Behind every good festival are volunteers

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has been growing in size each year since its inception in 2009. Vision looks behind the scenes at the army of volunteers helping run the show

Last year, some 800 people volunteered for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. This year, the number has increased to 1,300, a clear indication of the festival’s growing footprint year after year and the mounting interest from the public to get involved.

“The festival is blessed with a huge army of volunteers - young, old, middle aged, all the ones in between. They give up their time and put their passion into making the festival work,” says the festival’s Director Isobel Abulhoul. “We have over 1,000 volunteers and there would be no festival without them. All of us are eternally grateful that they’re the ones that help it be successful every year. Visiting authors often mention what a fantastic band of volunteers the festival has.”

The festival, the largest literary event in the Middle East region, has been expanding its events and reach since 2009. In 2015, it brought together more than 140 writers, thinkers and speakers from 25 countries and north of 37,000 attendees.

Chrissie Searle, Volunteer, Festival Friends and Radio Manager, says “volunteering is vitally essential” to the festival, which wouldn’t be possible without it.

“We could not have the festival without the volunteers. They are key to the festival and the increasing numbers are so gratifying… It’s always wonderful to have people returning year after year because they spread the passion and commitment and obviously they enjoy it otherwise they wouldn’t come back,” she says.

“The highlight for me this year is the increasing number of volunteers and the increase in diversity. We had people like lawyers, doctors, and really high-powered professionals wanting to give up their free time to come and join us.”

The growth of the festival’s size and events has come with a requirement for a bigger pool of volunteers, Searle explains.

Samia Qaiyum, part of the volunteer supporting programming and a freelance features writer, says her love for words and the time she spent covering the festival as a member of the press led her to volunteering.  This is her second year to do so.

“I wanted to be more involved with the organisation and thought this was a good time to volunteer,” she says.

“I am a jack of all trades. My role is to ensure, with the programming team, that from point A to Z the authors are well received by someone at the airport - ideally a huge fan - and to make sure they get to the hotel on time, that they are able to explore Dubai through the social and cultural events, and to make sure everyone is in the right room at the right time.”

Another volunteer, Najla Shiha, says she’s “passionate about reading and literature” and likes to organise events. Volunteering for the festival was a no brainer.

Amanda Lamond is volunteering for the third time and her task as a volunteer coordinator is to manage all the hundreds of volunteers involved in the event. “This year I’m really excited to see the authors and what they are really made of, not just what they write,” she says.  

It’s a hectic time for the team as they prepare for the upcoming two-week event on March 1. Meanwhile, the volunteer applications keep coming.

“Chrissie is at our desk every five minutes with more volunteer applications,” says Lamond. “It seems this year we are more on track… We feel we are on top of the world.”

“A big part of the volunteers programme is that they do have fun and enjoy themselves. I think last year there were about 32 different nationalities who volunteered,” says Searle.

Volunteers take on different roles at the festival, from room and area managers and assistants, festival friends, crowd control, and those who look after the information desks and are ready to answer all sorts of questions.

Searle recalls an incident a few years ago when the festival had a section called the Penguin Reading Garden. “Someone phoned in to ask when we put the penguins to bed,” she says. “These are the things that people at the information desk get asked.”