What is a festival?

How can a science event be a festival?  This is a question which I’m asked quite frequently.

The answer is what do you think a festival is? Usually the reply is based around a music festival such as Glastonbury, Reading Festival or even Burning Man out in the desert in the USA (which I don’t mind admitting, I’d jump at the chance to attend!)  But this, although being the most popular type at the moment, isn’t what a festival is.  If we take a look at the two most common definitions which appear on my screen as I search for a definition, the first is:

“a day or period of celebration, typically for religious reasons.” OK so it may be “typically for religious reasons” but not always. I like the “day or period of celebration” part really, as that leaves it wide open for any type of event….. Even science!

The next is from the Cambridge Dictionary, who define it as:

“a special day or period, usually in memory of a religious event, with it’s own social activities, food, or ceremonies.”

I feel that this one sums it up a bit better, activities, food and ceremonies do feature in a science festival, albeit awards ceremonies.

tent stalls at festival

To be fair, we do actually have quite a bit in common with music festivals too, we have to manage parking, have marquees erected long beforee the event, so the exhibitors have plenty of time to install their stands, stalls and exhibitions.  We also have to feed and water a small army of staff and volunteers in adition to all the guests. Of course the biggest task is organising the acts and speakers in the main marquees. Lastly, we have to clear up again after everyone has gone, then it’s time to start planning forr next year. Pheww, I’m exhaustedd just thinking about it!

Of course, certain aspects of the event just need to be booked and paid for, but for example, the marquee hire company bring everything they need with them, including a small army of men to put the marquees up and take them away at the end of the event. They are usually the first people on site and the last, so it’s vital to have a company big enough to provide a number of marquees of the right size and put them up and down in a timely manner. I’ve learnt over the years, theres a big difference between marquees and tents!

marquee set up ready for event

Likewise the catering can be simple if you book food vans for the general public, they can also feed the staff on site for the event.  The problem here is that this gets very expensive, even with preferential rates, say £5 per person, per meal, with 100 people to feed 3 times a day, over a 3 day event.  So we usually use the in house catering at the venue, usually being a university, or college for around half this price.

The other similarity which springs to mind is the promotion of the festival, it’s all well and good having your marquees up, bands or speakers booked and staff, but you need people to turn up! It’s not like a wedding or private party where you invite people and they tend to come, when you’re selling tickets you need to adveertise and promote the event.

So, after all that, yes we are a festival.

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