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Access’ cover feature this month takes a look at the Netflix-famous Fyre Festival, and asks a selection of experts how it should have gone down.

 

Fyre Festival is the talk of office water coolers nationwide thanks to Netflix and Hulu’s respective documentaries (Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened and Fyre Fraud) documenting the event’s cringe-inducing collapse. 

The event was billed as the sort of party that would make even Kanye West question if he’d overdone the braggadocio. Models, private jets, and world-famous artists were to descend on a tropical island to create the most ‘Gram-worthy backdrop the world had ever seen.

The impending implosion of Fyre Festival touches on both contemporary and age-old aspects of the event lifecycle. This means #eventprofs are perfectly placed to dissect when, where and why Fyre Festival got it so wrong.

 

The concept

“This will be the greatest gathering of influencers the world has ever seen,” Fyre Festival founder Billy McFarland

The scale of the mayhem at Fyre Festival has caused some event experts to reach for literary allusions. 

Amplify founder Jonathan Emmins references Philip Larkin’s poem Ambulances to explain our industry’s conflicted relationship with the recent documentaries.

“The poem muses on how, when we hear the siren of an ambulance, we can’t think of others mortality without thinking of our own. We can’t help watching without breaking into a sweat by thinking of what would happen if we ever ignored the basics of event management and found ourselves in that position. We should never be complacent but, thankfully, as an industry we aspire to be – and are – better than Fyre,” he adds.

Despite the impending cock-ups, however, few disagree that the original Fyre Festival concept held water. 

RLC managing director Rachel Ley points out that, with over a third of today’s youth more likely to trust a social media influencer’s word over a brand, it is no surprise that models like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner had a tremendous impact on the sales and marketing of Fyre festival.

“Some 400 of these in-demand influencers, each with millions of followers, posted an orange tile on Instagram, which lead to a promo video and included the hashtag #FyreFestival. These posts generated over 300 million impressions in just 24 hours, and the festival sold-out as a result. In other words, Fyre sold out so quickly because it not only promised a unique festival experience (ticket holders certainly got that!) but it also promised Instagram content that friends and followers wouldn’t be able to compete with.”

Ley adds that this ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) resulted in Millennials and Generation Z paying anything up to $12,000 for VIP ticket packages, just to try and guarantee real-time social content for Instagram Stories that would drive their follower count and support the illusion they were living their best lives on a private island in the Bahamas.

Despite this, there’s a clear question of ethics, adds Dan Andrew, co-founder, The BeKnown Agency, who says that, while the founders of Fyre played into the Instagram trend there was far more at stake.

“When you create an idea you’re so passionate about, you need to take a step back, and look at how to create it practically and ethically. This includes all the amenities and support welfare, because you have a duty of care. Often creators are just thinking about bands they want to book, and what they would enjoy as a guest.”

No matter the dodgy motives and how badly expectations were mismanaged, there was a true vision in there somewhere, Amplify’s Emmins adds: “Billy McFarland, his cheerleader Ja Rule and the agencies he brought on board had an insight, intuitively knew an audience, and put spend in to exploit that. 

“Most festivals fail to break even in the first couple of years, but the hype behind Fyre captured the spirit of the target audience’s imagination, and according to various accounts 5,000 tickets sold out in no-time and demand for accommodation quickly outstripped availability. The marketing had worked, but at what cost?”

George Chapman, head of operations and production at global partnerships and activation agency Wasserman agrees. “The concept was really strong, but in reality you shouldn’t be that rogue. Almost everything they did was absolutely not in line with best practice.

“They didn’t follow Wasserman’s 6 Ps – Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. They were very ‘marketing and commercially’ minded, but didn’t create the event as a whole campaign – they didn’t follow any of the usual processes. 

He adds: “Using ‘social’ as a starting point is reckless. There is always a temptation to get stuff out on social but you have to be so careful for so many reasons. To post information up without infrastructure and venue is very poor. However, if you absolutely have to post something, you have to put in disclaimers eg ‘not actual images’ or ‘the types of artists that might appear’. Ethics-wise you also just don’t put out artists names before they’re confirmed.”

The Fyre stakeholders certainly spotted an opportunity for a unique and remote luxury festival to showcase their new talent booking venture, Rachel Bateman, head of live engagement at Initials notes. “The vision for the festival was clearly defined by Fyre stakeholders and if achievable could have been an aspirational edition to an elite social calendar. However, the festival visionaries failed to realise that the moment expectations weren’t going to be met they had a big problem.

“This happened from the first marketing materials, as they failed to realise that you can’t Photoshop real life. The documentary painted a bleak picture of how the team instigated a high-profile marketing campaign for, essentially, a fictional event.

“You can’t Photoshop real life” – Rachel Bateman, head of live engagement at Initials

“However, in theory, their approach to marketing the event – using relevant influencers to engage their target audience – was standard practice. In fact, the mass social media takeover was very disruptive and drove ticket sales; the issue came from the misrepresentation of a) the event and b) the influencers’ official endorsement.”

Jo Eaden, live producer WRG, part of The Creative Engagement Group adds: “Selling the dream works, the failure comes when that dream is at no point grounded in reality. It can never be overestimated: the meticulous planning that goes into events, the never-ending balancing of the creative aspiration and the logistical needs.

“The problem here was not Fyre’s ambition. Ambition is great. It’s what creates the things we have never seen before. But ambition takes structure, planning, a great team full of experience and a thorough understanding of what you need to deliver.”

Maybe, however, the consumer is wising up to the exploitative practices of brands like Fyre Festival. Warm Street, a ‘new age network of cultural consultants’, stresses the importance for brands of earning ‘Cultural Capital’, something Fyre’s bosses hadn’t achieved.

Warm Street co-founder Theo Gentilli says: “Audiences on social media are demanding that there has to be real, authentic action behind the messaging. It’s no longer about insincere promises, it’s about gaining consumer trust in order to earn your right to lead culture.

“Gillette are a recent example of getting this wrong. They were talking about equality, but haven’t done anything over the last 20 years to earn that voice. Brands like Red Bull however, get it right, and have proven that when you’ve generated that cultural capital, you can start and lead a movement.”

 

The execution

“Instead of thinking about models, you’re gonna have to think about toilets”, Fyre Festival organiser

Fyre Festival’s founders were lost in the hype of their event, and lost sight of its execution. 

Indeed, as NoNonsense director Liz Madden points out: the marketing efforts only worsened the divide between expectation and reality. 

“The Fyre founders were used to high-end bars and parties. They’d never considered the planning, hard work, and hours that go into making one weekend happen. They were not sensitive or brave enough to stop it at the point where they could. At that point it could have been down to good intentions. The responsible thing to do was cancel, but they lumbered on.

“Fyre Festival were only looking at what the guests could get, not how they could get it. They’d never planned anything like this. The lesson is: if you get the right people you get the right thing.

In order to achieve their vision, Madden recommends looking at what similar events have achieved. “If they wanted to create a sort of ‘high-end Mayfair club on an island’ they could have gone to the kind of brands they wanted to emulate, and see how they do things. 

“There’s no one company that can do each element, it depends on the aesthetic.”

Emmins agress, and says one of Amplify’s core beliefs is ‘the idea is only as good as the execution’. “Don’t sell a dream you can’t deliver. We’re an agency built on creativity and big ideas, but with this we have a responsibility to manage the expectations of our clients and those of their target audiences.

“You need to put the right team in place, the right mix of experience, the right level of experience, clear leadership and a chain of command pre, during and post event. The creatives and strategists work hand in hand with the producers and live team to make the vision a reality.

“Analysing Fyre, there wasn’t an experienced event leadership team at the helm, nor was there support in place to do due diligence and bring specialist expertise to the party. In fact, it seemed that Andy King was given the gig due to producing some wine tastings for Billy McFarland’s previous enterprise, and the fact that anyone else with the right experience or who spoke sense either walked away, was ignored or exited.” 

WRG’s Eaden adds: “Fyre Festival was an example of when the core needs are ignored to the point of no delivery. You can never escape the fundamentals. Everyone will need to eat, sleep, and have sanitation, regardless of what brought them there in the first place. The dream will only get you so far.

“To be successful, you work backwards from what you have at the core, in this case an island, and build the infrastructure and experience from there. Give it time. Give it the right expertise. Using a new location always requires compromise, and you will never know the place as well as the locals do, so listen to advice, find the solutions together and be honest about the challenges you’ll face.

“A production on this scale needs a team to match. Ambitions can be met with the right group drawing on the right experience and listening to one another, hitting that perfect balance that makes the greatest festivals and events the experiences they are.”

The lack of due diligence also worried Wasserman’s Chapman. “There were no checks on the guy at the head – he had no experience, thought he knew it all and no one questioned him. The one who did was shipped off.

“Normally, for something this grand in scope, you have a visionary at the head who is known for doing things properly, but who would also have a team doing checks on everything. People didn’t pause to think and were swept along by the vision and blinded by the money.

“That being said, if they’d have moved him out early enough and brought someone in with the correct experience, they still could have made it a success. It wasn’t a million miles away from where it needed to be. When they moved to the main island and there was infrastructure, they had a chance then.

“They were still way behind what it was meant to be, but had they planned right from there, had a supplier, built the units, then shown everyone what they were, it could have worked.

Chapman also suggests an alternative PR strategy at this juncture. “They should have put out a release about the move, outlined the challenges they faced, and shown the new offer and then given something back to the people who had already bought tickets – they would have got good take up, again, because the concept was so strong.”

The cracks were showing from the start, however, says BeKnown’s Dan Andrew (pictured with Access editor Tom Hall, right). “Like with anything, when you have proof of concept it can negate risks. Perhaps get the support and infrastructure from a bigger promoter, and make sure everything is in its right place and can be pulled off. They went too big too soon. If they worked with a bigger backer or infrastructure partner they could have been successful.”

Andrew, who has worked with a lot of unique venues, recommends starting small before going big, pointing to aspirational events at manor houses which create a great exclusive atmosphere. “Overall, Fyre Festival was an expensive job and needed a lot of forward planning.

“They got caught up in the fun bits like the photoshoots, the drinking, the models, but you need portaloos, proper site access, and plan Bs for what to do in an emergency. Then there’s meeting with police, councils, and planning resources.

“I’m not sure if they had a business continuity plan but they were very much out of their depth, and had a bit too much money at first. The guy went from club promoting for 1,000 people or so, to taking on a huge crowd.”

Despite this, Andrew is no naysayer when it comes to bold venue choices. “Nothing is impossible, but there’s lots to plan for that turns an event from being potentially great, to being a failure. We see this at the best festivals and award shows – when they’ve planned for every moment, and it shows.”

NoNonsense’s Madden adds: “The founders assumed things would happen. They assumed it would be easy rather than doing the leg work, which means everything from transportation to shipping. It was either arrogance or ignorance. Or both.

“Some festivals bring in agency to do site managing and leave their own team to book acts and run the festival. Overseas you’d need a totally separate strategy to handle the location. I don’t think the Fyre managers could’ve put on a festival down the road from their house, let alone in that location. 

“They thought that, if you throw money at something, or are important then it will happen around you. But no one cares who you are. You still have to fill out the paperwork, do the due diligence. It’s about putting together a proper team. It’s about curation and doing your homework. It comes down to perception of value: it’s only successful if the customer perceives it as so. This is true whether it’s a £10 or £10,000 ticket.”

Initials’ Bateman adds that her biggest learnings from the documentary are: to always meet the expectation set; to fully scope the reality before engaging investors and definitely before launching publicly. And, finally, to know when to pull the plug. 

“The writing was on the wall, a long time before the first festival-goer landed on the ‘island’,” she adds.“Don’t give the car keys to someone who’s never driven before, Billy’s lack of experience demonstrates all too well what the results might be.”

 

Prevention

“We were a little naïve,” Fyre Festival founder Billy McFarland

It’s safe to say Fyre Festival didn’t meet consumer expectations. But, with that uncontroversial comment out of the way, what sort of insurance and budgeting could have been actioned?

“It’s a common thing, but you can get event cancellation insurance. Most promoters would have it, but looking at what they were promising and where, it would be a massive premium,” says Wasserman’s Chapman.

“Insurers are normally pretty good if you can promote due process and diligence in event planning and assess them – but because he wasn’t listening to his production team, the insurance company would have walked away.

Eyal Gluska, co-founder and co-CEO, Setoo adds that the Fyre Festival fiasco serves as a warning for organisers regarding the possible impact of disappointing consumers – Millennials in particular. “This bar is constantly being raised, placing additional pressure on organisers to deliver the ultimate experience from start to finish.

“One of the ways event organisers can enhance the customer journey is through automated, activity-specific insurance policies relevant to the needs of each individual. Organisers can offer options that protect attendees against incidents that could ruin their experience, such as rain or a no-show act.”

Emmins breaks it down further, noting that margins are often tight in an industry with huge third-party costs. “Some of the most successful events only hit profit when they reach 80% capacity, and that’s when they’ve budgeted correctly. 

“By launching without a full scope, the team might have been more aware of an $8m shortfall, from the $4m estimate to the $12m+ reality.  We often talk about ‘budget versus ambition’. Creative-wise, we think laterally and pragmatically to find ways to crack briefs with maximum impact and cost efficiency. But to deliver a $12m+ event on $4m would need Harry Potter on the team. 

“We know that expertise comes at a price whether it’s the team internally, freelancers or specialists we bring in. Whilst Fyre may have paid a little more for experienced event organisers, it would have saved them millions in the long run (still not enough to keep the dream afloat, but millions none the less). 

“How do you know the true cost of a stage if you’ve booked it through Google Search? And even the 20-something talent booker was fully aware he was paying twice as much as market rates for talent, but his lack of experience, reputation and a looming deadline meant the agents had a field day. Maybe the agents too should have been more questioning. If it’s too good to be true, it usually is.”

Hopefully we can all learn something from Fyre’s failure. Fires need to be started properly, controlled carefully, and it’s always wise to have an extinguisher on hand, just in case.