Tuesday 19 June 2018

Why your local festivals and community events may be on the verge of extinction

Smaller festivals and events across the country are facing increasing costs
Smaller festivals and events across the country are facing increasing costs
Spiegeltent at Cootehill Arts Festival
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

While Ireland boasts an impressive year-round schedule of arts, music, and miscellaneous festivals and community events, many are now facing an uncertain future.

Executive Director of the Association of Irish Festivals and Events (AOIFE), Colm Crotty has warned that insurance hikes, other increasing costs, and changes on our high streets from independent local retailers to international chains are threatening the survival of smaller festivals and events across the country.

At least 12 of the association’s members have had to close down this year due to these issues and Mr Crotty suspects there may well be more who have disappeared under the radar.

The rising cost of insurance is, he says, one of the biggest factors in their demise.

“Insurance is a significant issue for every event and every festival organiser whether they’re the St Patrick’s Day Festival or Cape Clear Story Telling festival in Cork,” he tells Independent.ie.

He cites rising premiums and excesses, and describes the “limitations and exclusions and restrictions" on these policies as “becoming quite onerous”, with some activities like fire performance driving up premiums “by a multiple of a thousand or not being insurable at all”.

Circus Skills at Cootehill Arts Festival 2017 in Cavan
Circus Skills at Cootehill Arts Festival 2017 in Cavan

He believes that the public will soon no longer be able to enjoy events which feature activities from fireworks to children’s participation to events by the waterside because of the perceived risk to participants and the resulting impact on insurance premiums.

“Very quickly, in a few more seasons, we’ll have festivals with no fireworks, no pyrotechnics, no children’s engagement in terms of circus skills, or participation, because there’s a risk of a child getting a nick or a twist.  There will be no raft races, there will be no events taking place on shores, or lakeside or river locations or on coastal piers.  The insurance companies just won’t cover the activity.”

When events do close down, Colm says insurance is cited as “one of the top three reasons”.

A large claim on an event’s insurance can kill the event.  Colm argues that in most cases insurance companies will settle claims “on the steps of the courthouse” rather than fight the claim in court.

Glen Hansard performing at Cootehill Arts Festival, Cavan
Glen Hansard performing at Cootehill Arts Festival, Cavan

“You find three years down the road that the insurance company has no intention of defending the claim,” he says.  “They’ve racked your premium up by a multiple of maybe 40 per cent for the three years it’s been trundling through the system and then decide maybe a week or ten days before the court case is due to be heard to settle for a very close multiple of what you’ve just paid for in increased premiums.”

He adds, “There’s no way they want to go into a courtroom to defend the claim for any festival organiser or festival activity because once you go in past the courtroom door it’s Russian roulette.  You’ve some control of the chequebook on the steps.  You’ve no control of a chequebook once you go in front of the judge.   And that’s the judicial system.”

Laura Murray pictured at Cootehill Arts Festival 2017
Laura Murray pictured at Cootehill Arts Festival 2017

The impact on smaller events in particular can be devastating. 

“Our members are getting very frustrated.  The sector is getting very annoyed and frustrated.  People are going to walk away,” says Colm.

“The societal price, or the community price, is that those of us who want to have torchlight processions, Halloween lantern processions, general gatherings of civic spirit of celebration or commemoration, are finding this is becoming a huge financial burden to navigate around.”

Another aspect of insurance that is causing consternation for organisers is the increasing cost of public indemnities.

“Typically for a parade or a procession a local authority will be obliged to ask for an indemnity which means your insurance company will indemnify them for claims arising out of the event," explains Colm.

"For the last 10 to fifteen years they would have been manageable at €1.3m, €3.4m or €4.2m.  Some local authorities now are looking for indemnities of €6.3, €8.2, €10.5m and every million you go up is another €1000 on a premium."

Laura Murray is chairman of the Cootehill Arts Festival, which initially ran from 1988 to 2002 before taking a hiatus and returning in 2016.  Laura came on board last year and the festival was a resounding success, drawing 4,000 people to the small Cavan town.  This year, however, she has seen their insurance premium increase by 20 per cent.

“It’s a big hike,” she tells Independent.ie.  “We’ve had no real reason for it – it just seems to be across the board.  You see insurance hikes everywhere, in everything, which is unfortunate. 

“If they could at least come back to us and give us a breakdown on why the costs are soaring to help us to understand that would be something.   At the end of the day it probably needs to go down the route of a regulatory process the way they’re trying to do with all other forms of insurance.”

Higher insurance premiums mean a greater proportion of funding going towards insurance and less money to spend on programming and without a decent programme, the festival will not draw the audience it needs to survive.

Raising the funds for events like the Cootehill Arts Festival is often a long and gruelling process for people working on a voluntary basis.  It involves applying for small grants from local authorities, the Arts Council and/or Failte Ireland, chasing sponsorship from local businesses, even down to holding raffles.

Last year planning for Cootehill kicked off later in the year, so raising the funding was tough.  The festival’s success, says Laura, was down to “very generous local sponsors and a very hard-working committee”.  They also received support from the local arts office in Cavan.

“At the end of the day in some respects you’ve to beg, borrow, and appeal to the good nature of participating artists and performers, and getting sponsorship in whatever shape or form you can, but small businesses have their own battles these days,” she says.

The changing face of the local high streets of provincial towns and villages, and the disappearance of many of these independent local retailers, is also having an impact.

Where smaller local festivals could traditionally approach a local family business for sponsorship on the understanding that it’s good for the business’s marketing and good for trade relations with the community, there are fewer such businesses surviving on our high streets today.  And some of those who are surviving are struggling.

“Now you go down the main street in Kilkenny or Birr or any provincial town and you’re met with the pelmets on the doors of a variety of chains and the manager is a chain manager,” says Colm, adding that most of those chains do not provide sponsorship in the way local family businesses have done in the past.

“It’s causing huge turbulence in how you fund events and festivals,” says Colm.

“There will be less and less free stuff – that’s the reality,” he continues.  “Festivals are going to have to up the charges.  I would say 65 per cent of us would have at least 50 per cent of the programme free, which is quite high, but that will change.”

AOIFE is one of 20 civic and business organisations across Ireland which have formed the Alliance for Insurance Reform, representing 35,000 members, which aims to ‘highlight the negative impact of persistently high premiums and calling for real action to tackle the issue’.

They aim to get ‘transparency on how premiums are calculated and claims are settled, prevention of exaggerated and misleading claims being pursued and settled, and consistency in the calculation of awards at realistic and sustainable levels’.

However, while the Alliance has engaged with the Insurance Industry of Ireland, Colm says progress is ‘glacial’.

Given the difficulties facing organisers, it’s a wonder anyone undertakes to organise a small festival or event on a voluntary basis, but Colm says the fact that many are ploughing ahead this year is simply down to people’s ‘pigheadedness and passion’.

“They’re passionate about making sure the world knows there’s a community of people keen about traditional music, keen about celebrating some local storyteller, or keen about making sure that 60,000 holidaymakers come in for two weeks in July to enjoy the Charlie Chaplin Festival in Waterford or whatever.

“It’s vitally important for some of these small provincial village sand towns and coastal communities and tourist communities who rely on big numbers coming in and the festival is a core element.”

Laura believes it’s more than worth the effort, “When you put on a successful festival it does have a knock on effect on the local community.  There are more numbers in the town and more money spent.”

She adds, “We’re all volunteers - everyone gives up their spare time to put it together.  It’s a lot of hard work but when it’s a success like last year and you see the fruits of your labour at the end of it and the smiles on people’s faces and the positive feedback it makes it all worthwhile."

For more info on the Cootehill Arts Festival (August 21-26) check out Facebook.com/cootehillartsfest/

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