Green Man festival owner Fiona Stewart talks of the ingenuity and courage among the festival community as it prepares for a return next year.
“Covid-19 has filled our days and nights for many months and, while no one is saying that it’s gone away, in an unstable world filled with misinformation and little support, two things are sure – this time will pass and festivals will run again,” says Stewart.
With almost two decades of experience in the festival business, Stewart is no stranger to adversity. Since she took over the running of the Green Man festival in 2005 it has become one of the UK’s biggest and most successful independent festivals.
Such is the popularity of the 25,000-capacity event that when this year’s sold-out edition was cancelled in the wake of Covid-19, some 90% of ticket holders chose to retain their tickets for next year’s festival.
Running a festival is a famously high-risk business and never more so than in the face of an unprecedented challenge such as Covid-19, however Stewart appears confident her event will survive and prosper and says the wider festival market has an opportunity to do likewise.
Set in a lush Welsh valley, with the Brecon Beacons mountains providing a stunning backdrop, the Green Man site features a huge wooden statue of the Green Man; a mythological pagan icon representing connection with nature, renewal and festival gatherings. At the end of each festival the statue is burned to the ground.
“Many see it as an opportunity to say goodbye to the past and a time to look to a new future,” says Stewart.
With the 2020 festival season all but destroyed by the pandemic, she says it’s time to put it behind us and think of the future: “We build magical places out of mid-air and create memories which last a lifetime. To be successful takes a complex and extensive set of skills including a big streak of daft.
“As ever it’s up to us the festival community to make it work against all odds. We need to use all of our skillset, our wonderful daftness to make it happen no matter what. Most of all we need to remember what an amazingly positive action it is to bring thousands of humans together to experience good times, and how courageous and bloody marvelous everyone involved in doing it is.”
Preparing for the unknown
Stewart has a history for reinvigorating festivals. In 2001 she was taken on to manage The Big Chill festival, she not only helped save it from closure but in the subsequent decade helped grow its capacity from 5,000 to 40,000.
When she took over Green Man, the festival had been running for two years and was on shaky financial ground. She has overcome numerous obstacles since but has found 2020 to be a uniquely challenging year.
Overseeing a festival the size of Green Man is a year-around business and Stewart says this year has provided a very rare opportunity to take time out: “Not having to do that for the first time in 28 years of running events, means I am at home and I can take stock and think about opportunities for improving the event.”
Stewart says she has no interest in growing the capacity of Green Man in the foreseeable future but priorities next year include the introduction of extra hygiene measures around the site, enhanced environmental sustainability initiatives and the development of a diversity policy on the back of the Black Lives Matter campaign.
“In the same way all managers at the festival go on a course about accessibility, making sure people with disabilities are accommodated for, we are going to do a similar thing following the Black Lives Matter movement. We all need to learn more about it and involve it in what we are doing,” she says.
A fresh approach
The experienced festival operator admits she is concerned about the potential impact of the Covid-19 crisis on next year’s festival season but says her team has no choice but to be positive and press ahead.
The high number of people who have retained their tickets for next year’s Green Man suggests there remains a strong appetite for festivals but Stewart expects that in general people are going to be more selective about the events they attend.
She says, “People want to get out and go to festivals but anyone going into this business has to create a very unique festival concept, quality festival experiences and carry on delivering that year in year out. If you have an audience that likes what you do that is great but you can’t sit on your laurels. It’s relatively easy to start a festival but incredibly difficult to keep it going successfully year on year.
“We have to be careful in our industry that we are not becoming like the high street; doing the same as everyone else. We may be doing similar things but it has to be different and that comes down to curation — you need passionate clever people who really know what they are doing.”
Knowing when to say no
Under Stewart’s watch, The Big Chill became a pioneering boutique festival that offered an audience experience far superior and varied than the vast majority of its peers. However, she recalls being laughed at when she first came up with the idea of introducing a cocktail bar at the event. “Over the years I have tried many new things and there have been a few fails along the way but it’s invigorating to challenge expectations or do things not just for profit but to increase experience.”
Festival environments in general have evolved significantly since then, as have audience expectations, but Stewart says it is possible to go too far: “It can all get a bit bourgeois. Festivals have always been about having fun and feeling free in a field.”
Stewart has been reluctant to partner with brands at the Green Man, despite having worked with many during her time at The Big Chill.
She says, “I am open to working with brands on activations, but I have never found anything sympathetic to the festival and the way we work.
“Festival-goers are very savvy now and at an event such as Green Man they don’t want brands there, they don’t want their children seeing toy sponsorship in the children’s area, they want to shut the door on all that.”
Stewart says that the festival industry is “an obstacle savvy business” with widespread experience of overcoming hurdles of all shapes and sizes: “Covid-19 is a huge challenge but it is one of many things we now have to deal with, psychologically, when running an event.”
Despite having decades of experience overcoming challenges working in one of the most unstable of industries, Stewart says the past year has been the most difficult but it has also provided a chance to reflect.
“In future, whenever I moan about some challenge involved with running Green Man I am going to remind myself about this period. Having this time out has really made me appreciate how much I love working on festivals and the friends and family I work with — it is not only a fabulous business to be in but a way of life.
“To be successful we have always had to evolve to stay relevant and be able to adapt and change to new ways of working. Each year I learn something new and I am astounded by the new concepts and experiences created by the people I work with. I can’t think of another industry where this would happen in this way – as festival organisers we have an incredible job.”