A breath of fresh air for corporates, learning in a festival style atmosphere in the Lake District.
Forget stuffy conference set ups, the directors and managers from brands including Google and Bloomberg enjoy debates, workshops and headline ‘acts’ from a huge marquee and venues around (and on) Lake Windermere. Organised by creative change agency, Impact, we talk to event creator Lou McDonald
Describe your event and how many people it attracts?
Learnfest, as the name suggests, is a festival of learning!
Each year the festival brings together around 200 directors and heads of change, leadership, talent and innovation from some of the world’s leading brands (such as Google, Bloomberg, Nissan, Co-op and Santander) for three days (and two nights) of diverse learning experiences, collaboration, inspiration, challenging points of view and new adventures.
Learnfest combines the heart and soul of a festival – a sense of community and shared experience, freedom of choice and creativity – and blends it imaginatively with fresh, radical thinking about the workplace.
The festival comprises four core content types:
- Headline Acts – carefully selected headliners speak on a range of current, disruptive and futuristic topics and bring radical thinking and new ideas about the world and the workplace
- Workshops – self-selected developmental and interactive workshops give festivalgoers the chance to build and apply skills, co-create new ideas and explore innovative responses to the latest global trends
- The Fringe – introducing a sense of adventure and exposing festivalgoers to new situations that help them learn about themselves. Pushing personal boundaries and testing self-limiting beliefs, people are challenged to find out what they are truly capable of. Learnfest has seen everything from wild swimming to camel rides, fire walking to a real glamping experience complete with moonlight paddle across the lake, pizza making and yurt accommodation with Long Valley Yurts
- Panel Debates – ‘Question Time’ style panel debates bring together business leaders, great minds, future thinkers and people who have been there and done it (and have a story to tell) around key topics.
Explain a bit about your venue and its history
Learnfest takes place in the grounds of Cragwood Country House Hotel on the shores of Lake Windermere. Cragwood is owned by Impact (for use as both a corporate training venue and a wedding and leisure hotel).
The location of Learnfest was a really important decision for us – using the power and beauty of the natural environment to help people reflect, refocus and re-energise away from the distractions of work is at the heart of Learnfest.
There are no air-conditioned, windowless conference rooms, no uncomfortable seats to sit in for hours at a time… instead we give people the chance to reconnect with nature, themselves and each other while engaging in a powerful learning experience in one of the most spectacular outdoor settings for a corporate event.
What is the event’s history?
Learnfest has been developed, designed, curated and delivered by Impact, a global, independent and award-winning creative change agency headquartered in the Lake District.
For many years, we ran an annual corporate conference at our Lake District HQ. The event was designed to help organisations and their people to develop, be inspired and discover new ways of working. It was also a way for us to build relationships with valued clients and to meet new prospective clients.
The event was similar in style/format to other corporate conferences – inside a beautiful hotel venue with keynote speakers, breakout sessions, formal networking and dining. The conference was always well attended but we just knew that there must be a way to breathe new life into what was fast becoming a rather tired and predictable event format.
After much brainstorming we hit upon the idea of a ‘festival’ concept. We researched different festivals (music festivals, food and drink festivals, literature festivals etc.) and began to break down and identify the core principles that make a festival a festival. They included:
- Community spirit – a sense of congregation, togetherness and shared experience offering a social approach to exploring challenges, giving advice, discussion, co-creation of new ideas and what they mean in practice
- Freedom of choice – with no set agendas and instead choices made by each individual around the shape and direction of their personal learning journey
- Diversity of content – a rich and inspiring mix of personal and professional development topics, delivered through a variety of interactive methods
- Sense of adventure – pushing personal boundaries and radically challenging thinking.
We then took these core principles, added our experience of creating powerful, transformative and highly engaging learning experiences and voila, Learnfest was born! That was back in 2013 and in June of this year we will be running our 7th festival of learning.
How does the relationship work with the venue you hold the event at?
As Impact owns Cragwood Country House Hotel (which is part of the Lake District Country House Hotels Group), we have a well-established and successful working relationship with the venue.
We meet regularly throughout the year to plan the festival so that we are all aligned and headed in the same direction. It is really important for us that the hotel feels like it is part of the festival and not just a venue/service provider. After seven years it runs like clockwork and that’s in no small part down to the brilliant team at the hotel.
They not only provide some of the accommodation (the rest is provided by the rest of the Lake District Country House Hotels Group and other local hotels) but they do all the catering (including 200 lunches and dinners!) and go the extra mile when it comes to enhancing the festival-goer experience.
How have you planned the layout of the event and what structures do you use?
The look and feel of the event was a key factor in the design of the festival. When you arrive at the hotel it immediately feels like a festival. Bunting lines the driveway down to the site and festival flags, festoon lights and other funky touches help to create an authentic festival atmosphere.
We hire a 12mx30m marquee for the lawn which is the main tent where people watch the headline acts and come together to eat. The space features a small stage and screen and round tables and chairs to encourage better interaction and dialogue.
The festival workshops, which run with smaller groups, take place in purchased and hired 18ft and 24ft yurts to provide a more intimate experience – some of our workshops have even been run on paddleboards on Lake Windermere!
The Learnfest Fringe consists of a range of activities delivered in the outdoors (e.g. SUPing, water yoga, kayaking and meditation) or in outdoor venues such as yurts, mini marquees, and a lakeside boat-house). Though the lake itself is one of our favourite ‘venues’!
The Tipi Bar is a really funky space (a giant event tipi) for people to continue the conversations into the evening and to have a bit of relaxation and fun. Complete with comfy sofas, squishy beanbags, fairy lights and, of course, the bar.
How did you research and source your marquees, flooring, bars etc?
We did lots of online research! We invited suppliers to the festival venue to give them a first-hand understanding of how the event would work, what access is like, what the terrain is like for setting up – all of the things you don’t want to be a surprise on the first day of the event if you just booked a supplier without them actually seeing the site first!
This gave them the chance to really evaluate if their product would work on our event site, ask all the questions they needed to ask, and it also gave them the chance to feed in ideas that we maybe hadn’t thought of. Developing good supplier relationships is really important to us, e.g. we have used the same marquee provider for all seven Learnfests!
Other suppliers were recommended to us through word of mouth and some we already had relationships and connections with (as they are local businesses).
What entertainment do you offer and how did you choose and source it?
During the day it is less about entertainment and more about learning. So we work with a number of international speaker agencies to source our Headline Act line-up and we bring in futurists, business leaders and thought leaders to inspire and inform.
The workshops and the Festival Fringe are delivered by both Impact and a host of external suppliers we have worked with previously or have been recommended to us.
The Evening Fringe consists of a line-up of comedy, music, spoken word and more. We work with a brilliant poet/performer who curates two evenings worth of hilarity and entertainment. We outsource this element to her and she ensures we have a great line-up and manages all communication with the performers.
What provisions do you make for power, lights and sound?
We tap into the hotel power supply and also hire a generator to ensure we are covered when it comes to power throughout the festival.
However, it is only the main marquee that has power (for the presentation screen and AV, lighting and catering equipment). We intentionally keep Learnfest as tech-free as possible and encourage our suppliers to join us on this mission to avoid the use of ‘death by PowerPoint’ and the distractions of technology.
How do you manage admissions and visitor safety?
We have a registration desk and process that people follow upon arrival – this gives us a chance to make sufficient security checks and ensure that we know exactly who is on the site at any time.
We have a rigorous health and safety strategy signed off by our global H&S advisor and managed by our head of operations. We also risk asses the festival site, the grounds, the venues and all activities. This is done both by ourselves and we also require all external suppliers to provide an up to date risk assessment of their product or service.
We do checks at the start of each day and a review each evening to ensure the continued safety of everyone on site. We also of course inform all festivalgoers of any emergency procedures at the start of the festival.
Festivalgoers are required to complete a form upon arrival at the festival so that we are aware of any personal injuries or conditions that may affect them during their time with us.
What ground protection do you use for cars and footfall?
We have a car park for those staying at Cragwood Country House Hotel, so no additional protection is required there. To minimise overcrowding in the car park we provide shuttle buses to transport all other festival goers (who are staying in other hotels in the local area) to and from their accommodation.
We have sturdy plastic walkways on the lawn around the main marquee to avoid slips and to prevent damage to the grounds from footfall.
How do you publicise the event?
We have a year-round sales and marketing programme that consists of email marketing, direct mail, social media, online advertising, a dedicated festival website and telesales.
What challenges have you faced?
The main challenge, as you can imagine being situated in the spectacular Lake District, is the spectacular weather! We have had rain, wind, sunshine and everything else you can imagine – each element has brought its own challenges.
If it’s too sunny then the marquees and yurts get too hot, so we have air con equipment on standby and black out lining in the marquee to ensure people can still see the screen.
If it is cold, wet and windy, then we undertake additional measures to secure all outdoor structures, prevent slip hazards and leaks and have heating units available.
One year we had to undertake a dynamic risk assessment for the freak thunderstorm that brought heavy rainfall and bolts of lightning – a situation that if it hadn’t subsided would have seen us shift the entire festival to one of our partner hotels. Luckily it never came to that!
How have you financed the event and how profitable is it?
We part fund the event through ticket sales. The rest is covered by Impact. We don’t run the event as a profit-making venture. The return for Impact is through the relationships we build with the festivalgoers.
What are your plans for next year?
Each year we tweak and improve the format, find more great content and offer new inspiration and adventure. However, the main plan for next year is to increase attendance. We are to a certain extent limited physically by how big we can grow without having to change venue and in terms of atmosphere. If we grow too big we lose that sense of intimacy and personal connection that we have achieved. So it’s a balancing act between creating more of a buzz and reaching a wider audience yet maintaining everything that makes Learnfest unique.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the outdoor event industry?
Think big. Be bold. Fail fast. We had almost as a big a job internally selling the idea of turning our traditional corporate event with important clients in to a festival as we did externally convincing the market it was a good idea… but once we made the leap we never looked back. The festival has led to new business partnerships and even stronger relationships with our current clients.
MARQUEES & LIGHTING
Queensberry Marquees www.queensberryevents.co.uk
FLOORING & GROUND PROTECTION
Queensberry Marquees www.queensberryevents.co.uk
Covered in Style www.coveredinstyle.co.uk
Long Valley Yurts www.luxury-yurt-holidays.co.uk
WASHROOMS & WCs
Border Loos www.borderloos.co.uk
Cragwood Country House Hotel
Cumbria LA23 1LQ