Posted in: Tips, Tricks, & Best Practices for Festival Organizers on June 2, 2014 by Natasha Hillier

When learning how to plan a festival, it’s important to remember that there are hundreds of festivals being put on every year and each of these festivals are planning their own amazing events that will reflect the unique cultures and energies of their individual visions.

Because of these unique factors, no one festival will plan for their event in the exact same way. However, while working with over 125 festivals spread across the globe on a day-to-day basis at Marcato, we’ve learned that although there are many granular, unique aspects of how to plan a festival, there are also seven key first-steps that every festival must follow in order to succeed.

Working through these broad steps will ensure you follow in the footsteps of many successful festivals before you, all of which had their own unique failings, challenges, and obstacles, but ultimately learned enough festival planning skills to blaze their own trails of success.

Ok, now that we’ve covered that, let’s get to the fun stuff!

How to Plan a Festival:

Step #1. Pick Your Scope

Picking the scope of your festival is the first important step of how to plan your festival.  Your festival’s scope will affect every important decision you make from here on out, from how many volunteers you need for your event to how many porta-potties you need to have on site.  Questions to ask yourself that will help define your scope are:

How big do I want my event to be / how many people do I want attending the festival?

Be sure to be realistic about this number, but also be sure not to sell yourself short.

With that festival size in mind, what grounds/venue could host my festival?

Will it be an indoor festival, a club festival, or a field festival? Each of these festivals have their own styles and legacies behind them and therefore it is very important to get this defined quickly. A few other important things to consider when choosing your festival grounds are: how you’re going to handle ‘security’ and how your venue might make that initiative a nightmare or a walk in the park; how you’re going to provide toilet facilities to your front and back of house guests; and how you’re going to ‘fence off’ your site and maintain your access controlled facilities.

What kind of permits do I need to apply for before my project can be given the green light?

This is a very important step that many new festivals never get past, often planning too far ahead without obtaining the permissions or resources needed to host their event.  Be sure to look up your provincial or state bylaws, city bylaws, etc., for any special requirements. Also, be sure to meet your local government officials and get them on board with your vision – without them, your event will never take place.

How much start-up cash will I be able to raise?

Think capital funds, sponsorship, and fundraising. Most festivals’ budgets incorporate a mix of these sources of cash, and the percentages then depends on the structure of your festival. *See Step #2 for what this might look like.

What do I want this festival to look like in 5 years?

This question is often overlooked by many festivals (and many new businesses in general).  Have a 5 year plan mapped out, including both growth opportunities and challenges. If in five years you think you can double your festival attendance, maybe it’s time to think of a location legacy and whether the consistency of your site is something that matters to you.

Step #2. Pick Your Structure

Now that you’ve a good handle on what you want the scope of your festival to look like, the next step of planning your festival is deciding your organization’s structure, ie: whether you want to be a for-profit or a not-for-profit organization.  This decision is pretty important seeing as it will change the funding structure of your event since certain capital opportunities are only available to one or the other.

This is also the step where you would make the decision of whether you want to plan the festival by yourself, or if you would rather hire a production company to orchestrate most of the event for you.  This is certainly the easiest way to plan a festival, but it comes with a hefty price tag – that being said, if you can afford it, production companies can be a fantastic way to facilitate the planning of a festival.

Step #3. Pick Your Team

Now that you know your scope and your structure (and have hopefully started to get a good handle on your available resources and start-up funds), it’s now time to pick your team. Depending on the festival, staff sizes can vary due to many variables like how much volunteer support you can raise (some festivals are 100% volunteer driven), how much funding you’ve acquired, and what kind of profit margin you’re hoping to maintain.  In most cases, regardless of your staff size, it’s very common to see festival team members  ‘wearing many hats’ on a day-to-day basis, working in and out of marketing, talent procurement, IT, and anything else in between. In light of this, festival directors should always seek out staff members who know how to do things they don’t – hiring folks just like you might be a fun way to form a staff, but when a complex task needs to be completed (which happens a lot) and the skill sets for the job aren’t available in-house, things get tricky!

Step #4. Pick Your Partners

How to Plan a Festival - Pick Your Team

Now that your in-house team is in order, it’s time to decide what other companies you want to work with in order to pull off your event.

Areas that you’ll mostly likely need to hire outside companies for are:

The festival industry is full of top notch companies that will work hard for your business and in the process of working with you teach you many new things about the space! Just like picking your staffing team, picking good partners is also extremely important.  Do your research and choose companies you feel great working with!

Step #5. Pick Your Participants

This is the really fun bit! The step where you begin recruiting who you wish to participate in your festival – in essence, the entertainment your festival goers are showing up for. Whether you’re a music festival, a food festival, a science festival, fringe festival, digital festival, or anything else in between, your entertainment and vendors are the reason people come to your event and very often a key component of ticket prices and sales.

When recruiting participants festival planners typically choose from two different techniques, or use a mixture of both approaches, to find their talent. The first technique is to ‘scout’ for talent (or vendors) using talent buyers who travel around the globe attending showcase festivals¹ or concerts looking for unique artists and headliners to play at their own festivals. The second approach is to accept artist / vendor applications by actively advertising (through social media and the festival’s website) an opportunity to play at the festival if artists/vendors fill out an application form and submit it to the festival. Usually this type of form will include all the applicant’s contact information and ask for a portfolio of their work. A reviewing process is then set in motion where festival executives sort through their applications and send invitations to a groomed list of potential participants.²

Step #6. Market, Market, Market

Alright, step #6. This is where the rubber really has to hit the road if it hasn’t already. Once your festival’s framework is in place – your venue is set, your headliners are decided, your ticketing system is in place – it’s time to get the word out to as many people as possible, through as many channels as possible promoting your festival and encouraging your fans to buy their tickets as soon as possible. This may seem like an obvious point, but early ticket sales are a critical component to ensuring your festival is successful. There are many good techniques of how to market festivals, some of which explored before on our blog, but the important thing to be aware of how is much noise you’re making among potential ticket buyers. Connect with all applicable media, collaborate with other events, and get social!  In a recent webinar called ‘The Future of Festivals’ industry professionals discussed the power of social media buying habits, particularly within the festival space, and they say that for every 2.6 organic tweets or Facebook shares your festival gets, it translates to one incremental ticket sold. If that’s not motivation to market the heck out of your festival and get people excited about it, I don’t know what is.  That being said, social media isn’t the be all and end all – you must market your festival through every stream possible in the first few years.

Step #7. Hold On For Dear Life / Expect It to Be a Crazy Ride.

The last note, and maybe the most sobering of all, ‘Hold on for dear life and expect it to be a crazy ride.’ Festival planning is not for the faint hearted; they can be wild beasts and often unpredictable due to the volume of variables.  In most cases, festival don’t even make a profit the first 3 years or so, sometimes even longer, just like any other business start-up. So, hold on!  Expect delays, speedbumps, and hard choices. Festivals can be an amazing accomplishment once they’ve gone off without a hitch and can often be incredibly profitable (regardless of whether you’re in it for charity or for gain), but one thing they are not is an ‘easy ride’.   Pulling one of these things off takes an incredible amount of hard work and skill, an accomplished festival planning team, and some excellent festival management tools. All that being said, if you’re willing to put everything you’ve got into these amazing parties, they are often just as generous in return.

Beyond the first seven steps, once things get closer to production week there will be many more granular steps of how to plan a festival that you’ll need to take care of.  However, if you’ve made it through these first few steps, you’ll quickly learn how to deal with the more granular aspects without issue. Plus, Marcato will continue to post useful quick tips and tricks on our blog from time to time for you to reference. Also, be sure to stay tuned for a part two of ‘How to Plan a Festival,’ where we hear from the festival directors themselves about the lessons they learned over the years when planning their own awesome events!

At the end of the day, keep in mind that these 7 steps are in no way a comprehensive guide of how to plan a festival. Festivals, like any new business, are a very unique and your own festival will will have many individual needs that other festivals just won’t be able to relate to. All you need to do is keep a keen eye on the prize and move forward with the conviction of hosting the best damn event out there!

For a bit of inspiration, watch this video about how Osheaga – Canada’s premier music festival is planned!

Good luck!

¹Showcase festivals are festivals that typically do not highlight or rely heavily on major headliners to sell tickets, but purposely book a high volume of talent not only to sell their event’s tickets, but also to showcase their many artists in front of important music industry executives who are interested in the talent for a number of professional reasons; the executives can be booking agents, music label representatives, festival talent buyers, and everyone else in between who is actively invested in the industry. Some leaders in this festival category are: SXSW, Eurosonic Noorderslag, Canadian Music Week, Reeperbahn, ℅ Pop, and WOMEX
²To learn more about how to accept vendor applications to your festival, click here to read a blog on it.

About us:  Marcato Festival is the world’s leading festival management software, designed to help you streamline your festival’s management. Take a look around our website and explore our features.

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