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WOMAD festival director Chris Smith tells Access about the plans for this year’s edition of the 40,000-capacity event, which is due to take place on 22-25 July at Charlton Park in Malmesbury, Wiltshire.

WOMAD became the latest major UK festival to be given the green light earlier this week, 16 March, and its organisers have seen ticket sales soar since they were put on sale the same day.

Known for providing a platform for a remarkably diverse array of musical talent from far flung corners of the Earth, WOMAD may not be the most obvious event to be given the go ahead due to the international impact of Covid-19 and ongoing flight restrictions, however its director Chris Smith is confident there will be no shortage of great talent available.

The line-up will be announced on 12 April, initially consisting of UK artists “reflecting musical and artistic traditions from all over the world”. That will be followed by a 17 May announcement about international additions.

In order to work within government guidelines and to ensure attendees feel safe, plans are being made to potentially increase the footprint of the festival site, while the capacity could be limited. Smith’s team is  also looking at offering home-based Lateral Flow Tests, for use before and after the festival, which could be sold at cost price.

How likely is it the capacity of the festival will be adjusted this year?

We are licensed for 40,000. The site has a capacity of about 60,000 but we don’t sell to that. We are having conversations with authorities and on our list is the matter of whether we need to reduce capacity or do we just need to rearrange the furniture a bit.

We haven’t made a decision on capacity yet, the guidance would suggest that we don’t need to reduce it, but again if it becomes a safety issue or health issue then clearly that would be something we would explore. We have so much space at Charlton Park it is not a problem for us.

How much room for manoeuvre is there when it comes to site expansion?

We can comfortably expand by 20% to 30%. There are big chunks of the site that we don’t use for the festival so we would be calling those into play. At this point it is about reassuring customers, that it central to our thinking – to get them to come out, enjoy themselves and feel comfortable.

“We all saw Melvin Benn and Live Nation charge into the field holding the flag, the rest of us have followed in behind him saying ‘yeah absolutely we want some of this as well’.”

How are ticket sales going and what percentage of ticketholders held on from last year?  

We came off sale at the beginning of April last year, and at that point we would have sold around 50% – of that 80% rolled over. So, around 40% of tickets are taken and we still have got a sensible amount to sell. Based on this week’s sales I am confident we will have a lot of people coming through the door.

We all saw Melvin Benn and Live Nation charge into the field holding the flag, the rest of us have followed in behind him saying ‘yeah absolutely we want some of this as well’. We anticipated strong sales, we have so much loyalty among attendees, there are so many people wanting it to happen.

We’ve also had a very small number of people saying ‘actually we don’t feel ready for this yet, can we roll over for a second year?’ Overall, we are getting the response I’d hoped for.

With such a wealth of music from around the world on site, one of the unique things about WOMAD is the diverse array of entertainment offerings. With international travel limited, what impact will that have on the diversity of the line-up?

One of wonderful things about the UK is that our artistic community is massive and diverse, so we feel we could easily put on a WOMAD with just UK-based artists. I don’t feel we need to do that because if the government is true to its plan and borders open up then there are certainly artists based in Europe that we would want to bring in. We are getting a hugely positive response from artists, people are very keen to play.

We are fortunate in that we’re not in competition with other festivals for some of the more commercial headliners. We’re looking for diversity and creative curiosity, and that makes it easier because there is a limited number of mainstream artists in the UK but we’re very much fishing outside of that.

“That’s the dream ticket but I am not surprised it hasn’t happened, there hasn’t been any evidence so far that the DCMS or Treasury has seen our industry as a priority.”

Do you expect the Government to follow EU countries and support festivals with a cancelation insurance fund?

That’s the dream ticket but I am not surprised it hasn’t happened, there hasn’t been any evidence so far that the DCMS or Treasury has seen our industry as a priority.

We can see other governments providing support and it is unfortunate that it is not happening here but I think it is reflective of the challenge that we face as an industry to come together slightly better and have a voice that is more united and as a result gets better results.

Has the damage the pandemic-related guidelines have had on the supply chain impacted you or do you expect it to?

I would be lying if I said it hasn’t. We’re fortunate in that we have been in the game a long time and we have strong relationships, but we have seen suppliers who have switched to working in other sectors and done very well – and good luck to them – but I think we are staring down the barrel of a skills shortage going forward. The Glastonbury cancellation had a big impact, that sent a ripple through the industry. On the plus side, we’ve been supported to an incredible degree by our suppliers and we wouldn’t be able to do this if we hadn’t been able to get their support and their willingness to very much come with us on this journey and take a risk.