5 minutes with Carlina Ericson on the future of festivals

CIM spoke with Carlina Ericson, founder and event director of the Australian Festival Industry Conference, which has been announced as a National Finalist for ‘Best Achievement in Event Education or Training’ in the 2020 Australian Event Awards.

What does being a finalist mean for you? It’s a tremendous honour to be recognised by your peers and judged by some of Australia’s best event management specialists. Most people would be unaware that I’m a team of one, so a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into launching last year’s conference! It’s been a very humbling (and surprising) experience to be recognised as a Finalist and the feedback in response has been nothing short of positive!

This has been a horror year for festivals – who unlike conferences cannot pivot to a virtual format – what is the long-term damage to the sector? It definitely has been one hell of a year for the Australian festival industry! Some festivals have managed to pivot to an online model. To their credit, festivals like Melbourne Writers Festival and Melbourne Film Festival have managed to transition. However, I think everyone can appreciate that some festivals, such as food and music can be a bit trickier to convert to an online model while still delivering the same kind of experience value to their respective audiences or attendees. We will definitely see some short-term damage – at least for the next 12 months. Long term though, I think there’s more opportunities than costs for festivals. The main opportunity I see is to incorporate time sensitive live-streams or using a content-on-demand model. Festivals need to start thinking of themselves as ‘content companies’ rather than major event companies. This is a fundamental shift in the way festivals think about their business model; it’s the next chapter of the industry, and one which I see lasting for at least the next decade.

Most festivals have had to cancel this year and early next year in the current uncertain environment – what challenges are there in coming back later in 2021? There’s going to be an abundance of challenges. Some we know now but I can guarantee that there will be many more that we’ll find out along the way and as we begin to actively plan festivals. The obvious ones now are managing large crowds from a social distancing perspective, in order to comply with the relevant State-based regulations and guidelines. Another one will be recruiting talent who are specialists in covid-19 safety. Inextricably linked to this is educational providers catching up with the industry and providing courses or an accreditation system so these processes can be appropriately applied and managed. The final obvious one for me is altering the mind-set of each festival’s audience to consume and pay for on demand and exclusive content. Sporting festivals and “ideas” festivals such as the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and TEDx do this really well, but I think music and food festivals have a bit of catching up to do.

Do you think the public appetite for festivals and other mass gatherings will be affected in the long term? In the short term yes. In the long term, no. I think the appetite for festivals will become even stronger once we come out the other side – people always want what they can’t have! However, given that we are now in recession, the problem is that people’s disposable income is expected to drop, meaning that festivals are going to have to work even harder to generate ticket sales. A recent study by Patternmakers of 30,000 people demonstrated this. Festivals will therefore need to reassess their value proposition and pricing strategy in order to survive.

Will we see a number of festival companies never return? Unfortunately, yes. The complex nature of the festival industry is that festivals aren’t just produced by private companies. When you start to look around, there are a range of business and management models used throughout the industry – for example, local Chamber of Commerce’s, not-for-profit associations, as well as Local, State and Federal organisations: these are all festival producers. However, in my mind, the two most vulnerable players are those festivals that are 100% volunteer run, along with Local Government – I see budgets tightening and priorities changing.

There have been some successes this year despite the border closures and restrictions – what can we learn from those? Darwin Festival is an excellent example. I think the key to their success was their focus on ‘local’ artists. Border closures meant the artistic direction needed to change but it really worked out for them. Ninety-five per cent of their ticketed shows sold out and they had to schedule in additional shows just to keep up with demand! Another example has been Melbourne Writers Festival, who adopted a content on demand ticketed model. They used Ferve Tickets to manage this pivot. I think the key takeaway here is that festivals should really be exploring paid ticketing associated with online content delivery – putting a price on your ticket tells your audience they need to value your festival’s content. Finally, Blues on Broadbeach festival took the opportunity to do a free live stream as a marketing exercise. The festival is produced by Major Events Gold Coast. While it presented a series of free digital performances by featured musicians, it was a great way for the festival to maintain loyalty while stimulating future demand. They also used it as a destination marketing pull by showing footage of the Gold Coast and the festival in action.

You had to cancel this year – what learnings will you take from this for next year’s event? Yes, we decided it would be best to post-pone to 2021 out of empathy for the industry. A new date is still being worked out, but it isn’t too far away from being announced. There will definitely be a content-on-demand ticket available for purchase. It’ll just give those attendees who cannot travel due to either budget limitations or border restrictions, a chance to still participate and continue to develop themselves professionally.

What are the main topics for next year’s conference? By the time the next conference will be held the industry would have experienced the 19/20 summer bushfire season (let’s hope the up and coming summer isn’t a repeat of this..), along with covid-19 and various Government inquiries into music, arts and culture festivals. These events will have a big influence on the conference’s final program. AFIC will run over 2.5 days (expanded from 1.5 days in 2019) and will feature more panel discussions. I’m also working on a variety of new ways that can offer value and better facilitate industry engagement. I’m eager to reach more segments and suppliers in the industry – it’s a conference for the whole industry, so the more people that can be involved the better.