oversee projects including the Pyramid Stage and Other Stage at Glastonbury.

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