‘Kent’s biggest little music festival’ – a testament to its dedicated voluntary team.
Who could have thought that a group of friends’ disappointment over Glastonbury tickets six years ago would lead to a nomination for Best of Event of the Year at the upcoming NOEA Awards. The Vicar’s Picnic attracts thousands of festivalgoers to a sleepy Kentish village every summer with acts including Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Starsailor and Seb Fontaine. We talk to founding member Thom Harris.
Describe your event and how many people it attracts?
Imagine standing in a beautiful Kentish field by a lazy river, surrounded by banks of rolling meadows bursting with lavender on the outskirts of a gorgeous English village. It’s pretty, peaceful and bucolic…
All that remains for you to do is build a trackway, put up the fencing, sort the plumbing, power, portaloos and parking, build four stages, two campsites and a temporary town, corral the vendors, placate the locals and then make everything look pretty. Organise barriers, bars and bands, poets, performers and press, add 4,000 friendly festivalgoers and hope for the best.
Also, all this work (and the 10 months work preceding it) is unpaid. If there are any profits, they go to charity or are reinvested back into the company. Most of the support staff are volunteers, but if it all goes wrong, it will be All. Your. Fault.
Finally, the gates open, the music plays and suddenly, it all comes together. A successful family-friendly festival headlined by established acts and supported by new, hungry bands, a roster of legendary DJs, comedians, poets, artists and entertainers. Welcome to The Vicar’s Picnic – the biggest little festival in Kent!
(That’s the long answer. The short answer is we’re an independent music festival in Kent with a target demographic of 30-50 year olds. I prefer the longer one).
Explain a bit about your venue and its history
Like all the greatest ideas, it began on the back of a beermat.
After failing to get tickets for Glastonbury, a group of friends from Vicarage Road in Yalding were down the pub and decided to put on their own little festival instead. Some of them had been in bands, some of them had a patch of land and all of them loved music and a party. They got a few local bands together, sold a couple of hundred tickets, donated the profits to charity and had a great day.
The next year, they did it again but this time (without really trying), 500 people turned up. The parish council noticed and offered them access to a far bigger location just outside of the village. Fuelled by enthusiasm, camaraderie and a blissful ignorance of what they were getting into and where it would lead, they successfully launched a two-day event attended by 1,500 festivalgoers.
The three years since then has seen the festival increase a third in size each summer, and with it the team’s experience. The Vicar’s Picnic began almost by chance, but its subsequent success has been no accident.
How did you find applying for permission to run the event? Did you have to make any compromises to satisfy the local authority?
After seeing the potential from our first two events, Yalding Parish Council invited us to use our current site – The Lees – which is essentially an L-shape of three adjoining meadows located just outside the village. This allowed us to swiftly grow in size to accommodate both camping and parking, but also means we have to compromise on issues that the council prioritise.
For example, after two successful years on the site we were obliged to stage the festival one week later to accommodate the annual grass cutting and collection of the fields. Subsequently, instead of the event taking place just before the end of the summer school term, it would now run a few days after, which in turn would have a direct impact on ticket sales. Though it seemed to be a minor issue, the parish council refused to reconsider so we had to acquiesce.
Overall, however, this is a minor quibble. Thanks to the largesse of the local community and CALPAC, a fishing club that retains the right of access to the field that serves as our main arena, we have a beautiful location at next to no cost. Unlike many other festivals who have to pay tens of thousands to secure a site, the only financial stipulation we have to meet is a donation to a local charity on CALPAC’s behalf. In return, Yalding’s pubs, tearooms, B&Bs and shops enjoy their busiest – and most profitable – weekend of the year.
We also have an excellent relationship with Maidstone and Kent County Council, mainly through dint of taking all the legislation seriously and keeping in regular contact. We’ve only ever had one noise complaint in three years which they still maintain is some sort of record.
How have you planned the layout of the event and what structures do you use?
We have a quirky site, partially ringed by a river and surrounded by environmentally protected land, so we work with what we have. Saying that, we’ve managed to triple in size in attendance by constantly tweaking the site layout to maximise space and renegotiating with the parish council to accommodate extra parking and camping. Like everything else, we learned on the job through trial and error but luckily our colleague Jo turned out to be some kind of planning savant. Give her grid paper and a tape measure and you’re all set!
In terms of structures, the Main Stage, Big Top, Dance Tent and Artists’ Quarter are the primary concerns. Apart from a handful of smaller marquees, flagpoles and fencing, the rest is hired. We laid some basic plumbing a few years ago but beyond that, the entire infrastructure is temporary.
How did you research and source your marquees, flooring, bars etc?
In the beginning, through friends, family and the locals. For example, the local scout marquee was the Kid’s Workshop in year one, the backstage bar in year three and is now our most basic undercover prep and tech area. It’s actually a good analogy for the event as a whole: our needs changed while we grew but that marquee is still pitching in (pun intended) and doing a job. Plus Yalding Scouts still get a rental fee from us, so everybody wins.
These days, we’re usually fielding tenders from various companies but still rely on referrals and previous partners. We’ve been very lucky to have a long-standing relationship with the SRD Group (www.srdgroup.co.uk) who supply, build and manage most of our stage, sound and lighting. They’ve been a great support to a growing festival like ours and are a big part of our success and National Outdoor Events Association (NOEA) nomination for the Event of the Year Award.
What entertainment do you offer and how did you choose and source it?
We understand our demographic. The main stage acts are a mix of big names (Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Starsailor, Cast, Reef, Fratellis) and strong up and coming support with a few crowd favourites thrown in (Bang Bang Romeo, knees-up Ska on a Saturday afternoon).
The Big Top covers fresh new bands and strong local acts and somehow we manage to secure legendary DJs that pack out the Secret Disco (Seb Fontaine, Norman Jay, Nightmares On Wax).
The Artists’ Quarter features amazing local art, poets and comedians, with a household name for added stardust. Stephen K Amos destroyed it this year and enjoyed his set hugely.
Beyond that, we also have a Kid’s Field that wows children with its rides, games, workshops and activities, and amazes parents because the majority of these are free. Curated by core team member Maddy (creative; headstrong), additional entertainers include circus performers, storytellers, dancers and firebreathers.
We source the bigger acts the usual way, through agents, but a surprising amount is still done through recommendations, applications and word of mouth. That last point is actually our secret weapon: we treat all our performers, big and small, with real care and appreciation. We’re thrilled they’re part of our event and that enthusiasm and love seems to genuinely spread to our artists who often choose to stay an extra few hours (or day) to enjoy themselves. We’re nice people and our reputation now precedes us (we hope anyway).
What provisions do you make for power, lights and sound?
Due to the arena’s location close to the village we have to be careful to stay within agreed parameters while still putting on a better sound and light show than previous years.
I manage to achieve this by absolving myself of all responsibility and leaving it to others in the core team; Dave (production; head honcho), Jo (site planner; cool head) and Phil (health and safety; headmaster). Together, they liaise with SRD and other contractors to deliver an infrastructure that is the focal point of the entire weekend. I won’t bore you by going into greater technical detail (I couldn’t even if I wanted to).
How do you manage admissions and visitor safety?
The Ticketsellers are our online vendors but our on-site admissions team is made up of volunteers (as are a lot of our various support staff). Two obvious exceptions are health and safety and security. As a family festival we have to be hyper-vigilant about child safety, especially being located next to a (fenced-off) river. The only thing that could ever make us regret this whole adventure is if someone was seriously hurt on our watch so this will always be priority number one. It just isn’t worth the risk otherwise.
Luckily for us, we have a fabulous crowd of happy ‘Picknickers’. Barring two minor issues from a total crowd of 15,000 festivalgoers over six years, that’s a record any event should be rightly proud of.
What ground protection do you use for cars and footfall?
Basic trackway, straw for mud and we try and limit all non-essential vehicle access to the site. Again, it’s protected land so minimising damage is paramount.
How do you publicise the event?
We have a loyal base of fans who always support us but social media word of mouth becomes more and more important each year. Roadside posters are cheap but very effective. Unless you have a large marketing budget and a clearly defined audience, print media gives less bang for your buck (and I say this as someone who’s day job is an advertising manager for a magazine).
Relationships with local charities and sport clubs are mutually beneficial as are media tie-ins. This year we officially partnered with BBC Radio Kent which allowed us on-air interviews, promotions and a live broadcast from the festival on the Saturday afternoon. Ultimately, we’re not reinventing the marketing wheel but with a limited budget, you have to get the basics right.
What challenges have you faced?
In no particular order: Agents (occasionally), body odour, colleague conflict, dehydration, early-morning sunshine, forgetting to put on sun cream, glitter cannons (every tiny piece has to be picked up), heavy lifting, indifference, journalists, killjoys, last minute ticket requests, moaners, non-stop stress, over-running sets, power-cuts, queues, riders, stolen trackway, unreasonable complaints, village upset, Wi-Fi (lack of), xylophonists (too many of), yesterday’s rubbish, zips on tents
How have you financed the event and how profitable is it?
Apart from the team’s initial small personal investment, the vast majority is funded by ticket sales and our cut of vendor sales. Each year we manage to donate a percentage of profits to our charities and anything left over goes to fund the following year’s festival. We’ve never lost money but it’s often close. We’ve never taken a wage or dividend.
We were lucky to have one year where a major sponsor supplied a huge amount of investment and man-power which left us with a cash reserve, but sponsorship is sorely needed. Did I mention my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org?
What advice could you give to someone coming into the outdoor event industry?
We’re a slightly more unusual event team because this isn’t our day job and doing it usually costs us time and money, so with that in mind, I’d offer these three pearls of wisdom: 1) Do it for the love of doing it and not the money because this probably won’t make you rich. 2) All gigs, parties, train journeys and everything else inbetween is an opportunity. Speak to everyone you possibly can because you never know where it may lead. 3) It’s never too early, or too late, for a tequila.
STAGES, SOUND & LIGHTING
SRD Group www.srdgroup.co.uk
Brooks Bars www.brooksbars.com
Four Jays www.fourjays.co.uk
The Ticketsellers www.theticketsellers.co.uk
The Vicar’s Picnic