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AIF chief forecasts ‘transitional’ festival season

Association of Independent Festivals CEO Paul Reed optimistic about summer ahead, but says major obstacles are still to be overcome

By James Hanley on 03 Mar 2022

Paul Reed

The boss of the UK’s Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) has told IQ 2022 will be a transitional year for the sector as it prepares for its first full season since the Covid crisis began.

CEO Paul Reed says there are still major obstacles for the industry to overcome, despite a general feeling of optimism about returning to action.

“People, for all intents and purposes, are planning for a regular summer, but there are intense pressures,” he says. “I think what we’re looking at this year is quite an exceptional year really, just in terms of the extent of activity across the board, from festivals to large tours, stadium shows, and the government’s own events in the form of the Jubilee and Commonwealth Day concerts.

“All of that is going to put incredible pressure on infrastructure, and lot of suppliers have pivoted out of the industry and they’re not coming back, so there has been a loss of expertise.

“The average margins on a festival can be 10% or less, just in an average year, and now they have to contend with cost increases of between 20% and 30% – and you can’t just simply pass that cost on to the customer if you’re holding a load of tickets you’ve rolled over from 2019, and in the wider context of a cost of living crisis. So it’s going to be very tough, and the sense I’m getting is that people just hope that the supply chain, in particular, has a chance to stabilise and self-correct to an extent. But it’s not going to happen for this summer, that much is is very evident.”

AIF, which is in the process of recruiting a new chair following the departure of former Evolution Festival director Jim Mawdsley, now represents 90 festivals and reported year-on-year membership growth of 34%.

It has previously warned of a ‘perfect storm’ heading for the UK’s season, with the supply chain crisis, workforce shortages, and the effects of Brexit chief among its concerns.

“We’re getting back to all the issues we were dealing with pre-pandemic”

“Something needs to happen to alleviate this,” Reed tells IQ. “We’ve suggested extending the reduced VAT rate beyond the end of March – even another six-month extension would really help there – but I think government also needs to look at how it can support the supply chain and encourage investment, because there are concerns there isn’t going to be enough infrastructure to go around.

“However, there is optimism and people feel the customer confidence is going to be there to return to festivals en masse. It’s going to be a unique, transitional year, in my view.”

Reed adds that he is unaware of any members utilising the government’s controversial £800 million insurance scheme for live events.

“It’s simply not fit for purpose,” he says. “I know some members pursued quotes, but considered it not viable. Standard festival premiums have increased significantly year-on-year, so you might be paying something like 2.5% of your overall cost just on your standard cancellation premium insurance. Add another 5% to that, and you’re talking about maybe 7.5% of your cost on insurance.

“We did warn the government there would be limited take-up due to the limited scope and the cost, and so it’s proven.”

AIF’s flagship Festival Congress conference took place in Bristol last month, with more than 300 independent festival professionals in attendance. Reed adds that after two years dominated by coronavirus, it has come as something of a relief to be able to start focusing on other problems.

“We’re getting back to all the issues we were dealing with pre-pandemic,” he concludes. “I must say, it’s quite a welcome shift to be thinking about those challenges rather than thinking about managing Covid or whether there will be a festival season at all.”


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