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22 July 2014

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All grown up: festival hospitality

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Festivals have changed. Now more Moët swigging than mudslinging, they’ve become a viable option for corporate hospitality. V&E explores the options...

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As little as a decade ago, going to a festival was a serious undertaking. Bad food, no provision for rain and not a Molton Brown dispenser in sight. Festivals and their crowds have grown up – it’s no longer just about catching that headliner. Attention has broadened to the whole experience.

To account for this evolution, we have to look back at the mid-noughties, when Blighty was blessed with a string of near-flawless summers. The result: festivals popping up in droves. By the summer of 2008, the industry had exploded with over a million people booking tickets for festivals. For the first time, money was spent on live music than recorded.

The advent of the recession scared people into avoiding holidays abroad, favouring stays in the UK. Festivals capitalised and, for many, became a replacement.

With the industry reaching saturation point, organisers had to up their game to attract party-hungry punters with a holiday-sized budget. And so began a holistic attention to detail. Fine dining, spas, comedy and theatre became part of a newly diverse offering. Boutique camping and VIP areas (complete with comfy seating and queue-free bars) simultaneously made hospitality a more attractive prospect to bookers.

Steve Jenner, director at The UK Festival Awards honoured the Isle of Wight’s Bestival the Best Major Festival gong last year and accounts its success to creating a brand bigger than its line-up. ‘What they’ve done brilliantly is zone into their audience. Knowing what the audience wants and giving it to them has worked wonders. It’s become a fan’s market, they can broadcast what they want and interact with the festival.’

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Supplier Blue Bell Tents is one of the many companies servicing the continued surge in demand. Peter Barden, marketing manager at Blue Bell is understandably enthusiastic. ‘The density of good-quality festivals is like nowhere else in the world. I’ve seen the festival scene evolve. People are prepared to spend more money on a luxurious experience. It’s about being around like-minded people, good entertainment, food and accommodation, all for cheaper than a regular holiday.’ Besides tents with proper beds, you can expect a concierge service, maids who change the sheets every day and plenty of clean privies.

Barden’s list of benefits is directly applicable to the corporate market. And the figures back it up. Tom Crocker, head of sales at Peyton & Byrne, who run the hospitality at Kew the Music, admits that 50% of business is through corporate sales.

‘Things are getting bigger. In 2012, we sold 600 hospitality tickets. This year we’re already over 800 guests. £85 plus VAT means it’s cheaper than many other hospitality options. The artists we pull in are getting better, which is attracting people sooner.’

Festivals, of all varieties, are becoming a mainstay on the booker’s client-courting radar. Stewart Collins, artistic director at Henley, says, ‘because of the nature of our event, it’s not surprising it appeals to corporate bookers. We tend to appear alongside things like the PGA Championship at Wentworth, the Grand Prix and Twickenham.’

The range of festivals on the market covers a wide spectrum, but whether a rock weekender or a black-tie soirée by the Thames, the industry’s progress has ensured a comfortable environment for professional bonding, whatever your taste. And, of course, you’ll look cool doing it. Read on for details of the festivals doing it best.

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The Boutique brigade

The latest breed of boutique festival is small and carefully put together. As much emphasis is placed on what you taste, as what you see. Ostensibly, hospitality is not a priority, with no packages on show. However, tailored itinerary building is an option.

Tim Harvey, creative director at Wilderness (now in its second year) first decided to create a festival when the industry exploded in 2006/7. ‘We wanted to create our favourite festival, something antithetical to the cookie-cut format of other bigger events. A lot of them lacked any point of difference.’

Where there remains an impetus to draw progressively bigger bands elsewhere, Wilderness did the opposite, choosing to meticulously curate niche entertainment. ‘It’s all designed and produced around the woodland. The whole show is knitted into the landscape.’

The line-up includes celebrity chefs and big-name restaurants, who are taking it in turns to host banquets in the event’s feasting halls. Hix, Ottolenghi, J Sheekey and others will be offering guests five-course meals with wine, while performances take place around them. This, along with cooking schools, a spa, and a range of boutique camping options are all part of a bolt-on system that attendees can use to pre-book before arriving at the festival. For group bookings, it’s best to contact the festival directly, which will put together a series of options for you.

Latitude in Suffolk makes no bones about its programme diversity – ‘more than just a music festival’. Beside the big-name bands already confirmed, there are separate arenas dedicated to literature, poetry, theatre, and film. New this year is Yurtel’s boutique camping area, complete with a restaurant, chill out zones and pop-up spa.

Another such Arcadian gathering is Secret Garden Party, in Cambridgeshire. This year it’s hosting a Gatsby-style fine-dining experience at its restaurant Soul Fire, with the stoves manned by the team from Moro of Exmouth Market. SGP will also provide a bespoke bolt-on service for groups. By the site’s lake, there are bookable wood-fired hot tubs and an adjoining Champagne bar. Great, as long as you don’t mind seeing your clients in speedos.

Dickie Cohen, business development manager at Secret Productions (the company behind the festival), runs the ‘boutique’ element and has a vision for the hospitality offering. From next year, the festival will create a more integrated package experience, making it easier to book for groups. ‘We’re going to try and make a festival within a festival. You’ll be able to not leave the boutique area, if you want.’

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The big boys

In a bid to fend off competition from the glut of smaller events on the market, the big hitters have upped their game, not only in terms of entertainment, but of comfort and convenience.

As the elder of UK festivals, Glastonbury is no stranger to hospitality. Contrary to others, though, it doesn’t advertise the fact, preferring to eschew any corporate connotations. Naturally, this makes things slightly less straightforward when booking for a group of clients, but the pay off is worth it. To the right clients, the opportunity to do Glastonbury in style is a highly coveted one.

The easiest option, if you’re booking for clients, is to go directly through one of the independent off-site offerings. Taking inspiration from the established Camp Kerala, the opulent Camp Bagborough – a winery a mile from the action – is offering days-of-the-Raj-style Shikar tents (with proper beds) for the first time this year. Naturally, a mile is beyond reasonable, so there’s a shuttle service available around the clock. A package for two, with tickets, will set you back just shy of £6,000.

Lat girl - A45A0086_web_girl.jpg The Isle of Wight festival has this year introduced VIP backstage packages, with the option to stay in a variety of luxury digs. Given the choice, we’d try the six-berth, fully loaded trailers. Yes, it is further from London than most, but with helicopter transfers available this is less of a problem.

On the same plot in September, mad-cap Bestival (as famous for its fancy dress as its headliners – Stevie Wonder, no less) is pushing the epicurean envelope with its food offering. The Fairshare Southwest restaurant, which uses unsold supermarket food to create a fine-dining experience, is taking bookings now.

 It’s not just mainstream festivals that recognise the potential for providing an upgraded experience. The preconception of hospitality failing at a rock festival couldn’t be further from reality. Jenner says, ‘At Sonisphere [not taking place in the UK this year], top-tier hospitality would cost £15,000 and included a stay in a castle. It’s a great experience and looks cool when you’re trying to impress clients. Tickets always sold out.’

Download, also for those with an appetite for destruction, is celebrating the 10th birthday of its RIP hospitality this year. Of the major festivals, it did it first and options continue to be popular – this year, camping packages sold out long before any band announcements.

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The safe bet

If you’re not convinced a weekend camping with clients will build bridges, there are plenty of less committal options in town with dedicated VIP packages that will impress.

The buzz in London this summer is around AEG’s inaugural British Summer Time festival in Hyde Park this July, which will host the likes of Bon Jovi, Elton John and The Rolling Stones. The new organisers are promising big things. The site will be open for a total of 11 days with alternative entertainment (comedy, mainly) attracting guests on days other than the weekend, when the headline acts will play.

The site will feature areas ranging from relaxed environments, such as The Village Green, through to party space Carnival, all committed to serving good food. ‘It was top of our priority list that our food and drink offering was sympathetic to these areas, so we hand picked indie-food operators, stall by stall, to fit in with the personality of each one.’

The hospitality packages have been invested in heavily. Taking inspiration from AEG’s operation at The O2, there’s grandstand seating and, at the top end, the chance to hire out a private box (Park View Suites priced at £15,000). Our favourite, though, is Soho restaurant Bocca di Lupo’s pop-up, which is open to group bookings for a backstage dining experience.

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Live Nation’s Wireless and Hard Rock Calling meanwhile have moved out east from Hyde Park to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Hopefully this means they’ll be allowed to crank the volume up a bit – always an issue at Hyde Park. They both have a range of VIP packages, which include a fast-track entrance, designated chill-out areas and, for the top-tier, grandstand seating.

The other big hitter in town is Love Box, Victoria Park, which does a good turn in VIP treatment. The Lovers Piano Bar offers guests the chance to kick back on day beds and its KubiLove Boutique is where you go to get your own fancy dress outfit.

More traditional options are the well-trodden lawns of Kew the Music and Henley Festival. The former, at Kew Gardens, offers VIP guests their own entrance, a Champagne reception and a gourmet barbecue (and your own chef, if the group is large enough). Henley is another that plays on the upmarket garden party theme, with top-end dining a founding premise. Hampton Court Palace festival – the most civilised of the lot – hosts guests for dinner in the State Apartment and performances can be enjoyed from the comfort of covered or front row seating.

Field Kitchen

Matt Peat, director of Urban Caprice, the catering and production arm of the Caprice restaurant group, is behind the J Sheekey Fish & Chip van at Wilderness festival this year.

‘J Sheekey, bizarrely, started life as an oyster cart in Shepherd’s market, so bringing the brand to Wilderness feels like we have come full circle. Our audiences cross over in many ways – they love to have a good time, while indulging in food and drink. Wilderness is certainly full of great food offerings. It’s exciting for us to be able to bring the restaurant out of Covent Garden, and meet some new customers in another of their guises.  Mutual discovery – I like that.’

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