How do I start a festival in my town? A 6-step guide

Festival town and city

Running a festival can be a dream for many people. Others view festivals as a vital part of the social construct of any town, building social connections through society. Festivals can add social value but also have the potential to attract visitors from outside, thus helping to boost the local economy. This inevitably leads people to ask how they start a festival.


There are several ways you can start a festival, it will largely depend on the type and size of event. Here are six steps to starting your own festival in your town.

  1. Ask why are you running the festival?
  2. Set some aims and objectives for the festival.
  3. Work out who the key stakeholders are.
  4. Develop an income and expenditure plan for the festival.
  5. Plan and market the festival.
  6. Deliver the festival.

Now let’s look at each of these six steps in detail to understand better the answer we’ve just give above and help to direct you further.

1 – WHY are you running the festival?

Sound like a simple question, right? Very often, people need to first sit down and understand why they want to run the event and what purpose will it serve. This is a fundamental decision that needs to be taken and understood so that you don’t get too far down the road of planning the festival before you realise it won’t work. 

Many festivals fail to get off the ground as the organiser’s motivations were not compatible with the concept or idea of the festival.

Think about the benefits that attendees will get from the festival. Are you going for purely economic (profit) benefits, or will your festival have social and environmental objectives? 

These form what is known as the triple bottom line. In theory, your festival should balance its objectives to be sustainable into the future. Note that in this context, sustainable doesn’t just apply to the environmental aspect, but all three elements need to be balanced.

2 – Set some objectives for the festival

When writing your objectives, set out exactly what you want to achieve by the end of the festival. These could be economic, social, environmental or a mix of all three. Here are some examples of each

Economic 

  • A certain number of tickets sold
  • A certain amount of sponsorship income
  • Sticking to your budget

Social

  • Attract a certain number of people from a particular community or background
  • Have people learn new skills or make new connections
  • Use a certain number of volunteers from the local community

Environmental

  • To reduce the number of CO2 miles people use to travel to your festival
  • To promote the use of sustainable cutlery at all of the catering outlets
  • To recycle a certain amount of waste from the festival 

When writing your objectives, you should also try to make them SMART. Doing this ensures you can demonstrate success after the festival has finished.  

This can be an import activity for some of your key stakeholders. In some cases, your festival may be dependent on external funding such as grants, so being able to demonstrate your successes could be key.

SMART objectives have five different elements to them:

  • SPECIFIC
  • MEASURABLE
  • ACHIEVABLE
  • REALISTIC
  • TIME-BOUND

You can find a full guide to writing SMART objectives here

3 – Work out who your key stakeholders are

Stakeholders are people or organisations who have the POWER to influence your festival, or who are impacted by your festival. 

It may not be a term that you are overly familiar with, but you should give some real thought to understanding who the stakeholders are. This can be key to the success of any festival as you will have to manage them throughout the planning and delivery process. 

In the first instance, think about all the people who have the POWER or influence for your festival taking place. Make a list of these people and consider whether or not their motivations will be positive or negative. 

For example, consider the local government organisation, they may likely be the landowner, and you will need to seek permission to host your festival there. Local governments may be sceptical of a new festival promoter, and so you’ll need to build and manage the relationship with them to ensure the success of the festival.

Secondly, make a list of people who are IMPACTED by the festival taking place. Again consider if the impact will be positive or negative on them. If you are hosting a music-related festival, then consider the effect of the music festival on the local residents in terms of noise. 

If not managed correctly, this could lead to complaints and ultimately jeopardise any future running of the festival.

Another critical stakeholder to consider will be the people attending the event. Your marketing plan should be heavily based on the audience profile.

For further reading, there are several models that you can follow to analyse stakeholders. One of the more popular ones is Mendalows Matrix, and there is a useful link here for further reading.

4 – Develop an income and expenditure plan for the festival

One of the most important things you can do to make a successful festival is to ensure that you have a clear income and expenditure plan. Failing to understand and clarify both of these can lead to disaster. Income and expenditure usually form the budget plan for the festival overall. 

Income

You should make a list of where you think income will come from to fund the festival. While traditional income may be from tickets, there are other possible avenues of income that you could explore. Some of these include:

  • Sponsorship of the festival
  • Advertising on your website or at the festival.
  • Grants 
  • Catering pitches
  • Government funding
  • Premium revenue streams (e.g. VIP Packages)
  • Merchandise
  • Broadcast rights

Expenditure

Once you have your income established, really important that you determine what the costs of your festival are going to be. Again a large part of this will be dependent on how big your event is and the environment in which it takes place.

Specific environments such as greenfield sites will require more infrastructure costs such as power, water and waste management than if you placed the festival in an urban environment with established infrastructure.

Again you should start by writing a list of all the costs you can think of and get some quotes from suppliers. You might be surprised as to how much things like toilets, fencing and security actually cost. And these are all the things you need to run the event even before you thought about your entertainment!

The entertainment or activity costs will be a significant reason why people come to the festival. Managing the cost of these against the expectation of your audience will be absolutely critical.

5 – Plan the festival

Planning an event like a festival will take many months and should be treated like a large project. It will require you to keep control of the project as it progresses. As a festival manager, you are responsible for managing all of the elements. Including, stakeholders, the budget and all of the experience that will be delivered at the festival.

Many festivals start planning up to a year in advance. An excellent way to manage this process is to use a spreadsheet (Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets). Create one with a list of all the tasks, and then this can be used as the project plan 

6 – Promote the festival

The final and sixth part of this process is to market and promote the festival. Earlier target audience was identified as one of the critical stakeholders for any festival. The marketing plan should be tailored to these stakeholders.

The reason for this is so that all marketing activity is highly targeted and effective. For example, if you know your audience are heavy users of Instagram, then this should be the social media platform where you put most of your efforts. 

If you have an audience which is slightly older and uses digital marketing channels less, then you may want to consider more local offline channels such as radio and newspapers.

Having a plan mapped out for your marketing will ensure that you have a coordinated approach that reaches that target audience promptly.

Mark Norman

Mark has over 20 years of experience in the events industry from working in live music venues through to major outdoor events like the Olympic Torch Relay and the Tour de France. He now works as a feelancer, consultant and Senior Lecturer in Events Management.

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