[CASE STUDY] • How do you launch a festival in the middle of a pandemic?

Rebecca May

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on well-established companies in the live events sector – but how do you respond if you’re scheduled to run your first-ever event during a global lockdown? Here’s a positive tale for troubled times…

The B2B Conference industry has always attracted highly entrepreneurial individuals. In fact, the very success of the sector is dependent on this. It’s therefore no surprise that many who have worked in the industry take the plunge and set up on their own – either in response to an identified gap in the market or to follow a particular passion.

GCN Talent talks to Greg Hackett, formerly MD at Informa/IIR Telecoms and Clarion Events, who left the B2B events sector and later set up his own B2C event for the climbing/outdoor adventure market, the London Mountain Film Festival… and then ran straight into the COVID-19 pandemic.


What’s your background in B2B events?

I started as a conference (content) producer back when IIR was ruling the world with mostly delegate revenues. As a manager, I followed the trend to add sponsorship and ultimately gravitated towards LSEs, mainly through a publishing business with lots of B2B titles, and then back to pure-play event businesses working with niche markets. I also had a brief dalliance with virtual events that didn’t go well… but in the end, has proved unexpectedly helpful.


Why did you choose to move into B2C events, and why this particular sector?

I didn’t actually intend to create an event at all – I’d side-tracked into launching a small publishing business working from home, and I was very happy with that. A friend asked me if I would ever go back into events, and without thinking, I said that I would if it was an event I would want to go to myself. That would probably mean a consumer event, and probably something to do with the outdoors. Then, having been to a couple of mountain film festivals in National Parks, I suddenly had the idea that I could run that model in a city. So I didn’t choose the event, the event chose me.


What challenges did you face setting up a very different B2C event? Did your B2B background help?

The model I followed was largely dependent on ticket revenue. Having started out in unsponsored conferences, I had a strong belief in content research and hopefully a good nose for what might make an individual part with their hard-earned cash. Examining a competitive B2C event with a B2B-trained eye is interesting, and you find yourself raising an eyebrow at certain cost decisions but soon find out there is method in the madness. I found the social media aspect of marketing to be on another level to B2B, so a gear change was required there.

The main challenge I had was in finding the right venue. I didn’t want to run an outdoors event in a dry expo-type environment – I was going for something more like a traditional arts festival. I wanted somewhere that spoke of media, culture and learning, but also had the right set up of rooms and technology. I also wanted thousands of people to come, but most of the venues that I was looking at couldn’t handle that. In the end, I found a way around this with our chosen venue by ticketing to stagger visitor flow in the same way that museums sometimes do when there’s a big exhibition on. Customers were buying time slots when they would visit and see content geared to their interests.


When did you realise C-19 was going to have a dramatic effect on your plans, and how did your thinking pivot?

It was early February and I was in the first quarter of my revenue graph – targets were still quite small, but I was well ahead of them and feeling pretty good about things.  Then, when the virus hit our shores, ticket sales stopped – almost immediately. My first thought was that this could just be a dip, and I should rethink how I spread my marketing spend to such a time as everyone had regained confidence. Obviously, that hasn’t happened.

I thought about postponing to the autumn, but there is a competition at the heart of this event, and competitions are hard to postpone. I took the decision to cancel at the beginning of March, which was probably before most people – I figured launch events are more vulnerable – so I set about talking to suppliers. I kept my customers, partners and speakers in the loop with my thinking, and once I’d settled with those, I came back to my content and looked at what I could do with it.

I don’t think there was a light bulb moment – it was just obvious that I could show the films online. After thinking through all the possibilities, I decided to make it free to view the films, give people the chance to donate to filmmakers (who need the support), and my payback would be to gather more data for the future. I also felt quite strongly that trying to make money directly out of the situation was the wrong call, and I saw the chance to provide a little escapism in a tough time. I had nothing to lose really, apart from a small technology upgrade with my website provider.



Where is the event at now, and how can people get involved?

Anyone who subscribes to the website will get sent a link in the early hours of May 2 and will be able to watch all thirty film finalists online until we close the event on the evening of May 3 – so the very same weekend the event was planned for. I’ve also been helped out by a number of outdoor brands that have given me some excellent prizes that we will give away throughout the weekend.

The event itself is pretty straightforward – access to the films, a place to comment and leave reviews, a way to donate to filmmakers if you like their films, and a social media feed to keep up to speed with prizes and other banter. The films themselves cover a broad range of topics – mountaineering, climbing, running, endurance, cycling – we have some very cool films! One of the great successes of this event is that we managed to attract some world-class filmmakers and some excellent, highly-anticipated films, so I am really pleased that we have found a way to give them a platform despite everything. And the response has been spectacular – we’ve had so much support and positive feedback.


What changes will you make to your future event plans in light of this experience?

I think it is inevitable that there will be an online experience within this event going forward – something which was not in the original plan. Whether or not this changes what we do on the ground, I haven’t decided yet. The good news is that next year’s event won’t feel like the first event. I’ve got data, brand recognition, market loyalty from key brands and partners, and an established film competition. Silver linings.


The online version of the London Mountain Film Festival is free to attend and runs on Saturday and Sunday 2nd and 3rd May 2020. For more information, visit www.londonmountainfestival.com


Interview conducted by Kevin Hosier, Co-Director of GCN Talent

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