Saturday 16 December 2017

Are festivals losing their money mojo?

Ticket sales are down and the cost of staging events has greatly increased, creating doubts about the €400m-a-year industry, says Barbara McCarthy

THIS weekend's Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois, rounds up the big festival summer season, but how has inclement weather and our financial crisis affected the festival and events sector, which is worth up to €400m annually?

"Ticket sales for all events have been down in Ireland this year," says Colm Croffy, executive director of the Association of Festivals and Events.

Indeed, of the 75-odd "festivals" taking place between May and September, there have also been noticeable absences -- such as the Festival of World Cultures and subsequently the People's Festival in Dun Laoghaire, Gateways Festival in Co Wicklow, and Michael Flatley's Edge of the World concert at the Cliffs of Moher, which was due to take place this weekend.

Many of these festivals -- which cater for no more than 5,000 people; after that licensing becomes a bigger issue -- are new and the people running them sometimes don't have enough market research done, says Ger Dollard, director of services at Clare County Council. And sometimes they are just plain unlucky.

"They need to invest at least 12 months into their first festival and make sure everything from the generator to insurance and relationships with the community are sound," says Dollard. Also, because financial institutions are reluctant to lend and many suppliers want to be paid up front, promoters often have to pull out at the 11th hour.

Politics can also play a part, says Jody Ackland, director of the Festival of World Cultures in Dun Laoghaire. "In our case, the model became unsustainable due to the lack of income that we were able to generate." The cracks start to show also when too much of the organisers' time is spent negotiating the politics as opposed to organising.

Another factor, says Croffy, is the high ticket costs. "The days of the sell-out gig are over. The economy roared for a while and now organisers are stuck with extremely high costs. This means the festival-goer has to fork out up to €240 for a ticket, which compared to the rest of the world is huge."

Target audiences are now choosing to fly to Spain or Germany, where prices are a third of what they are here.

That said, the number of festivals in Ireland is growing each year, with research suggesting that 7.1 million people now attend them. The likes of Life Festival, No Place Like Dome, Body and Soul and Vantastival have ensured that Irish punters are spoilt for choice.

"But to make them work you rely heavily on volunteers who put seven to eight months of their time into creating the event," says Benny Taaffe, co-organiser and co-founder of Vantastival, which takes place in Dunany, Co Louth, on the May Bank Holiday weekend. "With that, you don't make any money within the first few years of a festival and can count yourself lucky if you break even."

So who makes money then? "The people who benefit most out of festivals are local communities, shops and hotels. Thirty-three per cent of people who visit a festival stay in overnight accommodation, according to Failte Ireland.

"They also keep security companies, local authorities, equipment hire companies, artists, site managers, sound engineers and many more people in employment," he adds.

Electric Picnic will employ hundreds of people this year, and hotels and guesthouses in the area will be booked out. The Galway Arts Festival pumps €20m into the city of Galway, while Kilkee in Co Clare saw local revenues rise by €6m due to the Cois Farraige event, which hasn't made an appearance since 2009.

Jeff O'Riordan, an art director at the Gateways festival in Co Wicklow, which was cancelled this year due to unforeseen circumstances, says Irish local and arts councils don't support events as councils do in other countries. "The larger events have sponsors on board and get a part of the bar take, merchandising, big vendors' fees and ticket sales, so if they get a sell-out, things are great. But if, like this year, sales are way down, something has got to give. For smaller festivals we don't have the resources, grants or big-buck sponsors, while regulation and drink licences are also an issue."

Costs for fire safety, for example, are over €1,000 per marquee, while security requirements specify one security guard for every 100 people, which, over a three-day event, adds significant costs.

Colm Croffy says the only way of increasing revenues is by hosting events in controlled zones like horseracing tracks where facilities already exist. "There you would make a cut from vendors, merchandise and, all importantly, the bar."

As for the future, Carly Halpin, who co-organises No Place Like Dome in Temple House, Sligo each June, says, "Many people are choosing to go to smaller festivals simply because they can afford the €100-odd price tag. The big commercial festivals are becoming less attractive because people can't spend up to €400 a weekend."

Croffy says, "As people don't go to church as much anymore, their need to gather as a herd will always be strong as connection provides energy. A festival will also lift spirits, and provide a sense of magic."

He adds that the over-65s market should be tapped into, as they have disposable cash. Whether or not they want to camp in a field for three days beside neighbours having constant fun remains to be seen.

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