Operating a three-week concert series in one of the grandest and most historically important settings imaginable is no mean feat. IMG’s arts & entertainment VP Joel Smith discusses the considerations involved in modernising the Hampton Court Palace Festival while respecting the extraordinary surroundings

Nearly 500 years after Henry VIII used Hampton Court Palace as a home and vast leisure complex that included a theatre, IMG is bringing live entertainment back to the stunning building with its Hampton Court Palace Festival (HCPF).

The event series, which has been overseen by IMG for 26 years, ran for three weeks from 9 June. Among the many acts to perform were UB40, Elbow, McFly, George Benson, Jack Savoretti, Ministry of Sound Classical, Kacey Musgraves, The Human League, Crowded House and Michael Ball & Alfie Boe.

IMG’s Joel Smith says the event has been steadily developed in recent years with the aim of expanding the offering beyond classical music and attracting a more youthful audience. As part of that ongoing strategy, this year saw IMG team up with NoNonsense Group to deliver a more “rock’n’roll” stage set up.

“Whereas in the past the shows primarily featured acts such as José Carreras and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, we’ve moved away from a lot of that classical programming into more contemporary and legends programming,” says Smith. “We’re certainly not trying to alienate the existing audience, but we are trying to create a younger feel and in the past few years we’ve achieved that with the likes of Bastille and Keane.

“We wanted to modernise the stage, change the look and feel. The new structure enabled us to brand the stage differently, whereas before we had old fashioned drapes around the stage that hadn’t really changed for years. We wanted to refresh that and make it more appealing for today’s audience.

“It is also slightly larger stage, with more height, and there is more rigging opportunity in the roof. The cowsheds on the previous stage were limited in size but the new stage provides more space for bigger sound desks and so forth.”

“We can’t crane a stage in, it must be brought in and put up by hand.”

While the overall production of the event is handled by IMG, Bristol-based SWG Events is an ongoing partner that handles much of the stage production and some of the stage advancing. Another key supplier is power specialist Project Power, while one of HCPF’s longest standing suppliers is the Arena Group – which has provided seating since the early days. This year, Arena was tasked with a refreshed set up.

“We managed to enlarge the seating platform, tidy it up and make it fit more snugly within base Court,” says Smith. “Decisions around what infrastructure goes into the courtyard must be taken carefully because there are many conservation considerations to take into account.

We can’t crane a stage in, for example, it must be brought in and put up by hand.”

He says IMG has much experience of working in historically important settings but each venue comes with its own challenges. In the case of Hampton Court Palace, the entrance to Base Court means travelling over a weight-restricted moat bridge.

“That means everything has to be loaded off a truck and onto a smaller vehicle and then once the stage has been delivered it has to be erected by hand rather than cranes,” says Smith.

Among the many other issues that must be considered is the ban on food and drink in the palace building but thanks to IMG’s close relationship with the Palace’s management team at Historic Royal Palaces, it was able to open a bar in Base Court to service show attendees.

“That took a lot of a lot of time working with the palace to overcome some of their concerns and understand what would work and what would be acceptable. We can’t serve red wine, for example, because the risk to the fabric of the building is so high. We also need to make sure that the floor is heavily protected, and the bar is taken out every night,” says Smith.

That working environment not only impacts the way in which the IMG team and suppliers build and design the show, it also influences the festival’s entertainment offering.

“Because of the setup in base court, it doesn’t really work to have a support act on before the headliner as once the audience is in, you can’t really let them go back out and in again,” says Smith. “Unfortunately, we can’t just knock down some walls and make the entrances bigger.

“There’s a lot of working together, but I think we’re lucky to work with a team at Hampton Court that understands what we’re trying to achieve, and we understand why the restrictions are in place.

“There are many considerations but the by-product of all that work, and having that patience, is you’re in a beautiful, amazing, setting that very few event concepts can come close to.”