2011 UK Festival Conference: Show report

Regardless of where you stand on the subject, it goes without saying that 2011 has raised a number of pressing questions as to which way the future of UK festivals is set to be heading. With this year providing one of the most eventful festival seasons in recent memory, there have been rumblings from various sections of the media that the festival industry is in a state of rapid decline due to the number of events cancelled, while speculation is still rife with regards to the 2012 Olympics Games and its potential impact on sponsorship income.

However, in response to the somewhat gloomy forecast predicted by some, there are many who have been quick to counter such arguments, claiming that the figures being bandied around for the past few months offer no greater cause for concern than any other festival season, in some cases offering the perspective that 2011 has seen a multitude of festivals selling record numbers of tickets.

On a broader scale, 2011 has seen a series of international events making the headlines as a result of the appalling atrocities witnessed at Belgium’s Pukkelpop festival and the Indiana State Fair, in which freak weather conditions caused main stage structures to collapse. 

Each of these topics, plus a host of others were at the heart of this year’s UK Festival Conference. Now in its fourth year, the conference provides a unique platform for the industry’s key figures to converge and converse, offering a range of panel discussions and presentations to analyse the latest developments in the festival world.

Taking place at the HMV Forum, Kentish Town, London, this year’s event was essentially dominated by three key themes: the affect of social networking on bringing in audiences; the potential flaws and benefits caused by the 2012 Olympics and how to deal with adverse conditions.

Kicking things of with a session entitled ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ was John Robb, moderating a panel made up of James Algate of Angel Music Group; Creamfields founder James Barton; John Probyn, chief operating officer of Live Nation, and Paul Glossop, head of digital, V Festival. Taking centre stage for this discussion was the topic of social networking and its role as a key tool in maintaining a festival’s fan base, whilst also providing a substantial source of market research via user forums.

This topic continued into the following discussion ‘From Online to Onsite’ whereby the focus shifted slightly to the realm of social commerce and how to generate additional revenue streams through social media. One particular idea raised by Mark Ellis, UK managing director of Syzygy, was that of harnessing a similar platform to that of Facebook’s Farmville game, which has seen millions of people across the globe purchasing virtual goods with real money. Furthermore, the increased development of smart phone technology and its ability to provide a more personalised service to the user, as well as offer companies a greater indication as to which customers to target was also high on the agenda.

A short presentation from Steve Wild, CEO of Virtual Festivals offered an intriguing insight into the attitudes of festival goers, revealing that in the absence of Glastonbury next year, two thirds of regular attendees will look elsewhere, with many seeking cheaper options in mainland Europe.

The utilisation of Facebook was once again brought back to the fore during a discussion on the introduction of RFID (radio frequency identification) wrist bands, which allow users to simply swipe their band at a given location as a means of checking themselves in on Facebook to let their friends know exactly what they’re up to and when. A fairly pointless exercise this may seem, yet its potential to facilitate the close monitoring of consumer behaviour is certainly appealing to many, even in spite of its overtly Orwellian overtones.

Conversations centred on the tragic events of Pukkelpop and the Indiana State Fair drew generally unanimous conclusions in a session named ‘Weather or Not’ suggesting that despite the aforementioned tragedies, there are currently adequate regulations in place to ensure UK festivals should proceed safely, with the onus on clear decision making and safety procedures being in place should a major incident occur. Equal attention was also paid to the importance of safety surrounding smaller festival structures and facilities, such as toilets and drinks tents.

As the Conference approached its finale, a session on the potential effects of the 2012 Olympics on festival sponsorship produced essentially mixed views amongst the panel, with suggestions that while music and sport can certainly work well together, it is difficult to speculate over how events will proceed next summer.

Keynote speaker and head of Reading and Leeds festivals Melvin Benn took to the stage for the final session of the day, as he spoke of his early days in the business and his high hopes for the future of live music events in the UK, making his stance perfectly clear on what was ultimately the key question of the day: what does the future hold for UK festivals? “The idea that the industry is not healthy is just ludicrous,” he stated, bringing proceedings to a close on an altogether positive note.