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Festival season is lucrative for small traders

Festival season is lucrative for small traders

With visitors ready to spend hundreds, food trucks and small brands can make large sums from the summer’s events calendar

Festival goers enjoying the sun at Glastonbury.
 Festival goers enjoying the sun at Glastonbury. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Image

Glastonbury, the world’s biggest greenfield music festival, kicks off this week and 200,000 people are expected to pass through its gates. In between Kanye West and Florence and the Machine, visitors will flock to food trucks and portable pubs, with around 500 traders due to set up stall on the festival site and more than 100 licensed premises.

These small businesses have a captive audience. Each visitor spent more than £466 on average at independent music festivals in 2014 (including the ticket price), according to research from the Association of Independent Music Festivals (AIF).

The festival season is a huge marketing opportunity, too, and can provide a launch pad for small businesses. Cult London restaurant MEATliquor, for example, was first sampled at festivals. Paul Reed, general manager at AIF, says: “A presence at festivals can greatly enhance your brand. It isn’t just a bunch of stalls burning incense now as it was in the mid-nineties.”

Chunky Chips,Wicked Dips is one small business that has been increasing its festival appearances year-on-year. Steve Lavell and Jono Rich started the business six years ago while struggling to find jobs after university. Since then, they’ve picked up slots at nearly every festival, including Glastonbury, Secret Garden PartyBestival on the Isle of Wight, and Reading. Lavell says: “Word spreads rapidly at festivals and we get return custom.”

Lavell admits it can be tough to get into bigger festivals as a small trader – to win a pitch at Glastonbury they were competing with 3000 other enterprises. Selling at festivals isn’t cheap, either. It cost £10,000 for their pitch at Latitude, which had to be paid several months in advance. But the £19,000 made in sales alleviated the cost.

The pitching process for most festivals begins the previous autumn. Lavell says their festival calendar starts in October, when the Glastonbury online applications open (they close in December). Most festival applications shut by March, with around a month for the selected businesses to complete the documentation and pay for the pitch. For Glastonbury this is sped up, with a week’s turnaround.

Organising stock is another thing to consider. Chunky Chips, Wicked Dips have all stock delivered to the site on the first day and store it in vans. At Glastonbury, they’ve got two, which are big enough to hold all the ingredients for the four days. By trial and error, Lavell and Rich have a good idea of how much they’ll sell and rarely have stock left over.

Lavell says: “We have a small menu, which makes it easier to feed the masses. It’s about getting a happy medium of quantity and quality.”

Lavell reckons Bestival is the most profitable festival for his business. “It’s the most fun to sell at,” he adds. This year, Bestival has chosen Chunky Chips, Wicked Dips as one of a small number of traders organisers expect to earn the most. This means Lavell and Rich will be given pitches in the most popular areas of the site. As part of this arrangement, the organisers take a 28% cut of the business profits. Lavell says they are happy with this, given the better chance of sales. Typically, the cut taken by festival organisers ranges from 25-30%.

With this in mind, they have to keep tight tabs on their annual budget, with most of the earnings coming in over the summer and pitch fees paid well in advance. But, they also sell at winter events. Last year they won a contract to sell at a fireworks display at Alexandra Palace as well as darts and ice rink events.

A traditional pitch isn’t the only way to catch the attention of festival goers. There are other marketing opportunities for canny entrepreneurs.

women at festival
One option is to become a sponsor of a festival, or one aspect of it. Cosmetics brand MOA, which sells herbal skin care products, has teamed up with Wild Wellbeing, which runs massage stalls at festivals. Wild Wellbeing used MOA’s products in the massages, promoting them to its customers.

MOA is sponsoring all Wild Wellbeing’s on-site massages at Green Man festival this year. It’s also the first time MOA staff have a pitch to sell products from. To encourage passers by to make a pit stop, they’ll be offering craft activities, such as making flower headbands.

Charlie Fowler, creative and managing director at MOA, says: “We’re quite a niche brand – but we find the right type of customer at festivals.” She says it is hard to judge benefit of festivals in terms of sales, but thinks it helps to build MOA’s image. “People reach out to us after they’ve seen the brand at a particular festival,” she says.

Reed says independent festivals, such as Green Man, allow small business to be creative in their promotional approach. “The best kind of marketing doesn’t feel at all like marketing,” he adds. “I’m not sure that such partnerships would be as possible at huge commercial events.”

However, Reed points out that 30% of festival-goers in 2014 were 17-24 years old, so visitors’ age and spending power should be considered before signing up.

Barry Tiffen has 25 years of experience of selling at festivals with his vegetarian food stall, Goodness Gracious Healthy Foods, which was named concession of the year at the UK Festival Awards last year. He says bigger festivals are less worthwhile for traders, with the exception of Glastonbury. “You can make a good living [there]. It attracts middle class people who have money to spend and there’s an range of age groups.” He says this is preferable to the younger demographic of Reading or Leeds, who tend to skimp on healthy food.

Reed agrees: “It’s not necessarily a numbers game in terms of footfall. That doesn’t matter if everyone is walking past your stall but not engaging. Its about reaching the right audience.”

Fowler thinks targeting such customers helps to boost MOA’s online profile. “It’s really effective in terms of social returns. When someone meets you, or encounters your product at a festival, they might ‘like’ you on Facebook, or interact with you on Twitter. It helps to build relationship with our customers. And we have some good reviews on our website through festivals.”

While festivals can be a marketing boon, they require a lot of organisation and there are nitty gritty aspects to take into account, including health and safety regulations.

Reed says: “It’s important for organisers to have all of their licensing requirements, insurance and health and safety procedures in place.” He adds that, for food traders, the caterers association (NCASS) has launched an onlinehub demonstrating due diligence and documentation. “There isn’t something similar for non-food traders, but there should be,” he adds. “It’s something we are looking at.”

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