Festivals and events come in all different shapes and sizes; from the humble local food and drink market to global mega-events such as the Olympics or Euro 2016. There are also the inbetweeners: the “hallmark” events, usually in the same place, at the same time, with the same theme and the same size. Think the tennis at Wimbledon or the long weekend of music and mayhem at Glastonbury.
All these events have rather differing social, economic and ecological impacts. Events of days gone by often saw quite humble levels of commercial consumption, activity and sociological importance. You did, however, get landmark occasions – such as the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London – which were used to show off a nation’s tech advancements, and played a key role in connecting global societies before the advent of international communications and accessible travel. Now, though, this thirst for economic importance and a longer-term legacy has become a “must-have” for most festival events from the smallest to the biggest.
Festivals are a useful part of regional and national policy for governments wishing to develop urban and rural economies. Recent reports by VisitBritain claim that in 2012, music tourism contributed a whopping £2.2 billion to the UK economy, attracting over 6.5m music tourists.
Take Glastonbury as a key example. From short to medium term employment opportunities, right through to direct economic spend, the festival annually contributes over £100m to the UK economy. It is no surprise that our national tourism organisation wishes to grow music tourism over the coming years and encourage 40m overseas visitors by 2020.
Food for thought
But let’s not get too wrapped up with the direct and indirect economic and financial benefits here. Yes, festivals inject money into local economies but they also serve to bring together communities, enhance skills and local confidence, and perhaps inspire generations.
They also help to regenerate spaces and places in need of a fix-up, as illustrated by the Glastonbury festival management themselves. They have used their revenues to help develop and conserve local facilities, introduce new social spaces such as the Pilton’s Working Men’s Club, right through to the renovation of medieval church bells. The ripple effect reaches the livelihoods of local communities, right through to the enterprising B&B owners benefiting from those who opt for a less treacherous night’s sleep.
But it is not just the existing communities and passive entrepreneurs that make a fine dime. What we have seen since the turn of the century is the extraordinary rise of cultural food movements and a new age of entrepreneurialism centred around the use of events. Take the dramatic growth of the artisan food and drink scene across the UK and Europe. We just have to look around to see how important artisan markets, regional and local food and drink fairs, online gastronomy blogs, and a burgeoning “street food” scene have been across towns and cities.
Cambridge gets in on the act with the EAT Cambridge festival and FoodPark initiatives by local foodie blogger Heidi Sladen. But if you visit any well-developed hallmark event such as Glastonbury, everyone from technology entrepreneurs to food/drink entrepreneurs have been quick to sniff out the opportunity.
These are the new spaces of entrepreneurialism. And they are vitally important for the survival of micro and small producers in the 21st century. As urban centres continue to become gentrified, the everyday entrepreneur continues to be squeezed out by increasing commercial rents. So we get what the New Economics Foundation (NEF) calls the “clone town” effect: a world of WH Smiths and Nandos where the commercial offering is homogenised and corporatised at the expense of diversity. You might not be able to run a profitable corn-on-the-cob franchise in Durham town centre, but a vibrant festival circuit is a viable alternative.
Events form a new, transient platform on which to forge wider and deeper connections between businesses and a host of communities, while selling direct to your customers, new and old. Festivals are some of the last known spaces which the average Joe can grab hold of with a great product and a quirky sense of customer service. It is no surprise, given the opportunities they permit locally and their ability to drive regional and national economic growth, that events and festivals can work as a sensible economic policy.
In the era of clone town effects, cities and even nations have looked to cultural events and festivals as a way of carving out new identities, or at least holding on to old ones. They offer new ways to convince prospective tourists to branch out to the less trodden paths of urban and rural quarters. They are an antidote to the insidious fly-by visits to urban centres or rural idylls and instead encourage tourists to enjoy longer stays, and a more dispersed economic spend: often referred to as “slow tourism”.
If we look at Glastonbury’s last comprehensive economic impact analysis report, we can clearly see that while total spending on site at the festival was reported at £25.6m; off-site spend directly linked to the festival contributed £1m more than this.
It’s not all rosy in the garden, of course. What looks like a big, egalitarian social movement can emerge as an inherently middle class phenomenon when you consider crocodile burgers at £6.50 a pop, dried figs from the foothills of the Himalayas and entry tickets costing the same as a two week holiday in Spain.
Our globalised festival culture offers a taste of delights from all corners of the globe while forming a central role in development policies, driving a deeper and more profitable brand of tourism and boosting smaller producers and entrepreneurs. But the fear is that we are building new arenas of exclusivity, shutting out those who either do not have the cash or the social confidence to partake.