From Chris Evans’ CarFest, to surfing bliss, to foodie heaven, Access talks to the masters of hybrid festivals.
It’s 11 o’clock in the morning on a hot Saturday morning in late July, and Access has just woken up by the roar of a very loud car engine.
Peeking out of our tent, though, it’s immediately clear that we are the only late risers at CarFest North. Deep in the heart of England, set in front of the glorious early-nineteenth century Bolesworth Castle, Chris Evans’ brainchild event is already teeming with a variety of visitors that most festivals would kill for – and the gates have only just opened for the day.
Young families, vintage car junkies, gluten-free gourmet enthusiasts – CarFest’s genuinely mixed crowd has catapulted what could once have been generously called a ‘niche’ festival into the same tier as Glastonbury. The festival, which has two iterations each year (North and South), sells 100,000 tickets every year in under an hour, making it one of the fastest selling festivals in Britain, second only to Michael Eavis’ vaunted event.
The fact that it is no longer considered niche is in large part because of its success. When CarFest first launched in 2012, its mushing together of both a hobby – car enthusiasm – and music had not really been attempted.
But in a world in which festivals, events and exhibitions are finding it increasingly difficult to stay financially viable, Chris Evans’ festival has unlocked a unique way to continue making money while also putting on a good show.
It has ushered in the age of the hybrid festival.
Now, it would be foolish of us to suggest mash-ups of this sort didn’t exist until 2012. But predominantly this genre of festival was kept to the world of extreme sports like surfing or skateboarding.
Boardmasters, which has been going in some form or another since 1981, tempts thousands of attendees each year to Newquay, Cornwall for its unique mix of competition surfing and aging hipster music. This year the Plymouth Herald estimated that Boardmasters would bring 150,000 people to Cornwall, pumping around £45m into the region’s economy. Organisers employ more than 900 local people each year during the festival, spending £500,000 directly with local businesses.
The key to Boardmasters’ success is that it gives equal footing to both sides of its USP. The event is part of the World Surf League’s (WSL) qualifying series. In 2016, WSL picked Boardmasters to host the final event of its European Longboard competition, crowning the European Longboard Champion on Fistral Beach. Boardmasters is considered to be the biggest surf event in the UK, meaning that pro legends like Adam Griffiths, Ben Skinner, Jared Hickel and Lucy Campbell are all too happy to make the yearly pilgrimage to Newquay for the festival (and the US$30,500 prize purse doesn’t hurt either).
The daytime beach activities then give way to a music line-up that caters to both the surfing crowd and their tagalong friends – after all, not every single one of that 150,000-strong audience comes just for the water activities. The 2016 line-up included Chase & Status, Deadmau5, James Bay, Catfish & The Bottlemen, Kaiser Chiefs and Primal Scream.
Like the sport, it’s a tricky balancing act – but then, Boardmasters has been marrying this hybrid event for years. They know their way.
The rise of the hybrid
So what does anyone actually mean when they talk about ‘hybrid’ festivals?
Once synonymous with that stalwart of Uber minicabs, the Prius, the word hybrid has taken on a new definition in the events industry. While most live events have long incorporated experiential elements – what is a gig if not an experience? – hybridisation takes this idea to its logical conclusion: rather than the experience being a byproduct, it is now an essential selling point.
At CarFest, indeed, the music actually is a well-pitched background complement, eclipsed by the car hobbyists who come to ogle the vehicular beauties that Tesla and the Red Bull F1 team proudly show off at the event.
Part of the essential success of these hybrid festivals has been their music offerings. When Access asks Chris Hughes, managing director of Brand Events, which manages and organises CarFest for Evans, if he would consider putting on a standalone festival, the answer is simple. “There are a few festival ideas I would like to do that are shows plus music, but to take on all the big music festivals without an angle? I’d feel naked.”
He’s not wrong to be reticent. Even the major festival players are tightening their budgets, looking less for one big moment at their events and more for an overall experience. In this age of the experience economy, having a special interest or hobby to lure attendees in adds an advantage.
“Hybrid festivals are more financially viable because you have two different types of revenue,” explains Hughes. “The hobby people will pay to do their hobby, but they will also pay to have a party. I think there are a lot of natural examples of hybrid festivals that aren’t called that. Look at Cowes Week. In the daytime they sail, and at night they have a fabulous time, partying at night. It’s a mega hybrid festival.”
The experience economy
Eventbrite clocked onto this rise in demand for unique experiences early, and has commissioned several reports looking into the different trends. What they’ve found is that smashing two seemingly unlike subjects together creates an appealingly singular festival: Beer and boats. Music and poetry slams. Street food and dogs. Eventbrite, in a blog about hybrid festivals, wrote:
“Nearly 40 per cent of 18-25 year olds said they went out more in 2015. To capture the attention of this adventurous group, standing out is key. Fortunately, imagination’s the limit when it comes to serving up unique experiences.
“Meet hybridisation, the trend that just won’t stop trending. Hybrid events help broaden your appeal to new audiences, and increase buzz with one-of-a-kind experiences. Hybridisation used to mean broadening your festival’s experience with new attractions — like adding a morning yoga session to your music festival. Now, these side attractions are taking centre stage.”
As a result, organisers of these hybrid festivals are thinking outside the box, approaching their events from a different perspective than their music-only festival predecessors.
According to Hughes, this is because hybrid festivals must radiate authenticity. “The music festival scene only knows how to put on music festivals; they don’t know how to walk next door into people’s hobbies,” he says. “It’s not easy to put on a triathlon and a music festival, because that’s a different mindset. You have to be able to understand people and tap into their favourite pastimes.
“There has to be a ceiling to the number of people who want to spend money to listen to music in a field. For me the interesting thing is, can you combine their hobbies with the music festivals in a hybrid way?”
Is Ricky Wilson the glue that holds hybrid festivals together? It’s a theory Access is working on, as Kaiser Chiefs brought its hyper-energetic brand of pop rock to CarFest, Boardmasters and fellow hybrid Big Feastival this year.
It sounds facetious, but we’re only partially kidding. Key to hybridisation’s success is that it matches the vibe of the daytime activities with the nighttime revels.
For CarFest, that means programming a music line-up that holds water with Chris Evans’ radio host cred, but also satisfies a difficult range of ages: the under-sixes, the too-cool teenagers, parents spending time with their friends for the first time in months and the oldies chilling out after a day marveling at motoring wonders.
“This is where it gets tricky. You have to work out the demographic of the hobbyist, and what kind of party they’d like,” Hughes tells Access. “They don’t actually care if you have the Kaiser Chiefs or not – no disrespect to the Kaiser Chiefs. But they want a party. If you programme too well, they start to go, ‘I’m coming for the music’ and they lose interest in the hobby. With a hybrid or hobby festival, maybe you can break even in the daytime and make a profit in the night – isn’t that a nice theory?”
This feature first appeared in the September issue of Access All Areas, out now.