Home TopicEvents A parallel world: insights from the festival industry

A parallel world: insights from the festival industry

by Nicola Macdonald

While in many ways the music festival sector is strikingly different from exhibitions, the two are facing many of the same issues and trends. EN’s Nicola Macdonald takes a look at the latest festival innovations.

Additional reporting by Stuart Wood.

Sometimes exhibitions can feel quite insular. Here in the UK, and especially in London, we love to wax lyrical about the tight-knit nature of our industry. There’s competition, sure, but at the end of the day we all share common experiences, passions and concerns.

But how often do we share knowledge and best practice outside of our comfortable exhibition bubble? Events of all kinds and all sizes find themselves tackling the same set of challenges – albeit often with wildly different audience and stakeholder expectations – so shouldn’t we look beyond our own sphere for inspiration and insight?

This was the thinking behind this month’s cover feature, which takes a look at some of the latest innovations in the world of music festivals, many of which will be all too familiar to exhibition organisers.

Sustainability, which unsurprisingly is top of the agenda for music festival organisers, frequently makes the headlines, for both positive and negative reasons. With greenfield sites, passionate consumer audiences and the watchful eyes of the mainstream press, festival organisers are arguably under far more scrutiny and pressure in this regard than the average exhibition organiser, especially in the world of trade shows.

Corporate social responsibility comes in all sorts of guises and which is rapidly becoming a must-have rather than a nice-to-have for all types of businesses. It can range from alleviating the impact of an event on the local community, to sustainability, to ensuring that internal and onsite staff are cared for, to setting an example when it comes to artist and audience diversity.

Technologies such as RFID and event apps, which have long been a mainstay at exhibitions, are also making their mark in the world of festivals – and causing dramatic changes in how they operate.

We’ll be taking a whistle-stop tour around the world of festivals, from cardboard tents and sustainable brand activations to events that are embracing technology and the insights it can provide, and hopefully gaining some insights ourselves along the way (and if not, at least we’ll have some fun).

Great power and great responsibility

You might have seen, either in the news or on social media, that 99.3 per cent of the tents at Glastonbury Festival were taken home. It’s a stunning figure to anyone who’s ever been to a festival and witnessed the sheer carnage that’s usually left in their wake. Plastic cups and bottles, tents, beer cans and more obscure paraphernalia, it’s usually a stunning reminder of the waste generated by live events.

This year many festivals, with Glastonbury arguably leading the way, have taken real steps to attempt to reduce this environmental impact. The 175,000-strong festival held Sustainable Green Trader Awards and had strict rules around plastic packaging and waste composting. Other initiatives included providing water points, recycling bins, sustainable toilets and encouraging festivalgoers to use public transport or car-share.

This strong stance from organisers has prompted similar innovations from equally passionate suppliers, and those sensing a sea-change in the sector.

Companies such as sustainable packaging, design and marketing agency Reel have developed water resistant cardboard tents, which can be branded with photographic artwork.

There has also been movement in the glitter industry – known for their ‘sparkling’ personalities (apologies) – which has seen tension over the subject of ‘greenwashing’ and the development of bio-glitter.

Stephen Cotton, commercial director at Ronald Britton, manufacturer of plastic-free glitter, Bioglitter™ PURE, commented: “Greenwashing is a frustrating and major issue for us. We know of a number of glitter products and glitter sellers targeting the festivals market who are making misleading and dishonest claims about the eco credentials of their products, when in fact the raw material in some cases is simply plastic glitter.”

As sustainability becomes a focus for all kinds of companies, brands and festivals are able to join forces to simultaneously spread the word and set an example, as proved by the partnership between Carlsberg beer and Denmark’s Roskilde Festival.

Carlsberg in Denmark and Roskilde signed a five-year agreement with sustainability at its core, says Simon Boas Hoffmeyer, director – group sustainability at Carlsberg Group.

“We went into the agreement with the common aim to create more sustainable festival experiences,” he explains. “Through a traditional ideation and workshop format, we arrived at the four focus areas for the 2019, namely:

  • Green taps – running our bars using 100 per cent renewable energy
  • Plastic collection – for recycling into next year’s festival beer packaging
  • Reusable cups – replacing single-use plastic cups with reusable versions that could be used more than 25 times
  • Alcohol-free area – where festivalgoers could enjoy an alcohol-free beer and recharge

“It was true co-creation between equal partners, and it was a pleasure to see all activities executed at this year’s festival.

“Regarding the green taps, we (the Carlsberg Group) are aiming for 100 per cent use of renewable electricity by 2022 and are at 46 per cent today. We want to highlight our ambitions by helping the attendees enjoy a more sustainable festival, while serving great beers. With the use of renewable energy, we can serve beer from green taps with no CO2 emissions.”

Hoffmeyer adds that he sees sustainability as an opportunity for brands to do, and be, better.

“Better in terms of engaging consumers in meaningful ways, better to the environment by avoiding path dependency and doing things in new sustainable ways, and better in terms of creating lasting experiences and impact rather than ‘just’ selling products,” he explains. “To me festivals are a great and honest way of getting feedback from our consumers. Also, the audience is very diverse, which enables you to get instant feedback from everyone from generation Ys to millennials to baby boomers. Who does not like music, and sustainable beers?”

Karma Police

Charity work is a fundamental aspect of many festivals, with numerous charities taking up residence onsite and engaging thousands of volunteers throughout the season.

In 2015, Rob Wilkinson had spent eight years working with a range of charities and realised there was a disconnect between them and the festival industry. Fundraising managers were keen to engage with festival organisers but were struggling to find a way of raising funds while adding value to the event’s audience. Organisers, on the other hand, were having difficulty sourcing reliable volunteers for essential roles.

And so, the idea for My Cause UK was born, a company which would recruit volunteers from the charity sector to take on essential festival roles in exchange for a donation to their chosen cause. In 2018, a sister company was created – Ethical Staffing – which provides the option of a paid staffing team to work independently, or alongside My Cause UK, taking on roles that are not right for volunteers (for example those that require cash handling and bar management, have unsociable shift lengths or which may not be attractive to volunteers).

Talking Tech

As in the exhibition industry, RFID and contactless technology is playing an increasingly large role in the festival sector. While take-up is fairly slow, the number of cashless festivals is gradually rising, with events like Standon Calling in the UK and Hungary’s Sziget Festival arguably leading the way.

The benefits for organisers are clear – attendees can be tracked around the site, their spending can be tracked, cash doesn’t need to be handled onsite and the relationship with traders becomes data-based instead of trust-based. Plus, the more enthusiastic festivalgoers have the ability to connect to social media and engage with brands onsite.

For visitors it can be a bit less black and white. While cashless arguably speeds up queue times at bars and food stalls it can be a pain to top-up and all too easy to overspend when payment comes down to brushing a wristband against a touchpoint. For some festivalgoers there can also be an ideological element which trade shows don’t often encounter – many attendees don’t come to festivals in order to be tagged and tracked by ‘the man’.

When Bestival announced a partnership with tech provider tappit, organiser Rob Da Bank somewhat optimistically stated: “Bestival has always been about escapism, creating an otherworldly wonderland, where you can leave all the stresses of real life behind.

“We think [supplier] tappit’s wristbands can be a big part of that, reducing queues and hassles and making things a bit more care-free for festivalgoers.”

Cashless wristbands, says PlayPass MD – UK & Ireland Steve Jenner, can mean greater convenience, freedom and safety for festivalgoers.

“They don’t have to worry about bringing, carrying or sleeping with cash on their person,” he explains. “They can pre-load funds before they arrive, link their cashless account to a bank or credit card to enable automatic top-ups and then leave their wallet at home.

“Our new family account feature allows parents to manage the wristbands of their whole family group and allocate separate amounts to each individual, with visibility and controls on what they can purchase.

“The criminal gangs responsible for most thefts and other crime at festivals don’t bother going to cashless events as they know it will be slim pickings, making the events safer and more enjoyable. RFID is also extremely secure. The NFC tags used by our system are encrypted to the same standard as military communications, making them more secure than bank cards and impossible to hack or clone.”

Plus, continues Jenner, cashless wristbands can actually mean attendees are tracked less than they would be through their own contactless bank card or phone.

“RFID cashless offers festivalgoers a degree of independence and freedom from the global corporations that track every purchase we make with our bank or credit cards in the outside world,” he says. “With our system, you can be fully anonymous and know that no bank, mobile network or government agency is able to see what you are consuming inside the event. In today’s world, this is an increasingly attractive perk.”

A new app-ortunity

A topic that inspires strong opinions in the exhibitions industry, the question of event apps has also raised its head in the world of festivals.

“There has definitely been a shift from print to digital in the live events space,” says Frederic Monfet, general manager at Greencopper, a Canadian company that has worked with festivals such as Coachella, Roskilde Festival and Reading & Leeds. “Having everything online leaves plenty of room for last-minute changes in features such as schedules and other pertinent information. An app also provides measurable ROI for the organiser and engagement opportunities for the user.”

A festival app has several major benefits, continues Monfet, including ease of communication between organisers, sponsors and attendees, a space for promotional partnerships and the ability to add elements such as augmented reality for sponsor brands. Push notifications also offer organisers a quick and easy way to alert attendees to last minute changes or secret set reveals.

Festivals are growing out of their status as ‘no-go zones’ for phones, with the dream of truly disconnecting from society in a constantly connected world becoming ever more distant. Festivalgoers now come armed with chargers and battery packs, even if consistent 4G is still somewhat of a challenge.

“Our core features are natively built in the app,” explains Monfet. “The line-up, map, and your favourites work seamlessly offline. This is especially important when you’re on-site because festival grounds are notorious for having slow or no Wi-Fi connection.

“Attendees don’t want to carry paper schedules to constantly check line-ups but they’re always going to have their phone. Having the app and being able to look at the line-ups, set times and highlighting which artists they want to see makes for a better attendee experience. 

“Like all digital innovations, adoption of apps by festivalgoers continues to rise. A well-promoted, user-friendly app that provides critical information and planning items can see an adoption rate of 80 per cent or higher.”

As an international app provider, Monfet can provide insights into regional variations in app usage. In the US, festivals such as Coachella and BottleRock are using features such as augmented reality, whereas European festivals remain largely focused on providing information to customers (although Germany’s Hurricane festival made use of the app’s ability to allow campers to order beer remotely onsite).

Of course, it’s also worth mentioning that other tech innovations have been less successful.

A company called Doppler Labs developed an augmented reality product called ‘Here Active Listening’, designed to adapt and improve sound in the real world, which was demonstrated to mixed reviews at Coachella in 2016. The company shut down in late 2017. Even earlier, in 2011, Coldplay invested in ‘Xylobands’, wristbands given to fans that would light up in time to the music, but the investment proved to be an unsustainable expense (despite presumably looking pretty cool).

While music festivals are in many ways dramatically different to the average trade show, there are numerous issues that affect every business, in events and beyond. Global concerns like diversity (there’s a whole other potential article out there about festival line-ups), safety and sustainability aren’t going away and it’s always valuable to see how other sectors face these challenges. 

In fact, I think it might even be worth checking out some of these ‘festivals’ in person to gain further insights…see you on the other side event profs.

Photo Credit: The Manc Photographer

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