As outdoor multi-day festivals become more and more popular, promoters are trying their best to attract the well-heeled, top end of the market. Many are throwing around the ‘L’ word, but is a luxury festival experience a contradiction in terms? Georgia Black, owner of Littlegig boutique festival in Stellenbosch, examines the latest festival trend.

Littlegig Festival
Littlegig Festival
Image: Stefan Smuts

The original music festivals that imbued the word with such romance, were hedonistic, idealistic, unregulated spaces occupied by outliers. 60 years ago, fretting about where to sleep (let alone what to eat), ran deeply counter to the spirit of the gatherings. Luxury was bourgeois, repressive, conservative, old. Festivals were radical, ideological, the voices of their generation.

Fast forward to more recent times, where the world’s most expensive festival ticket (Summer Solstice, Iceland) launched in 2016 at a million dollars and included private jets and helicopters and performances inside glaciers and volcanoes. This year the spectacular flop that was Fyre Festival made newspaper and social media headlines, as a hysterical crowd of Instagram models, tech bros and unwitting millennials – who had paid up to a quarter of a million dollars each - found themselves stranded on the island with no tents, no food, no acts, and no flights out of there. Jimi Hendrix one imagines would be having a giggle at their comeuppance.

This is how things work in festival-land. Big, profitable festivals are able to pay big headline acts which in turn are more likely to attract more people and therefore sponsors with real money. That’s the triangle: artists, sponsors, festival-goers. The promoter’s job is to keep all 3 happy. Artists are happy when they are paid well and looked after. (Any big festival with the Rolling Stones headlining builds Mick Jagger a 1km-running track for pre-show warming up.) Festival-goers are happy when they’re having a good time with their friends and the people they meet. Sponsors are happy when festival-goers respond to (i.e. buy / Instagram / Tweet / Facebook) their products or brands, and will pay top dollar to be in an environment which facilitates this. Plus, there’s the fact that generations Y and Z are rewriting the rules of the luxury market. While older shoppers traditionally drove the growth of sales in the luxury sector, now it’s shoppers born after 1980, says the New York Times. And bingo, the seemingly inevitable marriage of festivals and luxury. Fancy tents and proper loos are paltry sums for promoters to cover when compared with the mega-amounts they can earn in sponsorship revenue. And naturally, the fancier the tent, the more interested the luxury sponsor, because anyone who can rent a $ 4,600 (R65,000) tent or a $295 (R4,000) spot at the Chef’s Table, can most certainly afford the bottle of Veuve Clicquot, and probably the new Mercedes.

So luxury brands – from cars to beauty to liquor to apparel to financial institutions – have now inserted themselves and their money into the festival space, but does it follow that festivals can be luxury? As someone who has been to arguably the world’s poshest festival (Wilderness in Oxfordshire, England) and stayed in a tent as big as my bedroom with its own real loo and hot water shower, the objective answer is yes. That particular category of tents, which cost more than a 5-star London hotel room, sold out in a few days. Ditto the Chef’s Tables and Banquets by some of the world’s top chefs – amongst them, Virgilio Martinez from the world’s 4th top restaurant, Central, the year we were there. Interestingly, Wilderness went cash positive in year 4, and recouped all losses by year 5, which is practically unheard of.

All the other leading international festivals that you may have heard of – Coachella, Tomorrowland, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza – roll out the red carpet to guests who can afford it, in similar ways. From my own experience as Littlegig’s owner-promoter, I know that the most expensive tents and dining experiences are always the quickest to sell. 2 years ago I introduced both glamping and the multi-course sit-down Chef’s Table dinner as an experiment, not entirely convinced that the ‘democracy’ of the festival should be toyed with. The response was swift and conclusive: most people who can afford it want the frills. And any promoter who ignores this - especially when the festival attracts an older crowd too - does so at his or her own peril. 

My final word is that luxury is deeply personal. For me, aged 42, it’s either space and quiet (none of which I would look for at a music festival), or it’s an extraordinary experience. When it comes to Littlegig, my entire focus is on designing the latter. Yes we have fancy tents and top chefs and free-flowing champagne. But for me that’s about the magic, not the luxury. And that’s what the top end of the market really wants from a festival. A magical communal experience. The rest they can buy somewhere else. 

• Littlegig 24H Festival is on 17-18 Feb 2018 at Wiesenhof in Stellenbosch. Map here. Tickets via Quicket

Some pics from the previous Littlegig festival:

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