Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A Backstage Pass to the Hay Festival...

“Imagine the World” proclaims the Hay Festival strapline. It is an imagination borne out of the writings, thoughts, ideas and philosophies of authors and speakers, which never fails to inspire and entertain. And to provoke thought. One aspect of imagination though which gets little coverage during the event, is the creation of the festival site itself. In the five weeks leading up to the opening, a grassland field is transformed into a tented village, replete with marquees and carpeted boardwalks. Where Friesian cows once grazed, lively audiences now break out into applause and laughter. It is truly a staggering metamorphosis. Passing by the site on a November morning many years ago generated a sense of disbelief, in that a place which had created so much energy and emotion a few short months before had simply vanished. It was quite a surreal experience and has stayed with me. It was almost a magical moment. But evidence that human imagination can work in many different ways to inspire and create.

 Ten days before the Festival opens technical staff move in to set up power supplies and sound systems. During the event itself all technical responsibilities are shouldered by one full time member of staff, with further support provided by 60 temporary workers. This mix of full time and short term paid staff together with a small army of volunteers is characteristic of the staffing profile at Hay……across most departments. University interns are also extensively used too. Within “commercial” areas though (food outlets; retailing/merchandising areas) staff are on hourly paid contracts and tend to return each year like migrating swallows, drawn by the lure of not just financial gain, but also by the buzz of working within a stimulating environment. As one employee put it, “it sort of gets into your bloodstream”. The short term paid staff at the Hay Festival Bookshop for instance work on average for 4 weeks. Two weeks is spent setting up the bookshop before the event opens with the remainder of the time spent working during the Festival itself. Some staff take annual leave from full time jobs “in the outside world”, simply to enjoy working within a festival which embraces a lifetime passion. Not unlike other hobbies and interests, literature is like that.

Cancellation of the proposed Bank Holiday rail strike brought gasps of relief to the Festival “drivers”, who occupy much of their time collecting and returning visiting speakers from and to Hereford railway station. This transport interchange plays an important, yet understated role in the success of the Festival. As so many luminaries travel by train, using the time no doubt to perfect their lines, any industrial action would have caused much disruption. The announcement transformed moods and led to the abandonment of contingency planning schedules. Dining Room talk amongst the drivers was now less about improved Network Rail pay offers but more about the Lords Test Match (well, England for once were playing well). This group of backstage workers are always good value to have lunch with, reciting and replaying shared car journey conversations with the great and the good. Nothing like an insider view or some hot gossip to accompany the midday ham sandwich! Much as though I would like to relate some of these anecdotes to you, my knowledge of litigation prevents that!

The focal point for all staff working at Hay is the staff dining area. It is a haven of relative tranquillity away from the “madding crowds”; a social hub where talk is invariably about speakers and talks. The standard of food is exceptionally good and meal vouchers are gratefully exchanged for breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Perhaps it is something about the effects of fresh air, or working outdoors, but food consumption seems particularly high. Do people usually eat this much during their normal lives? It is yet another happening at Hay that provokes a thought. Without doubt it is a most popular venue and the atmosphere within is always upbeat. Food production operations are managed by “Colin” – and have been for the past 27 years. He is as much a fixture at this event as the Florence family and may euphemistically be termed a character. His undoubted culinary talents and experience are matched by a colourful personality which echo loudly within the tent. He and his small team will serve 8,000 staff meals during the course of the event. For the statistically minded six tonnes of food will be ordered to meet this demand, all from local suppliers. The catering operation in itself is quite some accomplishment.

Management of food waste, emanating from both the tented staff canteen - and from the main festival site is a major logistical exercise. It falls under the remit of the Hay on Earth environmental programme, which covers a number of sustainable festival operations. The eight strong Waste Disposal team on site will be taking 9 tonnes of food to compost and will be collecting for recycling purpose, 6 tonnes of cardboard, 4 tonnes of glass and 4 tonnes of dry mixed recyclables. The figures in themselves reflect the magnitude of the festival and reflect in real terms the tangible impacts of 200,000 ticket holders. In their green uniforms (no surprise there) the team are a constant feature of the site, always working stealthily to keep public areas clean and pristine. Not unlike visitor management duties carried out by festival stewards, it is the understated nature of these type of duties which enhance the visitor experience.

Feedback from Hay 2015 has been particularly positive. The weather played its part with minimal rainfall, so wellingtons were a rare sight. It was correspondingly therefore a bad year for deckchairs as they were used so much. Free ticketing for school children proved to be a popular draw judging by the combined attendance of 5,500 over the two days. Much comment was also received about the site layout which in floor area terms was slightly bigger than 2014, providing more space for eating/drinking; for entry and exit points into venues - and for general access around the site. Again issues and developments relating to managing the visitor experience.

Driving away for the last time from this delightful part of East Wales, I played my usual game of selecting personal highlights; speakers and performances for instance, or shared conversations, moments of humour perhaps? The irony of a talk about the English and their history being delivered on the Wales stage, or endless political reflections about social welfare cuts and austerity taking place within the Daily Telegraph Tent both made me smile…or was it something completely different? Something over and above such things? Well this year it was. With profuse apologies to the stellar celebrities, my selection surprisingly related to a design highlight that consistently influenced the festival atmosphere...wider boardwalks! Their introduction had a marked impact. From a backstage perspective, easier visitor mobility around the site led to reduced congestion and happier visitors, which just goes to prove once again the disproportionate effect that small changes can have upon raising levels of enjoyment. 

That’s it for another year. Well at least in Wales. Another Hay Festival will take place in Ireland at the end of June and then subsequently across other continents. Time enough yet to organise a few more backstage passes!   

Andrew Campbell

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