Are we peak festival?

Festivals large and small, iconic and niche abound - so how important are they in attracting visitors to a place?
Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

Earlier this year, in the lead up to the summer festival season, there were a couple of articles in the Guardian listing 20 great boutique music festivals in Europe and 10 of the best small family friendly festivals in the UK. All of these look like lovely events and it got me thinking that if you can attend a festival on your doorstep, why exactly would you travel any distance to attend one?

Clearly iconic events like Glastonbury or Mardi Gras have loyal followers and attract newbies each time, much in the way that the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum are the big draws in their respective cities.  But it’s harder to make the case that the burgeoning number of smaller events will be the compelling draw for overnight visitors and their consequent spend that is the holy grail of many a destination strategy.  Of course that is not to say that a high-quality, well-programmed event that is rooted in the place it happens, isn’t going to have tourist appeal.  It definitely will, and it may well play a part in building awareness and interest in a place over time. Such events can provide a good reason to visit now rather than at some indeterminate point in the future. But such events are far more likely to attract locals and so more likely to deliver other benefits beyond the economic impact of additional tourist visitors.  The contribution that a great  programme makes to quality of life, job and skills opportunities, support for the cultural sector and so on are too often subsidiary to the economic rationale required by public sector funding streams.  (Of course not all events are publicly funded – many are commercial, although often these rely on public investment in spaces and venues which host them).

So in conclusion I’d say that events are great, but there are a lot of them, and they probably won’t attract nearly as many visitors as you hope for, and most likely they won’t be the main reason people come. When we were discussing events recently my colleague Michele summed it up with this neat parable ‘Everyone said “we must have a folk/book/family/food/jazz festival”.  So they set them up. And so it came to pass that all the towns in the land had festivals. And everyone went to their local ones but sometimes went to other people’s in the next town for a change. And when they went away on holiday everyone looked at the festivals on the destination website to see if there was anything interesting on during their visit. And there never was. So they went on holidays anyway and went to their local festival when they got back.’