By Claudia Schwarz
Do you ever wish you could have seen a live event more than once? Hybrid Festivals might be the answer. They are a combination of online and live events, providing the best of both worlds. The annual Cheltenham Literature Festival was formed in 1949 and hosts millions of brilliant writers, journalists and politicians in the historic town of Cheltenham. 2020 has demanded a new, innovative format and Louise Carles, Operations Team & Volunteer Coordinator/Manager, played a vital role in this change. Here’s what she had to say about the challenges and benefits of a hybrid festival, as well as the marvelous madness of festival season:
Could you tell me a bit about yourself and the amazing job you are doing at Cheltenham Festivals?
I have always been part of festivals either as a musician/performer or as part of the organisational team. I would always help with the Operations (especially using my language skills – I am fluent in Italian and English) and liaising with artists as well as programming. After an international master’s degree and a path in diverse conservatoires to train as a classical pianist, I finally decided to pursue my dream to settle in England for a bit longer and was incredibly lucky to be selected to be the Operations Assistant at the Cheltenham Festivals for February 2019. After a couple of months, I was then promoted to Operations Team & Volunteer Coordinator/Manager.
Why did Cheltenham Festivals decide to do a hybrid festival?
Our organizers had no choice but to cancel three of our four festivals this year due to Covid-19. Going digital, which includes giving access to much of our content to our audience for free, was the opportunity to democratise the arts and give everybody a chance to experience events that would have seemed inaccessible.
I believe we all missed live events and the entire world was getting tired of watching a screen. We decided we should make the Literature Festival happen physically while also keeping a digital version for those who aren’t able to travel or just don’t feel comfortable travelling. Securing a digital version of the festival was also a clever way to make sure that, in case the government announced stricter Covid-19 rules, we had a back-up plan. All our live content was available for free but our replay programme (a subscription of £20) was also an opportunity to outweigh the financial loss we made from the cancellation of the three other festivals.
What is your favourite part of the day during the festival season?
During the Literature Festival, it is the penultimate day, when no one could believe we managed to do 600+ events and that there’s only one day left – one single day that is all planned, and we had actually made it. And not only that we made this massive Literature Festival, but we actually managed to do four international festivals; we offered incredible content to thousands and thousands of people, and we made it. It all seems surreal, or maybe it is realising that everything that seemed like a dream is actually all true.
What exactly is different from the previous years?
Most of it was different due to our new Covid-19 measures. Being part of a festival is also a lot of socialising, meeting new people. This was of course highly affected by the new measures. We needed to respect social distancing and wear a face mask at all times. The preparation phase especially was extremely heavy. We had to make sure we had enough hand sanitiser stations, and seating plans according to our reduced capacity audience. We also worked on a very reduced budget, which was quite a challenge.
What would a normal day for you look like during the festival?
I usually start the day about 8am and then go to the morning briefing with the volunteers. Then I start checking the artists transports and make sure all the furniture requests are met. I also have to manage the daily dropouts from volunteers (people forgetting they had a medical appointment and can’t do the shift anymore, for instance), then making sure all the new changes are put into the software we use to manage the festival and update the latest presentations or song texts. Artist Transport is usually taking most of my time as people change their plans a lot and sometimes public transport is not totally reliable (last year at the Literature Festival, the trains stopped for an entire weekend!). A festival day is a troubleshooting day. There would always be things that wouldn’t work exactly as they should, or a speaker who didn’t turn up to their sound check, or a last-minute request from an artist for the show. Then, when the last couple of events are on, we get ready for the next day.
Could you tell me a bit about #WeMakeEvents?
The movement #WeMakeEvents is extremely important for us in the events industry and also for all the freelancers we hire for our festival days. I don’t want to talk on behalf of Cheltenham Festivals, but we want to support everybody in the Arts and Events industry and make sure the crisis we are all going through will be wisely managed by our government.
What challenges have you faced?
The biggest challenge was that we knew our government could announce stricter restrictions anytime, which could overthrow all our plans. We had to get ready for different scenarios, from a ‘normal festival’ to the complete cancellation of the festival just a couple of days before.
Then, of course, we had to rethink all our organisation according to our new Covid-19 measures, which was a huge challenge too.
Does his new format have upsides to it?
The free live-stream that ensures that our content is available for all!
How have people responded to this hybrid festival?
People were really happy about it as it basically gave them the choice of attending all the events either live if they wanted to or digitally from their sofa. Plus, as the format was not exactly Zoom calls but one with a genuine studio set up, it felt more dynamic and more real.
You introduced Nikita Gill’s event “Maidens, Myths, and Monsters”, what was that like?
Nikita Gill is an incredible person and such an inspiring figure! Introducing an event in front of a live audience is already a bit of pressure but thinking that the content is live-streamed all across the globe and will stay in the Player and in our archive was extremely pressuring! Especially adding to this that English is not my native language! We had a fantastic chat about her books, her poetry, about mythology and about life in London.
And finally, what were your other highlights of this year’s festival?
Meeting Allan Mallinson again. I met him last year and he was such a gentleman! Then, introducing another event and even having to close it (I felt like I was presenting the most exciting news on TV!), and attending the Kanneh Masons event.
Look out for the Cheltenham Festivals in 2021. You can also find them on Facebook and Instagram @cheltfestivals.