The food of love: how festivals support local communities

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The rise of festivals across the UK has been phenomenal over the last 30 years.

As well as major music festivals Glastonbury, Leeds and Reading, there are hundreds of smaller ones, with live music events generating £2.2bn for the UK economy, according to an Oxford Economics study for Visit Britain. £1.3bn is spent annually on tickets, accommodation and transport and a further £914m is spent on food, drink and other purchases. Some 135,000 people attended Glastonbury in 2015 and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe featured over 50,000 performances of 3,314 shows.

Festivals have a positive social and economic effect on their local communities. So how does the host town benefit from festivals?

Peter Florence is Director of the Hay Festival, arguably the most famous literary festival in the world. Founded in 1988, Hay has expanded internationally, with satellite events now taking place in Mexico, India, Spain and Kenya. Florence’s softly-spoken manner belies his exceptional position of power in the festival world – a position he uses both to enhance and support the local community. ‘The biggest social benefit is that kids living rurally have the same expectations of excellence as anyone in London or New York,’ he says. ‘They see Hay as somewhere that welcomes the world.’

Florence argues that Hay ‘was always a profoundly local enterprise. Everyone who works here lives here. ‘The festival benefits the community both as a whole and at individual level.’ A lad got into the RSC and was interviewed in the Hereford Times about what made him want to be an actor. He said, “my mum took me to see Arthur Miller at the festival when I was nine and that was it for me.” ‘ And more broadly, ‘every sixth former who cites Hay in their personal statement on their UCAS form validates the whole project. Everyone who shares a book they love, or engages with a new idea makes it all worthwhile.’

Economically, the impact of such a huge festival on a small town can hardly be over-estimated. The event IMPACTS Economic Calculator indicates that the total spectator spend in the local economy is in the region of £21.4m. With the festival’s large catchment area – 48% of attendees live more than two hours’ driving from Hay – considerable sums pump into the local economy in terms of accommodation and food and drink. 40% of attendees stayed in paid-for accommodation, for an average of 3.8 nights. (The festival further benefits the town by its duration – 2016’s lasted 10 days). And the average amount spent on accommodation was £54.40 per person per night (£40 median).

Hay is at capacity at festival time; many residents rent their own houses out over the 10 days, so it’s not just local businesses that are helped. Bars, restaurants, cafes and local businesses all benefit too. The average amount spent per day on non-accommodation items was £77.10 (£55 median).

There are challenges to running festivals. This year’s Soundwave music festival is the most recent example of a festival that has had to cancel and refund pre-paid tickets, blaming poor sales, and Isle of Wight Festival director John Giddings claimed in 2011 that the festival market is ‘saturated’. But as Peter Florence points out, if you support the community, the community will help in return. This was noted during the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. ‘We thought we would have to cancel, but the local Young Farmers Club came to us and said – our farms are shut. If the festival goes down too then Hay is finished.’ Instead, the farmers ‘operated the carwashes and shoe mats so that everyone who came went away clean and uncontaminated. At that point the festival became something owned by the whole community.’

Placing the community at the heart

An example of an arts and music festival with notable community benefits is Made in Roath, an event established seven years ago in the arts quarter of Cardiff. With a sustainable ethos, Made in Roath’s distinguishing factor is that, despite growing year-on-year, it remains entirely free – enabling it to reach out to those parts of the community not normally reached by arts events.

Co-Director Helen Clifford explains that the economic and social benefits to the community are intertwined. ‘We work directly with local businesses – placing artists in them, and highlighting their value to communities.’ By associating with the festival, the businesses increase their visibility ‘and that in turn feeds back to the community – those businesses are owned and run by local people.’

A key example is how the festival supported a local pub at risk of closure. ‘We had use of the empty spaces without charge, so we programmed two years’ worth of projects. An artist now has a studio there. It’s become an arts hub in its own right. And that’s a great example of how keeping dialogue open can have really positive effects.’

From simple beginnings as a project established by three friends, ‘this year we will produce 5,000 brochures and programmes, our Twitter and Facebook figures are extraordinary and we have some 20,000 unique visits to the website. It shows how the whole community gets behind this every year.’

Was the local community always supportive, or did they need to be encouraged to take part? ‘People want to live here as a result of the festival,’ Clifford says. ‘It’s helped make the area culturally lively.’ Because the festival works with schools, churches and mosques, it has a key role in social cohesion that succeeds because it is fun and creative. ‘The level of people wanting to get involved has built up because of the trust we have in Roath.’

For the future, ‘it’s fundamental that we remain a free festival and we’ll do our utmost to protect that.’ Clifford argues against ‘volunteer fatigue’ setting in, saying ‘we are resourceful and we have the community behind us.’ What will change, she thinks, is Made in Roath may become ‘an arts collective with a festival as part of its programme – we are already working on community projects all year round.’ And Clifford’s desire is that the festival does not outgrow itself. ‘I want it to stay relatively small, but to diversify. It should never evolve into something where people don’t feel they can join in. This festival is for everyone; that’s it’s uniqueness.’

New approaches for festivals

A brand-new festival is the Abergavenny Writing Festival, drawing authors from different disciplines – poetry, journalism, speech-writing and comedy. As a start-up in the industry, sponsorship is a key way for businesses to generate goodwill, build awareness of the brand and target potential customers from a well-identified demographic – all for a comparatively fast and low cost-base. Director Lucie Parkin is full of warmth for the way both local businesses and residents supported the endeavour. ‘A local estate agent came on board as a sponsor and the team really got involved. I generated quite a lot of local press coverage about the festival and was always keen to namecheck our sponsor, which they found beneficial.’

Parkin points to the positive way the community embraced the festival from the start, and its success quickly confirmed her plans to run it again next year. ‘I’ve been contacted by the Rotary Club and more venues and schools who want to find ways to get involved. Shops, cafes and other local businesses were very happy to display our posters and cards.’ Most of the writers themselves were local, and other ways the income was poured back into the local community was by using ‘a local designer to create logo and artwork and local printers for postcards, posters and programmes.’

For the future, Parkin wants ‘to work with more schools – in year one it was only practical to reach out to one, but another primary school has already been in contact to say they’d like to be involved next year.  I’d also like to engage with care homes.’ This involves in generating more funds. ‘We’ll be applying for Arts Council and other funding for 2017 and trying to get more commercial sponsors on board.’

Festivals in the UK – facts and figures

  • Glastonbury began the day after Jimi Hendrix died in 1970. The festival now has over 100 stages across five days.
  • The first literary festival in the UK was in 1949 in Cheltenham; this is still going strong. Ilkley followed in 1973 and then Edinburgh a decade later.
  • The past five years have also seen a great increase in food festivals, with vegan and street food events now alongside established festivals like Aldeburgh and Ludlow.
  • The ‘Edinburgh Festival’ is actually a series of unconnected festivals including the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Edinburgh International Festival; together, they make up the largest annual cultural festival in the world.

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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