Festival Management

What can we learn from festivals? What makes a festival a great festival? How can we implement festival-style elements into conferences and events? How can we transform a boring conference into a great experience without over-doing it?

Kevin Van der Straeten
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Hi Paul, welcome to our studio.

Thank you.

You're one of the speakers at the FRESH conference, here in Turnhout. Also, the reason why you're here, in the studio.

And you are a freelance festival director, working on some of the world's most successful festivals.

Maybe we should start talking about those festivals.

In your opinion, what makes a festival a great festival and really stands out?

Well, I think one of the things about any good festival is...

I often say that they're some of the world's great meeting places. You know, it's where people, who share a passion, an interest - you know, love of music, film, books, whatever it is - it's where they meet and, you know, indulge in that passion. I think, to me, what makes a great festival, though, is where...

If you, like, the events, music, film or whatever, but also the place, combine. A phrase that I use too much is: well, it could only happen here.

Is that so? Can't a festival be moved to another place?

I think, personally, the best festivals are the ones that have a great sense of place. In a way, you could not imagine that event working in another town. Because it really embeds itself in the place. They're the ones that I really enjoy. Because that's what makes them unique. Because, you know, say: a Jazz festival. You could see, maybe, the same Jazz artists in nine or ten different towns. But actually, you know, if, for example, you go to the Moldejazz festival in Norway. You know, it feels perfect, because it's in Molde. There's something about the place and the Jazz. And the people make that event really work. So, as I say, to me, it's that combination.

And I suppose that's part of why I'm at this conference about meetings. Because I think some of these things translate, hopefully, across our industries.

You already mentioned: the people. And the thing with successful festivals is: it's most of the time also a very loyal audience, coming back every year.

They are. And it's incredible. Especially certain types of events. Especially music events.

You know, you get things like Jazz, like Blues, country music and classical music. Where it's not uncommon to meet people, who've been for the past twenty, thirty editions. Once they've found an event they love, they keep going back. Now, you know, that's not unusual in festivals. But of course, for tourists, that's highly unusual. Most of us tend to go to a different place each year. So, you have this incredible loyalty. And then these people, they become amazing ambassadors. Not just for the festival, but actually for the place as well. So, I mean, again, that's one thing that I always notice about really good festivals. It's that you have this core, at the heart of the audience. People who are, you know, kind of super-passionate. About not just Jazz or books, but actually about that particular festival.


You mentioned niches like a Jazz festival and a specific festival for a specific audience.

There are also, in the world, a lot of pretty generalistic festivals. In your opinion, can that work, a generalistic approach?

I think it's getting harder. Because it's such a crowded marketplace.

I think, maybe, if you do something like a food festival, of which there are many. If you can't find a way to make yours a little bit different, I think it's going to be a struggle.

I think what we're seeing in such a crowded marketplace, is real niche events.

So, from rather maybe a film festival, you start maybe an Asian film festival.

Or, I've come across two surf film festivals. Dedicated to surfing movies. That niche.

Oh, are there surfing movies?

Well, I can't name one. But there are these events.

But there is a crowd for it?

I think there is. Because, as I say, there's two or three of these festivals.

But I think that's definitely one of the shifts that I'm seeing. It's that in some ways, sometimes there's a new event. You know, you have to be doing something different. You have to be a little bit more original. So, and occasionally that means that you have a rather more narrow focus.

Now, that doesn't mean that's where you stay. Maybe you'll develop into a, maybe, more general festival. But actually, owning one piece of ground, sometimes seems to be important. And that's definitely a trend in the past 10-15 years, I think.

That's then also about finding your identity as a festival.

It's absolutely about finding your identity. It's about being able to have something different to say, from other events. And to create that little square of the market place for yourselves. So, I think that's...

As festivals are exploding worldwide, I think we're going to see more and more of these kinds of remarkable niche events.

It sounds logic. But at the same time, if you're organizing an event, and especially if you do that for the first time, you want to reach as many people as possible. Because you want to sell those tickets. But it sounds contradictory, in some way. By limiting

yourself to only the people, who like surfing movies, for example.

It is. And, you know, I suppose I'm not saying...

And it's not as if there are not hundreds of new food festivals and film festivals every year. Gaffing the more general crowd and some of them are successful. But, as I say, it is more difficult, I think, to create that unique identity for your organization.

A friend of mine wants to start something, that he's going to call: yet another Jazz festival. Just as the name of his event. For that reason. That he thinks there are so many new festivals.

So, I think the real skill is people you meet, who can take, perhaps, just a very unique idea. But actually, make it accessible to a large audience. I think they're the real...

They're like, you know, your Michelin-chefs, I think, of the festival world. People who can create something that is unique. But actually, make many, many people interested and passionate about it.


Yes, we've been talking now about what it takes to be successful. At an event. But what makes festivals fail?

Sometimes it can be as simple as: you just cannot find the money to support what you need to do. Sometimes it's that simple. I think...

One interesting thing is: I've seen events fail, sometimes, through over-ambition. I suppose one of the challenges with a festival is: you're normally only running for maybe one or two weeks a year. And it often takes up...

It takes a lot of time. To build up the infrastructure and organization. To be able to do that and to grow. And so, occasionally, if an event tries to grow too rapidly, in a way its infrastructure and organization is not caught up.

I think the other reason a lot of events fail, is that they lose their sort of focus on and feel for their core-audience. A very typical one, for example, is maybe an event that is really desperately trying to draw tourists into a city. But its primary focus tends to be the tourists. Whereas its core-audience is almost certainly its local audience. So, they're looking over there for the tourists. And they're ignoring the fact that their hardcore audience is the local audience. So, again, sometimes, you know, sometimes that is the challenge.

The other reason for failure is sometimes, you shouldn't blame people, I mean, you know, events do need to, in various points, reinvent themselves. They do need to develop and change. And that means taking a risk. If you want to change an event. You know, hopefully those risks work. But occasionally, they don't.

It fails.

It fails. You know? But you still have to...

As I say, personally: it's better to take the risk and fail. Than not take the risk at all. Otherwise, if you're not changing your event, over a long period, you're just waiting for failure to happen over a longer period, I think.

What does a festival director like you do at the FRESH conference? A conference for meeting planners. Not festivals.

Yes. Well, for me it's fascinating. Because, as I say, a lot of the principles that I see, working in festivals around the world. Big cities. Small towns. Big evens. Small events.

What's fascinating for me, now, is to see how these principles cast into different industries.

So, when I had the invitation for this event, it was very natural.

As I say, I talk about festivals being some of the world's great meeting places. A word which, you know, I use in my presentation and this also is one of the joys of creating festivals, is the way you can transform places. You know, you can transform a town for a day, for a week. You know. And also, you can transform lives.

You know, the number of people I've met, who've performed at, been to a festival and it's changed their life in some way. That's...

What a privilege.

And I can't help but feel there are elements of this in the meetings industry as well. I think most of us have perhaps attended a meeting, an event, a conference, which has turned on a light-bulb, you know. So, I think it's some of these things, which I'm interested in exploring. What are the principles from my world, that would work in the meetings industry as well?

And I have the joy of being able to present with a panel of experts. So, I will talk about some of the aspects that I see working in festivals. And then, hopefully, they're going to help translate that into the language of meetings and meeting design.

In meeting design, we talk about festivalization. Making a conference more like a festival.

That's a good idea? In your opinion?

I think so. Yes.

Because, again, you have some of the things festivals enjoy, great audience loyalty.

You know, people are massively prepared to talk about events. They become the highlights of their annual calendar. A lot of these things are, I think, the same. Within events and meetings. So, I think festivalization is a good way of talking about it.

And also, the meetings industry is a much more mature industry than it was 10-15 years ago.

It is, it is.

You know.

And I think there's more professionalism. There are more university courses, more training. These kinds of things. And I think, again, there's a notion of: how do we evolve events? How do we evolve meetings? How do we get away from some of the formats, that have kept us going for the past few years?

I think festivalization is quite a good way of thinking of that evolution. I hope.

Yes, it is, it is.

And maybe next year, we will have kind of Pop-stars as speakers.


Okay Paul, thank you very much for coming over to our studio and sharing your expertise with us.

It's been a pleasure, thank you.

And you at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.