FYRE’D UP: Truths from Fyre Festival (Part 2)

Posted on February 7, 2019

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By Cheryl Stern

We recently delved into some takeaways from the two hit documentaries about Fyre Festival, the disastrous luxury music festival of 2017 that shall live in infamy. (See FYRE’D UP, Part 1.) Now that we’ve explored our thoughts on the pre-festival wins and losses with Project Management and Marketing, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of Production and Customer Support.

#3: Pillars of Production: Infrastructure, Timing, and Budget  

“Infrastructure is key. The bigger the event, the more built-in infrastructure it requires.”
—Patrick Riley, SVP of Accounts  

The first and biggest obstacle that Fyre had in its path was the total lack of basic infrastructure in the location they were planning their event: a remote island in the Bahamas. This fact alone set them up for an impossible challenge. But the stakes were then raised higher when they lost the original island site by not complying with the owner’s stipulations while promoting the event. So with just 45 days to go, they started over at a completely new site on a completely different island. This is perhaps the first moment that a more realistic event manager would have chosen to cut their losses and pull the plug on the event.

From portable toilets to comfortable housing, food, transportation, and the logistics of the concert itself, there are countless complex needs of an event of this size and scope. Needs that can be difficult and costly to adequately meet in a big city on the mainland with an abundance of time, much less on a small and distant island, and on a beach with no electricity or running water… with only six weeks to prepare. An adequate infrastructure must already be in place on the site you choose to use, or you must have the time and budget to create one.

When building out a single event or an event series, timing is crucial. Navigating weather, holidays, and competing events and activities are just a few of the factors that must be considered when selecting a date. Unfortunately for Fyre, they scheduled the festival on the same weekend as the other largest event in the region—The National Family Island Regatta—which had been an annual tradition for over 60 years, and for which all hotels on the island are booked up to a year in advance. Meanwhile Fyre had promised a free three-person villa on the beach to approximately 250 influencers who helped promote the festival, and had also oversold their lodging packages to paying customers. With the knowledge that none of these housing options actually existed and there was no hotel back-up option, this is perhaps the second moment that a more grounded event manager would have shut the entire festival down, or at the very least rescheduled it to a different date in the following year.

When it came to the budget for Fyre, their mistakes appear to be a case of putting the cart before the horse in a couple of key ways. First, a luxury experience was sold to concert-goers before any real research had been done or estimates obtained for the cost of actually pulling off an event of that caliber. And second, money that didn’t exist started rapidly being spent in the form of contracts and hand-shake agreements. Among numerous other issues, this led to grossly overpaying talent, grossly underpaying local workers, and when all was said and done, not actually paying anyone. There was no contingency plan in place if things went south: no festival insurance in case of a cancellation, and investors were guaranteed a return.

One example of their poor budgeting: they had a $6 million contract with a catering company to cover all food for the event, but only had $1 million allocated for this budget line. This realization would perhaps be the third moment that a more seasoned event manager would run for the hills.

#4: Customer Support

“If your event is in the unfortunate position of having something go wrong, it’s so much better to be open and honest with your customers, and assure them that you’re doing all you can to make things right, than to pretend the negative messages aren’t happening and stick your head in the sand. Anyone who is giving their time and money to attend your event—even if they didn’t drop $250K on a deluxe bungalow package (and especially if they did!)—deserves to be heard and responded to.”
—Erin De Baets, Programs & Participant Support Manager

Whether an event is planned and produced well or done poorly, there will always be questions from attendees as the date draws near. Providing timely and accurate information and quickly responding to any customer concerns should be a top priority. There must be a system and adequate staff in place to address comments and questions via email and social media, and ideally also by phone.

Inevitably, when it started to become clear to Fyre ticket-holders that there might be issues with the festival, they began reaching out via social media. Questions started trickling in about transportation, lodging, and other logistical details. When those posts were ignored, the questions soon shifted to angry comments and criticism. And instead of responding and directly addressing the issue, the Fyre moderators began deleting the posts and then shut off social comments altogether. This is perhaps when the savvy ticket-holder might seriously question whether or not to get on a plane to the Bahamas.

But come they did. And the customer support once guests arrived at the festival camp was no better than what they’d experienced beforehand. Hundreds of people standing in line to check in and expecting a beach-front villa for the weekend were told by a shouting man standing atop a table to “just go grab a tent.” With no plans in place to manage tent assignments or luggage retrieval, things quickly regressed into what witnesses essentially describe as a privileged-millennial version of Lord of the Flies. The next day, after the concert itself was cancelled and attendees were shuttled back to the airport, they were trapped at the airport without food, water, or any clear information about when they’d get to go home. This is truly the stuff of event management nightmares.

“Have a crisis communications and community management plan if the best-case scenario, worst-case scenario, or something in the middle happens.”
—Katie Zupancic Wymer, Senior Manager, Digital Marketing

Having detailed plans in place for any number of unforeseen circumstances is a non-negotiable requirement when you’re responsible for not only the happiness of your attendees, but also their safety. And this is perhaps the single most significant takeaway from Fyre: the well-being of those who have entrusted you with their time, their money, and their security comes above all else.

So while it’s fun to laugh at hapless event producers and promoters making epic mistakes, and the ticket buyers duped by a glossy marketing campaign, there are some serious and useful things we can learn from watching this train wreck. We think it’s worthwhile to get your Project Management, Marketing, Production and Customer Service teams in front of the TV this weekend to see how you can learn from Fyre’s mistakes. Whether you choose the Hulu or Netflix portrayal (We say watch them both! You can never see enough documentaries about Fyre Festival!), this cautionary tale can help you avoid pitfalls in your own events.

When not playing the role of participant in everything from 5Ks to marathons, Cheryl works as the Brand Manager for MuckFest®, helping to deliver a meaningful event experience to others. She is also passionate about documentary film, music festivals, and the word “perhaps”.

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