Hot mess: Lessons from Fyre Festival disasterBy Lauren Arena
05 May 2017
Touted as a ‘luxury festival’ in the Bahamas, the Fyre Festival promised a Coachella-inspired music and networking event with yachts, Champagne, performances by leading bands, white-sand beaches lined with celebrities and models. Lots of models. And all for bargain price of between US$1,000 and US$125,000.
Instead, as social media and news reports this week have shown, ticket-holders were met with delayed and cancelled flights, little food and water, disaster relief tents pitched on a desolate sandbank and broken sewage facilities.
This is what happens when Billy McFarland, a 25-year-old tech entrepreneur, and a rapper who used to be famous (aka Ja Rule) team up and attempt to plan an event. The mega festival was set to take place over two weekends, April 28-30 and May 5-7, however in the lead-up to the inaugural weekend celebrity guests were warned not to come, headlining acts cancelled and ticketholders were left stranded on the islands of Great Exuma.
As more details emerge around the horror-story logistics, and the event’s leaked pitch deck makes its way around the internet, many of us in the events industry can spot obvious planning failings. But among the parody, are a few key lessons.
Social media can make or break
Fyre built its marketing strategy around social media and used ‘influencers’ like models Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid to market its event on Instagram. By mid December 2016 general admission tickets were sold out, despite the hefty price tag and before any performers were announced.
Vicky Hartley, event director at The Appointment Group Asia-Pacific, says: “Social media can be a very powerful tool to market events, especially to millennials. Images of celebrities and models having fun are very influential to a generation obsessed with celebrity culture. Marketers are becoming very adept at projecting a certain lifestyle and the fear of missing out can be a very powerful driver.”
Social media also contributed to the event’s downfall, with the now infamous sweaty cheese sandwich image that exposed the reality of the event’s ‘gourmet catering’.
Darren Kerr, show director and executive producer at event company Factor168, says: “This confirms to me what many in the pro events world have come to realise – key opinion leaders (aka influencers) coupled with a targeted social media campaign are very powerful tools within the event marketing mix and it’s here to stay. Without a programme confirmed, clearly they were pitching on an expectation, which can be a dangerous thing to wrangle.”
Building buzz is important, but so is managing and delivering on expectations
Social media can add positive or a negative dimension to your event, depending on how it’s managed and executed.
Fyre organisers reportedly blew millions of dollars on models and private jets to promote the event. VICE reported McFarland spent US$250,000 on a single Instagram post from Kendall Jenner and laid out hundreds of thousands more on lesser-known influencers, none of whom were paid less than $20,000.
Kerr says: “The big failure here is not the use or effectiveness of influencers – it is the management, education, and monitoring of them that’s troubling. The failure of the event was not so much ticket sales. It was clearly extraordinarily poor cash flow management, poor vendor management, and a failure to adhere to basic event management fundamentals.”
Fyre organisers have since blamed poor weather conditions and a lack of infrastructure on the island of Great Exuma for the failed event, but the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism has hit back.
In a statement, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, Joy Jibrilu, says: “The infrastructure on Great Exuma is second to none. The island has potable water, water and sewerage, Internet and cable television services, an electricity plant, a waste management system, a mini hospital, police officers, a local government and border patrol officers.
“The organisers decided to host the Fyre Festival in an undeveloped subdivision community in Roker’s Point. The area, which is on the beach, is directly opposite Grand Isle Resort and Spa and Sandals Emerald Bay," she said.
“While many vendors who assisted the organisers in staging the event are saying that they have yet to be paid, Fyre Festival co-founder Billy McFarland has assured the Ministry of Tourism that the vendors will be paid.
“The Bahamas is a destination that has successfully staged dozens of major events including the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, the IAAF World Relays and various regattas throughout the Islands of The Bahamas, just to name a few,” Jibrilu said.
Kerr’s advice: “Destinations with less infrastructure equals greater capital required. The more remote and ‘exotic’ designations are not for newbies.”
Event planners versus event owners
The relationship between event planners and event owners (or clients) can often be fickle and tedious, but both parties must have a clear communication strategy to ensure objectives are understood (and met) and a level of trust can be established.
After the disastrous event went viral, former Fyre Festival talent producer, Chloe Gordon, told NY Mag’s The Cut, that she had warned event organisers of a series of impending problems.
Gordon said: “My job as a talent producer was to coordinate travel and on-site logistics with the artists who would be performing: Blink 182, Major Lazer, Disclosure, among others, had already signed on. I would be working with an 11-person team and a few of the festival executives. The production team was all new hires and, before we arrived, we were led to believe things had been in motion for a while. But nothing had been done. Festival vendors weren’t in place, no stage had been rented, transportation had not been arranged. Frankly, we were standing on an empty gravel pit and no one had any idea how we were going to build a festival village from scratch.”
“…With so little having been prepared ahead of time, the official verdict was that it would take $50 million to pull off. Planners also warned that it would be not be up to the standard they had advertised. The best idea, they said, would be to roll everyone’s tickets over to 2018 and start planning for the next year immediately.”
Warnings, however, fell on deaf ears. Instead a Fyre Festival marketing executive reportedly said: “Let’s just do it and be legends, man.” Gordon quit the project shortly after when she was informed that her agreed pay would be cut by a third.
Hartley’s advice: “Always make sure you do credit checks on companies that you are asked to work with, however established they appear and never work without payment upfront. A professional event manager will ensure this is all taken care of and suppliers are paid promptly.”
Mistakes happen. It’s how you deal with them that matters
Let’s be honest, event planning can be a tricky, messy business and often plans can go awry. When something goes wrong, or you can’t live up to your pre-event promises, Hartley says you can maintain integrity by taking ownership and, where ticket sales and entry fees are concerned, refunds are also important.
“The best thing to do is apologise, give everyone their money back,” Hartley says. “A great example is when the Secret Cinema in London didn’t open on the specified dated for a Back to the Future event in 2014 (largely due to health and safety concerns). But the situation was managed really well, with an honest explanation given in the media, a public apology and money refunded. The Secret Cinema continues to flourish due to their responsible actions.”
In Fyre’s case, co-organiser Billy McFarland admitted to Rolling Stone that he was “naïve” and “overwhelmed” and promised a ‘make-up festival’ in May 2018, which will be free to everybody who signed up for this year’s event.
And Ja Rule gave a half-hearted apology on twitter that said “IT’S NOT MY FAULT”.
Fyre organisers are now facing at least two class-action lawsuits — one filed by Hollywood attorney Mark Geragos that alleges Fyre was a “get-rich-quick scheme” and seeks US$100 million, including damages.