Big business: festival culture

While many industries are facing financial difficulties during the downturn, the ever-growing popularity of festivals is providing a welcome boost to economies all over the world. Vision learns more

This year’s Dublin Irish Festival is expected to bring over 100,000 people to the city, filling over 1800 hotel rooms and bringing a definite boost to the local economy. Businesses there talk about it as the city’s ‘signature event’ with the council claiming that it has helped put Dublin on the map, both as a year-round destination but also simply in terms of national recognition. Indeed, what is more surprising about the success of the festival is that this particular Dublin is in Ohio, in the US - “where Irish is an attitude”, as the festival has it.

That festivals have become major international events over the last decade is clear: the UK alone now has more than 670. Europe is estimated to put on several thousand each year. The latest incarnation? The micro-festival, producer-hosted over just a weekend. Expect more of them.

Indeed, many festivals are long established - be they in arts (Edinburgh, Scotland, for example), alternative lifestyle (Burning Man, Nevada), film (Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah), food and drink (Oktoberfest, Munich), culture (from Rio and Venice carnivals to Pamplona, Spain’s running of the bulls) or, of course, music (Glastonbury, England, most famously). But many more have since followed their path. The Taste of Chicago, the Dubai Shopping Festival, even arguably the Cultural Olympiad - the arts side show running in parallel to the recent London Olympics - are just a few of the big events that regional and city communities now host.

Tourist spending power

The figures suggest their appeal: it’s good business. Some 1.5 million people visited the Dubai Shopping Festival in 1996, for instance; by 2005, 3.3 million were visiting, spending Dh6.7bn (US$1.8m) between them. Similarly, Edinburgh’s collective festivals now attract some four million people, create over 5,000 jobs in the city and generate some £261m (US$418m)for Scotland.

As Rob Hewitt, Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce has succinctly put it, “festivals mean business, are business and generate business”. He adds: “Their contribution to the economy of the city and the success of the business environment is simply breathtaking”. And, of growing importance: according to the World Tourism Organisation, by the end of the decade the number of international travellers is meant to rocket to 1.6 billion, with revenue from tourism topping US$2tn.

But while the Festival Effect may give good cause for tourists to visit a place they might otherwise have no reason to visit, the bigger impact might be more subtle: the Americans of Irish ancestry who travel to the Dublin Irish Festival have now heard of Dublin, Ohio, as well as the one in Eire. Festivals are news. Or, in other words, festivals have become a branding tool to shape public image and create status for perhaps overlooked or troubled cities on a level that surpasses the other methods of recent decades: the establishment of a major museum or the construction of a trophy building, ideally designed by a ‘starchitect’. Bilbao, once deep in the shadows of Barcelona or Madrid, is now on the tourist hit-list thanks to one project that attempted both - the Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry.

“Festivals big or small help give a city an identity by making up the fabric of the city,” explains David Kennedy, Deputy Director of special events for the City of Chicago. “They get movement of the people and the economy. If people have a good experience of a city, they come back another time.”

Feel good factor

But in a world now looking to measure a community’s prosperity by indexes of happiness rather than economic productivity, festivals – inherently about bringing people together – might be said to go further still. According to one study, 75 per cent of Edinburgh residents say the festivals improve their quality of life, 89 per cent that they increase their pride in the city (the same number also said festivals promoted a positive Scottish identity) and 94 per cent that they are what make the city a special place to live in.

“If folks can get out in the city – enjoy some music, food, art – it is an improvement to their quality of life,” agrees Kennedy. “Festivals aren’t just a money-making opportunity – the social good is always a factor. They engage communities.”

Might festivals too see a trough after this peak, as city authorities seek to find some new way to draw tourist spend and make a name for their streets and peoples? Putting on a festival is certainly not easy in a tough economy: The Big Chill, one of the UK’s biggest music festivals, was just one of three cancelled this year. Last year Sydney’s Good Vibrations festival had to half ticket prices to keep visitor numbers up. Increasingly, big sponsorship deals are essential. And, classic events aside, saturation is leading to talk of festival fatigue. “There’s a lot of competition and festivals have to keep re-inventing,” concedes Kennedy. “But they remain as relevant as ever.”