There are many different things you are taught as an event organiser, but one ever present is that “big is beautiful” There’s scarcely an events organiser who doesn’t want their small event to grow to epic proportions.
However the size of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is calling into question its actual “success”
The size of the Edinburgh Festival
Every year Edinburgh, a tiny wee city in a tiny wee country, is the destination for the “World’s largest international arts festival” This is really extraordinary and is something that should make every Scot mightily proud. It’s not just any country that can host a festival of this importance.
Scotland’s capital is only able to host an event of this size because our outstanding artists of today stand on the shoulders of giants. Would we have Rankin, Welsh or McDermid without Burns, Scott and Spark? Would we have the right to host a cultural festival of this size without artists of this magnitude? But it’s not just our cultural heritage.
The supporting infrastructure filled with skilled and knowledgeable event professionals, audio and visual suppliers, stage set builders, etc. allow this festival to flourish. Without the events industry there is no festival. We build the stage on one of the world’s best backdrops.
A breathtakingly stunning city places Edinburgh apart from many other “wanna be” international art festivals. People visit for the events but……what a stage Edinburgh makes. However, increasingly, year on year, that stage seems to be creaking.
After over seventy years the Edinburgh Festival and the Fringe are now woven into the cultural tapestry of Scotland. Its success is our success. However, alongside the plaudits there is failure. The locals are restless.
“If these criticisms aren’t addressed they will mount and the festival will become confirmed as an event that is wholly imported and subjected on people, rather than in any sense hosted” – Mike Small Editor of Bella Caledonia.
As an event organiser who has been involved in organising large international events, I find it hard to argue against any of the 10 points in this Bella Caledonia article. It is thoughtful, deliberate and suggests discussion. It is not laced with rage, as Joyce McMillan suggested in a piece in the Scotsman.
The Perfect Stage
During the 1990s I had occasional trips to Edinburgh and I remember the Festival much like the Hogmanay festivities. They were very manageable for attendees and organisers. International visitors made up a small percentage of the crowd and it was pretty easy to experience Edinburgh, while these events were on, without crashing into either of them. How things have changed.
Both these events are huge, and both not without controversy, especially around working conditions for staff and the use or mis-use of volunteers (as a Living Wage Employer I make my view very clear here); so size brings its own complications. But still we event organisers crave growth.
The Event Organisers’ role
Like every other industry the events industry, in general, strongly believes that big is beautiful. We are a capitalist industry like every other, constantly living with the fear that we have to grow or die.
This leads to ignorance. Like most business people we aren’t trained, educated or in many cases aware that there is a negative impact from the work we do. But for event organisers it’s even more difficult than most for us not to bask in our God like status. Maybe you don’t want a big event in your backyard, but sure as anything your country and your city does!
The ever popular event industry
In many cases – and yes this is true – countries, regions and cities will pay the event organiser of a profitable show a trunk load of money to bring an event to your doorstep. Valencia submitted a bid of €170m to host the Web Summit, so it is no surprise that complaints from locals often meet with the response: “other cities would DIE to be as lucky as you”
We have people volunteering to work for us. They don’t want to be paid, they just want to be able to attend our events for free.
Even when an event makes millions of pounds profit, organisers can still get the Government to pay them to relocate their hugely profitable event.
See, everyone loves us, so should we care about a few locals?
It is with this attitude that many organisers and promoters will view the grievances of some noisy locals. And it’s not just the organisers and promoters who run events during the festival and the fringe, it is an industry wide approach. You can find the same view in any major city in the world.
In Barcelona the city struggles to cope with Europe’s largest tech event Mobile World Congress, but even the socialist mayor was keen to persuade the event to stay.
As an industry we have to first understand the negative impacts we can make and then secondly we have to act.
A call for dialogue
There are genuine concerns in Edinburgh over the size, scale and type of events that Edinburgh now holds. The event industry has to be aware of the negative impacts, and then be involved in solving the problems.
Last year within the ‘Skills needed for organising an event’ blog post on my Gallus Events website I highlighted that “more event planners should be, at least aware, of the “impact”, both positive and negative of our events” but you will struggle to see other event industry types even mention these issues. Many of the Event Associations have a habit of burying their head in the sand.
It is here that Event Scotland, whose tagline is: Scotland The Perfect Stage, should take some credit.
As part of Visit Scotland, Event Scotland are tasked with increasing tourism to Scotland. They of course actively promote and support the large Edinburgh events but they have a regional focus, offering incentives to launch events outside of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Scotland needs events to bolster the exceptionally important tourist industry but events have to add value to their locality.
Many event organisers carry out their work in a diligent and meaningful manner, just trying to make a living, like everyone else. I believe for most organisers the issues are around awareness and education, rather than a hell for leather, damn them all approach.
Event organisers and promoters should work with Government agencies, local authorities and local communities to ensure their events are welcome and they must place profit alongside their social and community responsibilities.
I believe the event industry is ready to talk, I just hope it is ready to listen.