Running a five-day festival involving more than 1,000 visitors, artists, performers and contractors is never a simple task, let alone during a global pandemic. But one CLA member managed to host such an event, which fused the ancient wisdom of indigenous traditions and Western technology, between lockdowns last year. Like all businesses, the Wasing Estate in Berkshire has had to adapt to Covid-19. In a normal year, it would host 200 weddings and corporate events, but this has not been a normal 12 months.
Long before Covid-19, plans were afoot for a festival with a difference. In the Brazilian Amazon, the Yawanawa tribe hosts a celebration every year showcasing local culture to visitors. In 2017, one of those guests, Wasing owner Josh Dugdale, proposed joining forces with the Chief of the Yawanawa, Nixiwaka, to create a new festival called Medicine on his estate.
On his return to the UK, Josh and his friend Ben Christie put together a team to map out an event bridging the two worlds to share music, culture and ceremony. It was planned for summer 2020 and, through a combination of hard work, determination and luck, it went ahead.
Josh, a filmmaker whose work has covered subjects from drug barons to the Dalai Lama, says: “It would have stood out in a normal year, let alone being one of the only licensed gatherings in 2020.”
Planning during a pandemic
“It was a huge effort by the organising team to bring the local authority, the Department for Culture, and Public Health England on board,” he says. “The event had been in planning for over two and a half years but little did we know that we would be launching during the first global pandemic for 100 years.
“As the festival season unfolded, we watched with ever-increasing concern as event after event fell out of the calendar. When Glastonbury left the scene, the penny well and truly dropped, but we put off cancelling and held to the possibility of staging the event on the August bank holiday weekend.
“The odds were against us. No insurer would touch any policy to do with Covid. The sheer weight of conversations involving over 200 artists and performers, numerous contractors from structures, water, waste to power providers, as well as a massive volume of correspondence with ticket holders, volunteers, and the local community, was staggering. In essence, what would normally take around six months was shoehorned into just over three weeks.”
At the festival, which covered diverse themes and talks, including decolonisation and the future of farming, social distancing was in, and hugging and alcohol were out. “Managing expectations from the outset was key to ensuring a crowd that is compliant, and that involves making sure guests know what to expect.” Despite more than 20mm of rain falling in less than two hours as the festival opened, the organising team was proud to deliver the five-day festival.
What advice does Josh have for other CLA members who are trying to plan events during much uncertainty? “You need to be a problem solver at the best of times, but even more so now with Covid, as there are many more extra challenges thrown into your path.
You need to be determined and trust your instinct as that will inevitably give you the right answer.
"Make sure you have a good team in place who know what they are doing. Ultimately, it’s your call, and it’s on your head so setting up the right team in the first place is key.”
The team is currently assessing the government guidelines for this summer but is confident of holding another festival, and possibly introducing testing.
Covid-19 has caused other big challenges to Wasing, which has an organic farm and has diversified into a wedding, events and wellbeing hub. More than 100 weddings have been postponed – nine have had to change dates three times – and the business has lost out on more than £1m of budgeted revenue.
While he is grateful to have had some government support, Josh believes the hospitality sector needs to be listened to as there is “no doubt many wedding businesses will fail this year”. He says: “The most frustrating thing is seeing how little they understand the industry and the sheer number of people who need to be consulted for it to make it through as government guidelines. It is an extreme version of Chinese whispers.”
A mixed outlook
Josh, who represents the seventh generation of his family’s involvement in the estate, has mixed hopes for 2021.
“I do think there is a tremendous opportunity for rural tourism. The effects of the pandemic are going to last for many years and that will mean more home-grown holidays. “The most exciting thing for us is a licence for a concert venue with a 5,000 capacity. This is going to give us great opportunities, and with the experience of Medicine, I hope we will be among the first to be pioneering post-Covid events.
“What has been disappointing was being refused planning permission for a £4m investment in a farm shop and restaurant for our farm, and 15-bedroom guesthouse. The planners need to help bring us out of the pandemic, and enabling positive rural enterprise should be a key part of government policy.”
Other projects Josh is involved in include Super DC, a vitamin drink designed to help keep your immune system topped up. He is also one of the founders of a software platform called Hostology, which aims to make managing events simpler for venues, which is “even more important in the age of Covid”. Regardless of what happens, businesses are going to have to adapt to win the confidence of the public and make them feel comfortable.
“One of the big trends you will see is how venues can keep that trust so clients feel able to come back and recommend them. But it needs to be done elegantly without giving the impression that you are obsessed with health and safety. Calm and confidence will be key, and good staff and training are essential.”
The CLA's work on weddings
The CLA sits on the UK Weddings Taskforce and has been supporting its work by lobbying MPs, calling for bespoke financial support for venues, a continuation of business rates relief and a re-insurance system back by government.