5 Surprising Lessons Festival Organizers Can Learn From Bonnaroo

Vendini Festivals, Marketing, Music Festivals

As a seasoned festival attendee, I feel like I can easily tell when a festival could have been orchestrated better. While this was only my second time attending, there was something very different about the vibe of Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival this year. The ample space at the Friday night Hip Hop headliner was a clear indication that there was a severe drop in attendance, and the bizarre design changes did not succeed in their attempt to make the festival feel full. This was just the first indication to me that the changes made by Bonnaroo organizers in an attempt to grow the festival did not have the desired intent. And while structural growth was achieved, from this fan’s perspective, attendee growth was not.

There are so many lessons that can be learned from what Bonnaroo organizers did really well and where they faltered. From pricing, scheduling and programming, to keeping customers satisfied with incredible art direction — there’s much to learn from one of the staples of the festival industry.

1. Position Pricing Increases Delicately (swag helps)

One of the biggest factors that negatively affected ticket sales was the slight increase in ticket prices and the additional $60 fee if you wanted to camp with your car, which is almost essential for surviving the Tennessee heat. I understand that the swell in ticket prices is intended to assist in paying off the cost of the new bathroom facilities, but the jump in price paired with the lacking appeal of the lineup seemed to really backfire. As a result of those changes the event sold less standard tickets than previous years. I wouldn’t even fully blame the lineup for the lack of ticket sales which was calculated by an interested 3rd party to be about 28,000 fewer than last year’s 75,000 attendees, the lowest number in Bonnaroo history.

Bonnaroo sells so well and is such a massive community experience because of its affordability, so why mess with a system that works? If you want to prevent this from happening at your event, eliminate extra fees – these feel like somewhat of a cash grab to seasoned festival goers. If you plan on increasing the cost of tickets try offering something up front to patrons in an attempt to offset the extra fees. This can be as simple as a commemorative t-shirt, drink tickets, or an affordable portable battery pack branded with your event logo.

2. Target Programming to Your Core Audience

I believe that the festival could have been a greater success with a more carefully thought-out youth oriented lineup, as the majority of Bonnaroo attendees are young adults. While the lineup still offered a varied selection of musical acts and carried the weight of some very big headlining names including Pearl Jam, Dead & Company, and LCD Soundsystem — these acts didn’t seem to pull too large of a main stage crowd. On the opposite end of the music spectrum, the electronic options felt as if they were thrown together by someone who simply googled EDM and picked a few of the top artist results before calling it a day.

The really cool thing that ‘Roo’ normally does is help the lesser known acts blow up by allowing them to play for crowds larger than they would ever have the chance to play for at a standard sized show or festival. In past years, there have always been a few mainstream electronic acts, but the lineup has never been so heavily populated with acts you would find at festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival or Ultra Music Festival. I recommend analyzing past lineups and capitalizing on appealing to a larger market, even when funds are tight. You definitely can’t win by only booking headliners that appeal to the wrong demographic. When making programming decisions for a unique event, know your audience and make it a point to stay true to your roots.

3. Diversify Your Scheduling to Encourage Multiple Day Attendance

Scheduling can make or break a festival. Ensuring your festival has an even distribution of popular acts can help you clinch maximum sales of weekend passes. Bonnaroo got things off to a great start this year with their amazing scheduling on Thursday and Friday, but made the mistake of leaving much to be desired from their Saturday and Sunday lineups.

Thursday provided an intimate festival setting with only three music tents open: This, That, and The Other. It was one of the most stacked evening lineups of the weekend and encouraged patrons to run all over the farm to try to catch as many of the amazing music options as possible. Between Goldlink, Cashmere Cat and The Floozies, the lineup offered a phenomenal varied selection of high quality R&B, Electronic and Funk music that seemed to appeal to all. However, the festival may have felt more balanced and encouraged more people to purchase 4 day passes instead of individual day passes had they spread out artists a bit more evenly.

When speaking to other attendees on Saturday, I was told by a large group that they were so unenthused with the music options for the evening that they had no intention of entering the main festival grounds. When planning your festival, you should keep the schedule diverse every day. Ensure that guests don’t feel bored by having a varied genre selection on multiple stages at all times. And at all costs, try not to have acts of similar genre playing at the same time. Finally, if you aim to have one night to top all the other nights, Saturday is the night to do it — not Thursday or Friday.

4. Prioritize Customer Experience Above All Else

This year was a growth year for Bonnaroo, meaning more of the budget was focused on utilities and customer experience than the lineup. While Bonnaroo has an amazing community regardless of the lineup, the reduced cash flow for acts paired with the aged headliner selection (and increased cost to attend) was reflected in a noticeably smaller crowd. This didn’t seem to affect customer experience at all though; it actually made for a unique experience for tens of thousands of attendees, supplying ample room at stages to groove to their favorite acts, rock their biggest smiles and show off their best dance moves.

While there was no growth shown in attendance, it was shown in a physical sense with the new addition of a permanent bathroom facility housing 57 stalls for both men and women. Going above and beyond with special offerings, like a running water restroom on a remote farm, will leave your competition in the dust. Even better, it will keep your guests happy and give them that much more incentive to come back next year.

5. Design With The Fan in Mind

With Bonnaroo celebrating its 15th year anniversary, they took the opportunity to go somewhat balls-to-the-wall with their design and artistic direction. They did a great job of instilling nostalgia in their attendees by bringing back old art installations from previous years — showcasing some of the amazingly creative art that made Bonnaroo so special in years past. However, there was a somewhat questionable decision made by organizers that involved moving some of the structures in Bonnaroo’s Centeroo area closer together to give it a feeling of being more full than it was, which, in reality, took away from the overall experience.

The most obvious example of this was in the placement of the silent disco area in the back of the Which Stage viewing area. Not only was this a distraction to acts performing on the stage, but also obstructed the view of anyone unlucky enough to arrive at a packed headliner set a little too late. More importantly, the silent disco took up space that could have been filled in with hundreds of people interested in seeing the performance.

If your ticket sales are lacking, don’t try to make the event feel more full by utilizing less space — attendees will notice and wish they got to fully take advantage of the extra space to groove to the music they love. Decisions like this can take away from the customer experience — one of the most important things to nail when putting together an event. While Bonnaroo stumbled here, they did an absolutely amazing job overall in designing the event. I especially liked the massive Mr. T statue and Hamageddon (a 4000lb steel fire breathing pig with a pig roasting in its stomach to be eaten by attendees).

With 2016 being a growth year for Bonnaroo, I believe that in 2017, the festival will come back swinging with one of its hardest hitting lineups to date. While Bonnaroo will most likely be working for the next few years to recoup funds used for their restroom growth project, it should hopefully have no effect on funds allocated to next year’s lineup. In addition to freed up funds, the festival coordinators and people involved in design most likely used this year as a learning experience and are focused on the future. More specifically, how not to let this drop in sales happen again, and how to continue to bring the heat in their lineup in making Bonnaroo a destination festival for a smorgasbord of weirdos to gather for incredible music acts and an even more amazing community experience.

Jefferson Shatzen, aka Jeffo, is a 2016 Vendini summer intern. Jeffo lights up the Vendini office literally and figuratively with his unique brand of funny, and the Vendini team will miss Jeffo and his special lamp when he returns to the University of Georgia this fall to continue his degree in Music Management.