Steve Heap, General Secretary of the Association of Festival Organisers (AFO), says the impact of cancelled festivals will be strongly felt by local businesses


The 2020 festival season has been wiped out. At the Association of Festival Organisers (AFO), 90 of our member festivals postponed to 2021, while 17 changed their 2020 date in the hope that they could open their gates at the end of the season. Some of these are regretting their decision as the lockdown continues. There is now no doubt at all that if social distancing is on, the festivals are off.

There are an enormous number of stats out there describing the socio-economic impact all this is going to have on the country, and here at AFO we can mark out our corner.

The average size of an AFO member festival is between 3-5000 visits. If we take as an average 3,200 visits, multiplied by 90 festivals – that’s 288,000 people at home when they wanted to be at a festival. According to EIF research in 2018, each one of them would have spent around £320. That puts the total lost income from AFO members at just over £92m. For context, there are at least 1000 festivals each year in UK.

“Lost income from festivals will deprive local businesses, and take away tens of thousands of pounds from the charities that these festivals support.”

This will clearly show up on the UK economy charts and be very visible in each local area. It will deprive local businesses of their annual share of the festival bonus, as well as taking away tens of thousands of pounds from the many charities that these festivals support.

The UK government appeared to step up to the plate with a bottomless pot of funds, but on closer inspection not much of it is available to festival organisers or their events. Most are either volunteers or self-employed. Some are directors of limited or not for profit bodies, and most slip through the cracks of HMRC funding regulations.

So, just like in the foot and mouth outbreak and the banking crisis, festivals are turning to their loyal customers, their booked artists, and their suppliers to pull together and get themselves through this.

Many festivals have sold up to 50% of their tickets for 2020, and reports suggest that most customers are happy to have their money and ticket transferred to 2021. However, when the 2021 season gets underway festivals will have to remarket the new date and changes to the line-up. That will put them in a difficult spot of trying to deliver a 100% festival with about 60/70% of finance, having had to spend a good deal of funds on getting through winter. That is where the UK government bank loans may have to kick in – if there is any money left by April 2021!

The one thing we are sure of is organisers of festivals are dedicated, enthusiastic and resilient. They will return in 2021. They will rebuild their customers confidence in organised crowds and events and adapt to whatever new rules come into play in the post Covid-19 world.