11 October 2019

Folk Festival looks to commercial partnerships to secure future

| Ian Bushnell
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Helen Roben

New managing director of the National Folk Festival Helen Roben will be reaching out to Canberra businesses. Photo: Michelle Kroll, Region Media.

The National Folk Festival is set to announce the first of what it hopes will be a number of major commercial partnerships for next year’s event as it looks to diversify its income streams to keep ticket costs down and provide a sustainable financial base into the future.

New managing director Helen Roben says signing sponsors and event partners is high on her to-do list, along with ramping up marketing for the event that takes place at Exhibition Park across five days every Easter.

In a nod to how the National Folk Festival has grown, her role is newly created. Long-time festival director Pam Merrigan is now focusing solely on securing talent from overseas and across Australia for the festival bill in her new role as Artistic Director.

The first artists signed for 2020 will be announced next month and Ms Roben is promising a bigger push this time around six months out from the festival to ensure more Canberrans and people in surrounding NSW are aware of what the event has to offer.

“While it has tremendous success in terms of its economic impact in Canberra, too many Canberrans don’t even know the festival exists,” she says.

Ms Roben has many years’ experience working in the not-for-profit sector at a corporate, financial and event management level. She also has a singing background. She believes many people perceive the festival as something that it’s not and that even its ‘big tent’ branding may not have sufficient recognition.

The sheer variety and diversity of activities at the festival and the elusive nature of what folk is makes it a challenging event to sell, she says, but that multi-faceted experience is also its point of difference.

From traditional folk to the emerging indie and roots music, and young musicians who are pushing the boundaries in terms of what folk means, as well as the poets, dance, stalls and underrated Kidsfest, there is a lot going on.

“It appeals to a lot of people. The challenge is getting that message out there that it does appeal to a lot of people, and there really is a good day of entertainment out there,” she says.

And those young musicians, who might be the next big thing and are attracting new audiences goers, are key to the future.

“The future of the folk festival is very heavily aligned with that whole new wave of folk festival goer and broadening what folk means,” she says.

“That’s our challenge – getting younger people through the gate and really driving through what is new folk and what it means to them.”

The National Folk Festival

The National Folk Festival is music to the ACT economy. Photo: Photox – Canberra Photography Services.

The National Folk Festival is now a multi-million dollar business that pulls 50,000 people through the gates every Easter. It operates in a very different cost and regulatory environment from when it began 50 years.

Ms Roben says keeping a rein on costs, as well as ticket prices and creating new revenue opportunities, was crucial to securing the festival’s future.

“We need to be able to pay to run the festival,” she says. “Given the rise in our actual costs to put on the event we don’t pass a lot of that on to our festival goers. We try to absorb as much as we can internally.

“I’m focusing on building sponsorships and partnerships and looking at alternative streams to bring in revenue so we don’t have to pass on that rise in costs. We’re very much wanting to focus on local businesses to partner with.

“We need to be able to run a successful event where we’re making sufficient income that we can inject back into the organisation, so our festivals are sustainable long term, and we’re in a position where we can bring in really good quality artists, because we’ve got the funding to do so.”

She says previous the benefits of previous sponsorships in recent years had waned and new deals are needed to take the Festival forward.

But Ms Roben recognises that many Festival loyalists fear the event may lose its character and culture if it gets too big, too organised or too corporate.

“There is absolutely a strong core idea of what folk is and a strong folk community. We must never lose sight of who they are and what that is,” she says.

“It’s a double-edged sword. We need to look after the festival base we have, but it’s all about that succession plan and building the next wave of festival-goers and giving them a program as well.”

And while it might not be a glamorous topic, work health and safety is also crucial for an event of this size.

“Our responsibility of simply putting on the event and making sure that we provide a safe environment for everyone who attends is becoming far greater to manage than what the expectation was 50 years ago when the festival began,” she says.

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Alienate it’s old folksies eg?

Be careful what you wish for. I rather go to the smaller ones.

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