You, me, a ton of #eventprofs and anyone in the broader entertainment world have been glued to our screens recently watching Netflix’s latest contribution to the ever-hot documentaries sector.
And boy, was I hooked.
Hooked in a car-crash kinda way, to be honest. The lack of strategic planning. The cavalier approach to basic health and safety, risk assessment, insurance and all the other dull stuff that underpins good event management. The lack of… honesty. The naïve employees falling for Billy McFarland’s shpeil. Billy loves throwing a party (more than he loves integrity) – he’s hardly ever shown without a bottle of beer in his hand.
He’s the worse-case scenario: six years in prison for wire fraud. Sure, he had “a dream”, “a vision”. Sure, he was a “problem-solver” just in a slightly sociopathic way. On what planet of craziness did he really think it would be ok? And why did nearly all the people around him not abandon the clearly sinking Ponzi Scheme of a ship? But what struck me was what we can learn.
Before I start, who am I? An eventprof with 25+ years’ experience, together with my team, I have produced, curated and convened events, largely business, ranging from the International Coffee Congress, medico-legal summits, corporate events for financial institutions to tech events for Martha Lane Fox’s Doteveryone, The Open Data Institute and Tech Talent Charter. I’ve run events in EMEA (UK, Europe, Middle East) and US, and volunteered with an educational festival for 2,500+ attendees. I’m a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster in Event Management (and yes, this will be a great student case study) and I frankly felt physically sick watching this disasterous car crash of film.
So, what can we learn?
1. Have an objective (strategy)
Every event starts with the change you’re trying to make or the outcoming you’re intending to achieve. Events without purpose largely disappoint.
We spend a *lot* of time with clients at the engagement stage iterating and understanding exactly what they want to achieve. After establishing who the real event stakeholders are – an art in itself – we then play the vision and objectives back to check-in we’re all traveling in the same direction.
Fyre was different – Billy McFarland had a “vision” for a big blowsy influencer-led party – but what was its purpose? To market the app? To generate funds for Magnisis (his poorly-spelled membership club – should have been Magnesis). To enter the Coachella / Burning Man space? Who knows.
Fyre started out as a booking platform for celebrities and talent, and the festival was seemingly a “promotional event” – at a scale that in no way related to the turnover over the tech at the time. Promotional events like this are typically partner-led – someone underwrites the event to a tune of a few hundred thousand or a few million pounds, lead sponsor, and you’re in business. This was completely arse-about-face.
Although Billy appears to be an upbeat, magnetic character adept at bringing on partners and getting people in his team to do frankly remarkably shocking things in the name of taking one for the team (no spoilers here, in case you haven’t seen it yet), there’s no clear articulation of the purpose of Fyre other than being an expensive party for customers expecting a luxury, Instagram-able experience – which they kinda got, just not in a good way.
Learning: Obvious, I know – know what you’re doing. Start with the end in mind.
2. Write a budget / know the business model (financial management and project planning)
Fyre’s budgeting was somewhere on the comic to crazy continuum. My background in the commercial events industry means I’m pretty adept at reading an event’s business model fairly quickly. The surprising (aka shocking) thing about Fyre is that there didn’t seem to *be* a business model – just a constant stream of bringing in more income to cover the spiralling costs. Was it meant to break even? Create a profit? Who knows.
Kinda reminded me of when I was SVP Events for the Industry Standard Magazine just before the dot-com bust – we were writing about companies with crazy valuations and no business model, and then our business model would change while I went out for a sandwich / the bottom dropped out of the print ad-sales market.
The business model is basically a pyramid scheme – selling more fake services (villas that don’t exist), getting investors to put more money in, or customers to load a total of $500,000 onto their cashless wristbands
Southpark’s Underpant Gnomes, anyone?
Learning: make sure the numbers add up *before* you start. Anything. Build in some contingency.
3. Leadtime, leadtime, leadtime (planning)
Big events / big budgets. Huge events – long lead-times. Like minimum 18 months, I would suggest. In choosing (after a late change from Norman’s Cay, a small private island in the Exuma chain) Great Exuma, a beautiful Bahamian island, but selecting an undeveloped subdivision community in Roker’s Point with limited infrastructure and no drinkable water created planning issues that required time and money to resolve – neither of which they had, despite Billy continually throwing money at the problem.
It’s a truism that events of this scale needs time to execute well. If we’re planning a UK or European conference for +/- 1,000 participants, we’ll plan a year ahead. Once you’ve got a lead time, you can plan the project; milestones, resources, budget, people. The Fyre team appeared to have +/- 5 months
Learning: good planning doesn’t show and makes it look effortless. It isn’t.
4. Trust your team (people)
Events are the result of phenomenal teamwork. When you invest in hiring the right people with the right mix of experience, creativity and can-do attitude, some kind of magic happens. Creating an event is a little like producing a film: you bring together a diverse team for an intense period of time and with the right leadership, planning, communication and creative vision a purposeful, memorable experience is created.
If you hire and fire people apparently at whim, and don’t trust your team when they share their experience, insight and perspective, and tell them “We’re not a problems-focused group, we’re a solutions-oriented group, we need to have a positive attitude about this,” as Billy did to team member Marc Weinstein, you’re unlikely to get results. It’s also got to be said that most of the team appeared to have Stockholm Syndrome: they asked some questions, sure, but all carried on knowing the ship was going to capsize.
Learning: hire great people, give them a clear direction and let them do their jobs.
5. Don’t get hung up by the celebrities (stupidity)
The event’s for the Insta generation – check. A combination of influencers, celebrities and brands is what works for events of this type – check. Be inside your market rather than perceived as an external player – check. But don’t get so carried away with the shiny models, speedboats and beaches – as one person said on the documentary, “shooting the ad was the real Fyre Festival experience” – that you don’t deliver. Although the ad looks remarkably like this Generic Millennials Ad from Dissolve.
This brings up bigger issues: there’s an increasing scepticism filter among the media-savvy millennial generation – how long will the influencer model last? Aren’t people interested in engaging organically, with authentic relationships rather than being sold something that is transparently faked for marketing purposes?
Learning: Don’t get carried away or do anything stupid.
6. Don’t believe your own hype (marketing)
The best thing about Fyre – unequivocally – was the marketing. The orange tile branding, the brand visual language, the bottomless spend on influencer marketing, the copy – was excellent. Sure, it met the creative brief of a “visionary” but wasn’t underpinned by any real numbers. There may be a case for spending $250,000 on one Instagram post from Kylie Jenner if you’re a global consumer brand with a strategic plan and bottomless pockets – but without a marketing plan, budget and expectation of ROI, it’s looks like just throwing money at millennials to see what sticks.
The best marketing looks easy but is underpinned by a marketing strategy and tactical plan, a ton of google sheets (at the very least, if you don’t have you own bespoke marketing system) and a playbook of processes that outline the brand, its purpose, tone of voice, what’s OK, what’s not OK.
Like it’s not OK to sign a location agreement with Norman’s Cay (small private island) saying you won’t mention the island was formerly owned by (Colombian drug lord) Pablo Escobar and then post your sales video highlighting this very point. Of course your venue / island will be pissed off. Fyre seems like a runaway train with no grown-ups on board to check-in on what’s going out.
Learning: have a plan. A marketing plan. Give your marketeers clear objectives and stick to it (am I getting a bit broken-record?) Flexibility and market-responsiveness is required, but don’t start clueless and just throw your money around.
7. Sort the logistics (operations)
What can I saw about operations? Watching this documentary took my two steps closer to having a heart attack – like every #eventprof I know, the events I work on with my team are meticulously planned and executed, and watching the outrageous chaos of buying $2m of booze but forgetting to calculate the sales tax, shipping in hundreds of portaloos at the last minute, the lack of accommodation, the cheese sandwich that had its own 15 minutes of fame… basically not delivering what you promised (luxury villas / private jets / cordon bleu food) is more than unforgiveable. Also, two transformative weekends in this immersive festival? Sounds like a recipe for disaster before you even start.
I saw that Billy’s suppliers / freelancers / contractors were sending him emails telling him what was likely to happen, but no real action was taken – the whole team knew they were driving blindfolded up a one-way street towards an upcoming juggernaut but it had its own momentum and no-one could stop it.
Learning: have some logistics. Believe the professionals about what’s doable. CARE.
8. Think about the what-ifs (risk management)
Maybe it’s because I’ve been burned (that’s a story for another time about losing my venue 2 days before an international confex for +/- 1,000 people in the games industry), but my team are obsessive about risk assessment, what-ifs, backup plans, worse-case scenarios.
This is the boring under-the-hood stuff, but oh it’s important. Crisis management plan. Event insurance. Health and safety risk assessments. Reading the small print. This is the unsexy side of event management but boy does it matter. The Fyre team – lead by Billy MacFarland had a shocking disregard for the details and ultimately the attendees safety and well-being (let alone delivering what they’d paid for) and I found myself hyperventilating while watching.
Learning: have a plan B. And have insurance.
9. Work with your partners (sales and partnerships)
When my team works on commercial events, we have a clear strategy. We know what the benefits are to partners and sponsors – sure, we’re open to creating bespoke partnership packages to meet specific objectives, and of course we want to ensure that our sponsors get value out of the event, but we don’t just keep going back for more money.
While I see that Billy thought he was in the “startup space” and saw his sponsors as investors in his brilliant (aka unhinged) idea, they were clearly never going to get any value out of their spend. The sales pitch meeting smelled an awful lot like the Emperor’s New Clothes – or sitting in with Bernie Madoff while he told you what you probably wanted to hear.
Learning: know what you’re selling and make sure it has genuine value
10. Look after your guests (customer service)
At a time when the experience in the live event is everything, where every agency under the sun is extolling the virtue of “experiential events”, aside from engaging and exciting your guests, you have to actually look after them. Seeing footage of hundreds of millennials scrabbling for their identical black carry-on cabin baggage, as it was thrown out of a van in the dark was appalling. There was a total disregard for basic human dignity – soaking wet beds in half-built tents, and the respect accorded to attendees was shocking.
Learning: the customer isn’t a moron, they’re your best friend / sister / someone with a 1m+ followers on Twitter.
This over-promise massively under-deliver scenario isn’t a one off – I suspect that the Fyre Festival will go down as one of the great frauds of our time. At a more mundane level, only this week we learned of the anger of parents at Fortnite Live in Norwich – the unofficial “Fortnite event of the year”, organised by Exciting Events – complaining of lengthy queues and massively underwhelming attractions – the cave experience was “a trailer, no bigger than a car, with a tunnel through it.” While Exciting Events don’t appear to have put their attendees in danger, they are being sued by US-based Epic Games, who have issued a claim against the organisers in London’s High Court (see Lesson 8: have insurance).
I wonder if the increasing automation, ease-of-access and lack of barriers to entry, combined with a copy style for tech products focused on “how easy” everything is, encourages people to feel that it’s super simple to launch an event. Get your designer friend / someone on Fiverr to create a brand, throw up a Squarespace website, hook up your Hubspot or Marketo marketing automation and sign up to Eventbrite for registrations and you’re in business.
Or not. Aside from that fact that Billy McFarland is a convicted fraudster having to pay $26million in restitution (and while waiting for sentencing for the Fyre fraud he starts selling fake tickets to Burning Man and other events), there’s a lesson for all of us. Delivering impactful events need hard work and expertise, combined with creativity and vision and reinforced by seamless operations. But we knew that already, right? The team, partners and investors for Fyre Festival all exhibited the same Pavolvian response, Billy did something that made them carry on, unquestionably. Maybe the real lesson is that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.