Deva Fest’s founder Phil Marston reveals the full thinking behind his event’s postponement this year – a common story, with nearly 60% of other festivals in the same position.
It’s time to a draw a line under something I get asked it all the time: ‘Why didn’t you put Deva Fest on in 2021 when other festivals are going ahead?’
I’ll try to answer as honestly as I can. It’s a fairly lengthy read…
When the team took the decision to postpone this year’s Deva Fest back in June, the government had not yet confirmed that Covid restrictions would be lifted in time for August or that events like ours could go ahead this summer. They hadn’t confirmed what Covid measures (if any) we were expected to take to keep attendees safe. Covid rates were rising and festivalgoers were starting to tell us they felt unsafe heading back into crowds so soon after (during?) the pandemic.
It left us in an awful position – carry on planning and take a huge financial and reputational risk in the hope that Boris and friends would throw us a bone, that numbers of cases would drop, and the delayed “Freedom Day” would happen? Or protect the future of the event by accepting that there were just too many factors out of our control, not least our visitors’ safety.
I won’t lie – it was devastating to have to make that call. We had an amazing 2019 and so many people were buzzing about our event. We’d sold the best part of 90% of our tickets, and the others would have flown out judging by the amount of people hovering over the ticket basket (yeah, we can see!).
We now know that we could have soldiered on with the 2021 show and restrictions were lifted just in time for the event to be able to go ahead.
But that’s not the full story.
Firstly, we had to read the room. So many were telling us they didn’t feel safe heading into crowds so quickly. This is supposed to be about fun, family, good times and great entertainment – not feeling nervous that attending could make you ill.
Then there is the “Pingdemic” which is playing havoc with the economy. With folk everywhere getting pinged to isolate by the NHS app we just couldn’t take the risk that we would have enough people to safely operate the event, and you can see the effect that staff shortages are having on everything from hospitality to transport and retail.
One of our headliners (Sophie Ellis-Bextor) was isolating as her children had tested positive, and our reoccurring nightmare was that the team would all get pinged and we’d end up with no stage, or no big top, or no shuttle buses, or no headliners… you get the idea.
And there was the small matter of whether we could believe that “Freedom Day” would happen in July, having been postponed in June (which is when we postponed). As it happens, they did grant it, which seemed a bit odd given that cases were still increasing, but hey, what do I know?! I should mention something about “the science” here, but I’m not a scientist, and I will bow to their judgement.
And yet other festivals have managed to go ahead?
Latitude, Carfest, Tramlines etc. went ahead. These are all much larger, established events than ours, with more illustrious backgrounds and much deeper pockets. All three events had artists pull out at short notice (“ping”), but the loss of a major artist was probably felt less for them given the size of the line ups.
Two of these events were allowed to go ahead under the Government’s Events Research Programme (ERP) – in other words they were being allowed to go on by BoJo & Co in order that we could learn how to safely attend mass events in the Covid era regardless of any restrictions in place at the time. Euro 2020 (not in 2020), Wimbledon and the Formula 1 were also allowed to do the same thing.
Only the results of the ERP weren’t published.
There had been a test festival in Liverpool along with a nightclub test and some other events way back in May under the ERP. We know now that showing a negative test or proof of full vaccination meant very little chance of being infected. But when we postponed back in June that report was being suppressed, and it took Andrew Lloyd-Webber along with various others threatening legal action to force it’s publication.
Other festivals are taking place this summer with social distancing in place. Why couldn’t we do that?
The answer to this is fairly simple – we don’t have space.
We never planned for Deva Fest to be socially distanced – to retrofit it would mean having far less people on site in order that we could create “pods”. Throw in that folk haven’t bought tickets in those “pod” groups (what with not being asked to) and that we would have had to refund everyone we didn’t have space for – you can see it would be a non-starter for us.
Socially distanced festivals are expensive to operate as you can’t have nearly as many guests on site, and that has to be passed on to the customer. Some socially distanced festivals are charging twice what we were for a few hours of tribute acts.
Was there any government support?
I don’t want to make any of this political. I will leave it to those more qualified to debate the government’s Covid response, and some solutions such as furlough and business rates relief have been a genuine life saver for certain sectors.
What I would say that the guidance and support on offer for festivals has been pitiful.
Other European governments have underwritten Covid events insurance to allow festivals to continue planning with confidence. Around 60% of UK festivals have cancelled this summer, and many, including ours, have cited the lack of such insurance as one of the reasons. The UK government has finally announced an insurance scheme, and whilst it is welcome, it comes too late for us and many 2021 events, plus the cost and small print look fairly eye watering. We will, however, find a way for the scheme to work for us to put the 2022 event on.
We were invited to apply to round one of the Culture Recovery Fund but received a border line insulting rejection letter, and were then excluded by a rule change from applying to rounds two or three. We benefitted from a VAT reduction, which will have been and gone by the time we can hold our event again, and we are now paying back a Bounce Back Loan when we haven’t been allowed to ‘bounce back’.
So those were the reasons why there is no Deva Fest 2021 – socially distanced or otherwise. We do feel we have been dealt a bit of a bum hand, but there has been a pandemic and our thoughts are with those who have suffered at the hands of this awful virus.
We sold for 2021 in the knowledge that this could happen, which is why we gave a Covid guarantee on tickets. I’m proud to say that we delivered on that and have refunded every single ticket holder who asked for their money back – refunding a six figure sum. We hope that festivalgoers appreciate that we did the right thing, and remember it when looking at summer 2022 plans.
We remain 100% committed to Deva Fest 2022. We have kept all of our major artists from 2021 and have some amazing plans to announce in the coming months. Tickets went back on sale on Friday 13 August (!) at midday, which was the time that we would have opened in 2021. We can’t wait to see everyone back in the fields next summer.
About the Author
Phil Marston is the founder and managing partner of Deva Fest, Cheshire’s family music, food and lifestyle festival. The event will return to Chester Lakes on 12-14 August 2022 with headline sets from Symphonic Ibiza, Sophie Ellis Bextor and Scouting for Girls. www.devafest.co.uk