The most glaring festival fails are easy to spot: excessive garbage, not enough parking, too few restrooms, etc. But a major operations disaster-in-waiting might not be so obvious — especially if you don’t know what to look for. The most successful festivals have learned how to tackle things like poor data collection, artist schedule changes, etc. And after working in the festival industry for more than a decade, I’ve picked up on a few things that really make the difference between a success and a bust.
On the operational side of things, there are a few things I’ve noticed every single successful festival has implemented. These aren’t necessarily the golden rules for running a festival, but these are characteristics that are engrained in the DNA of a successful festival.
Dublin Irish Festival, a Member of ours in Ohio, recently held their annual community festival with over 100,000 attendees, seven stages and more than 500 performances. They are a great example of a high volume festival that has their festival basics absolutely nailed. And honestly, it’s impossible to grow to their level if you don’t.
So what are some of the things I’ve spotted over the years? Here are five of the most important ones I’ve seen.
1. Incorporate clear and plentiful signage: fans in the know, know where to go
Keeping fans in the know at your festival is your first step towards success. An unmarked or confusing festival can be an absolute nightmare for not only your patrons, but also volunteers who may not be familiar with the festival grounds. Make sure you very clearly mark the location of your box office and indicate which lines are for purchasing tickets, willcall and even digital vs. paper tickets. It’s also a great way to get creative and add some personality to your festival.
Another way smart festivals let their info be known is to create fun and easy-to-read maps with the festival layout and, most importantly, where to park and enter the event. Dublin Irish Festival’s site map is a great example of thoughtful planning and fantastic execution.
First, it’s aesthetically attractive, and almost fun to read. They use a clear, color coded index in the top right that makes the map incredibly easy to navigate. Entrances are very clearly labeled and easy to find and, because food is an important part of the festival, they made Food Court locations a breeze to find by using a larger font inside a bright orange circle – which your eye is immediately drawn to. They also included a link to download the map as a PDF (great for printing at home) and also to a mobile-friendly version. They made the map easy to understand, easily accessible through multiple platforms and aesthetically pleasing with bright colors and fun design.
2. Don’t let the lights go out: equipment, power and connectivity
Infrastructure and connectivity are probably the most important aspect of keeping your festival above water and, if faulty, has the power to bring it to a screeching halt. This is an important investment that can be easily underestimated but must be made for every festival. Not only do you want to test everything beforehand, but make sure you have a solid backup plan in place just in case the unforeseen happens. For example, how will you sell tickets if you lose power? How will you admit people into the event? These are very important details to get nailed down before your festival begins.
Let’s Get Technical: Every entry point and box office location should be equipped with reliable internet connections, preferably hardwired ethernet or solid wifi hotspots. In terms of connectivity speed, we recommend your box office has five megabit download speed and one megabit upload speed at all locations and scanning points.
3. Incorporate full-time onsite support, not just when problems arise
Onsite support from any and all vendors you’re partnering with is critical. This support needs to be present at all times during your festival — not just when you’re facing issues. And this should be something you inquire about when vetting vendors for your festival. Will they have boots on the ground? Is it 24/7? Are they experienced employees, instead of volunteers? If the answer is no to any of these questions, you should look for someone who will send a dedicated team to support your festival.
From start to finish, support should be there to train you, your staff and your volunteers. They are subject matter experts (SMEs) for their products and solutions, and should be hands-on well before the festival starts. Make them work for you, after all — you’re paying for their expertise.
So What kind of staff should be there to ensure your festival goes off without a hitch?
There are three main types of support, all three of which were present at Dublin Irish Festival. Let’s dive in.
- IT Staff
To go along with having top notch power, equipment and connectivity, Dublin Irish Festival had a trained IT professional team on-site to answer questions, quickly fix problems and make sure everything was firing on a cylinders. This eliminates any kind of tech guesswork or troubleshooting, freeing you up to run your festival without living in fear of a disastrous power outage or loss of internet for extend periods of time.
- Gate Captains (Experts)
This is one of the best ideas I’ve seen incorporated at a festival. Place highly trained staff members at every gate to ensure things run smoothly when your guests are entering the festival. Festivals can get confusing. Leaving minimally trained (or even untrained) volunteers in charge puts you at risk for costly mistakes.
Dublin Irish Festival implemented Gate Captains, responsible for any and all things gate/entry related. For any issues that couldn’t be immediately resolved, the Gate Captain could step in and fix these problems with ease. And since volunteers work in shifts, there needs to be someone who is able to transfer the knowledge of how to operate and run all aspects for each location every time a shift change happens. Things like operating scanners, selling tickets, administering refunds, etc.
- Ticketing Staff
Last but not least, you want to make sure that your ticketing provider sends representatives to troubleshoot any ticketing problems you might have. Ticketing is one of the first touch points of a any live event experience, and you want to make sure it’s as easy and smooth as possible for your attendees. Vendini had several staff members on-site, making sure that ticketing wasn’t even a thought for the Dublin staff. Because long lines, trouble at the box office and faulty scanning equipment can lead to a nightmare on Yelp for festivals. Not to mention, if your ticketing process gets out of whack, so does your data collection.
Which leads me to my next point…
4. Get your numbers straight: implement quick and easy reporting during your event
As with any other form of business, data is driving a lot of the decisions made in the festival field. Not only is data crucial leading up to your event for sales status, order fulfillment and operational status, but it’s also key to access during your festival. Knowing things like which gates your fans are using the most, or how many adults versus children have entered your event, can help you make on-the-go adjustments. Being agile and flexible can make your event that much more enjoyable for your fans.
5. Track every person who enters your event — even the free ones
As with any business, the more information you know about your customers the better. So the more information you have about your fans, including when and where they entered your event, the higher the quality of your festival. This will help you ensure you don’t have gates overflowing or ones that are going completely unused. And keeping notes on all attendees, even free fans or children, will lead to a more informed, overall more successful festival — which will help you attract sponsors and plan for years to come. If you’re interested in learning more on metrics you should be tracking during your event, download our Must Track Metrics paper and get started tracking. We put this together based on years of on-the-ground experience, so give it a look!
Every festival is unique in its own right, but there are a few core characteristics that set the landslide victories apart from the total busts:
- Make sure to incorporate clear and helpful signage across the entire festival grounds.
- Invest in your equipment, power and connectivity – it can make or break your festival!
- Incorporate full-time onsite support including IT professionals, experts at every gate (your Gate Captains) and reps from your vendors (like your ticketing company).
- Implement quick and easy reporting during your event so you can make changes on the fly if needed.
- Track every person who enters your event – even the free ones. This data pays off and will help you make your festival even better next year.
Dublin Irish Festival was able to hit all five of these with precision. It’s part of the reason they just had their 27th festival, drawing over 100,000 attendees, making it the largest 3-day Irish festival in the world.