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 IVFDF 2006 - Cambridge

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Whither IVFDF ?

IVFDF’s problems are not new, but they have been getting worse in the 17 (consecutive) years in which I’ve attended.  I have attended the Reps Meeting for each of these festivals, and been on the organising committee of two of them.  The thoughts below are a personal reflection on a number of issues and some possible approaches to attack them.  The document is deliberately provocative and is intended to stimulate discussion at the IVFDF 2000 Reps Meeting in Glasgow.  I am grateful for discussions and comments from a number of IVFDF regulars which have informed this paper.  All mistakes remain my own.

A brief history / some background

The Inter Varsity Folk Dance Festival (IVFDF) started as a one day festival.  Over the past 50 years it has grown enormously.  Over the years a successful formula has been found, such that we now have a framework with about 80-90% of the format fairly similar between years, and 10-20% varying between years.  Each year’s event is stand alone, but continuity and expertise is passed down the years by the strong loyalty of those who have been involved in the organisation of past festivals. 

Information Point was set up after a year when the festival nearly failed disastrously due to booking meals which very few people turned up for.  Information Point’s role is two fold.  Firstly, to hold a separate fund of money which can be used to float two successive festivals should IVFDF fail; secondly to act as a contact point for advice and information to help those running IVFDF in a particular year.  Information Point is however barred by the IVFDF Constitution from being a member of any individual IVFDF committee.  This is to ensure the Information Point funds are kept separate from the budget of a particular festival.

The Reps Meeting is the IVFDF governing body.  Any folk dance society recognised and supported by a British University is a Member Society of IVFDF.  Each Member Society may send two voting representatives to a Reps Meeting.  Others may attend at the discretion of the Chair of the meeting, but without voting rights.  A Reps Meeting is held at each IVFDF to decide on future venues for IVFDF.  This is usually done by selecting between nominees to host IVFDF two years in advance, and confirming the next year’s appointment subject to the Reps meeting’s satisfaction that they have matters in hand. The Reps Meeting is responsible for deciding how much money Information Point needs to have and what to do about any surplus made by a particular festival.  On the recommendation of Reps Meeting, Information Point provides a loan which acts as a float for each festival to get started.  A Reps Meeting can also decide to allow a particular festival to make a loss through assigning Information Point funds to that festival.

IVFDF has strengths

There are many weekend folk festivals in the UK.  IVFDF is one of the few that stand out from the crowd.  It is unique both in moving location each year and in being a student folk festival.  One of  IVFDF’s main strengths is that has a constant infusion of new blood.  This is mainly due to the fact that it changes location each year; different people have their own ideas of what the festival should consist of.  It is also good that the festival changes location from another perspective - it is great to visit different cities and get a flavour of the folk styles in other parts of the UK.  For those of us who have been around a while, changing locations also gives potential organisers a well earned break before they need to consider hosting the event again.

However, IVFDF also has problems

Remarkably, there have been very few actual disasters.  However, it is fair to say that there have been lots of near misses.  IVFDF has lurched along a very wobbly and saggy tightrope for a number of years.   Each committee has stories to tell of ‘what might have been’!

Whilst IVFDF is highly marketable, it is becoming steadily more difficult to find volunteers willing to take the job of organising IVFDF and venues which are suitable in both size and price. 

IVFDF is a very high risk festival, both financially, and inasmuch as the way it is organised could mean that previous experience will not be passed on, or taken heed of (exacerbating the financial risk).  This level of risk is the reason why the Information Point exists - to have a fund of money which could be used to refloat the festival should it collapse; and as a source of experience to help with problems before they get out of hand.  That is all very well, but how can the risks of failure be reduced? 

Issues

Time-scales

IVFDF is a big event.  Given this, and the myriad of things which need to be organised, it really is best done with two years lead-in/set-up time.  Having done it with both one year and two years lead-in, I can state that two years is definitely better.  However, for students looking forward two years is a problem.  With a three year degree, and on the basis that someone will only go to their first IVFDF whilst a fresher, two years lead in means they are facing organising IVFDF while doing finals (the situation is not much better with four year Scottish degrees, most of which now have split finals).  Given the increased pressure of student life, both financially and in the job market, fewer students are willing to put themselves forward to run IVFDF.

Skills required

Without the continued commitment of ex-students the festival would not be viable.  This applies both to the income that their attendance generates, and to the expertise that they are able to offer; either in helping to organise the festival, or in running workshops or other events at little or no cost - effectively this is an in-kind donation to IVFDF.

In addition, to my mind it has now become a necessity for non-students to be involved in the organising committee. The level of skills and experience required to organise IVFDF these days is greater than it is reasonable to expect even the best students to have.  This year I’ve been able to call upon professional experience in negotiating and management which I certainly didn’t have when Chair of IVFDF in 1985 as a second year student.  From a student perspective IVFDF is a very big event to take on.  Who’d choose this big an event to organise as their first festival!

Financial constraints

There is potentially a personal financial risk to running IVFDF.  To put this in context, the cost of bands for the past several years has been £2000 - £3000.  Halls and janitorial overtime cost £3000 - £4000.  Add in other expenses, and the overall budget is £6000 - £9000.  I’m not a student anymore.  The prospect of this sort of financial risk doesn’t worry me greatly, though I’d feel strongly if I was called upon to honour it as a personal debt.  However, should the festival fail, as a wage-earner I could meet this cost without going bankrupt.  I doubt the same is true of most students. 

IVFDF operates on a knife-edge budget, and with a financial profile that commercially would be regarded as very high risk. At the time this paper was written (three weeks before IVFDF 2000), the number of applications for tickets had just reached double figures.  This is a massive cashflow problem.  In 2000 five of us have made a committment to an interest free loan of £500 each (2,500 total) in order to ensure that cheques do not bounce.  If I was in charge of this event professionally I would have already  cancelled it!  The late booking syndrome happens every year; there is no sane reason why it has to.  Please, book early and book often. 

Venues

As Student Unions become more commercialised, and buildings are physically changed, it has become more difficult to find venues which can physically take IVFDF and can be hired at a cost which is within IVFDF’s budget.  This is not going to get any better over the next decade. 

Sleeping has been raised as an issue at every one of the 17 Reps Meetings I’ve attended.  Despite passing references about good behaviour between hosts, it is getting progressively more difficult to get permission to have people sleeping in Unions, or indeed elsewhere.  This is partly as result of more stringent fire regulations and health and safety legislation - it is more and more difficult to get those in charge of the venues to take the risk.  Edinburgh in 1986 had to arrange church halls at the last minute.  This year we only got permission to sleep in Glasgow Union at the end of January 2000!  IVFDF nearly got cancelled as a result.


Possible Ways Forward

How can these issues be tacked to ensure IVFDF is able to continue for another 50 years and beyond?  The thoughts below are not exclusive.  I am convinced that change is required.  If we don’t start to tackle these issues now I predict IVFDF will fail sometime in the next decade.

Change locations

As venues, Universities are getting steadily worse.  A couple of years ago I was sufficiently concerned that no one would come forward to take the festival on that I made investigations about hiring a school in Cumbria to host the event.  Schools are increasingly a better bet due to the availability of sufficiently large halls, parking, workshop venues, showers and potential sleeping accommodation all on one site.  It is no co-incidence that a number of other festivals are based at schools.  We need to give serious consideration to where IVFDF is held.

Does IVFDF need to be hosted in a University town or city ?

Historically, its the way its been done up to now.  I’m not convinced it is necessary any longer, and indeed, given the venue constraints mentioned above, it may be an artificial constraint.  A non-city location is likely to be cheaper.

Up ticket prices substantially / change the pricing structure

Ticket prices have crept up over the past few years, but only slowly.  At Sheffield in 1998 the price of tickets was only 20% greater than it had been the previous time they hosted IVFDF (in 1993).  However, venue prices had risen by 100% in the same time period.  The folk world is regarded as cheap entertainment.  Whilst recognising the substantial travel costs incurred by most of those who attend and that many people are not willing to pay costs which are regarded in other entertainment spheres as normal, it is fair to say that, given the prices paid for other entertainment by both students and non students, even by the folk world’s standards IVFDF is exceptional value for money.

The job of organising the festival would be substantially easier if the income was greater and if money came in sooner.  It would enable organisers to operate in the real world rather than having to continually beg favours and trim corners.  This could be achieved by making prices more realistic, and/or by creating an incentive to book early by a price increase for those who book late (e.g. after Christmas). I anticipate that ticket prices will need to rise substantially within 3-5 years to meet the increased costs of running the festival.

Charities and companies

There may be some benefit in making IVFDF a charity.  For example, it opens up sources of funding which do not exist for non-charities.  There are problems in being a charity too.  Trustees for a charity have only limited freedom to act and must comply strictly with the articles of association of the organisation.  If we wish to follow this course we would do well to learn from the experience of other organisations which have become charities (such as the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society).  It is worth noting that the regulation of charities is different north and south of the border.  A major issue would be how IVFDF might deal with profits or losses of individual festivals.

The most important benefit of a limited company is that it restricts the financial risk for the individuals responsible for organising IVFDF to a set amount - for example £1.  The moral debt is however much greater than this.  IVFDF 2000 has been both a Scottish Charity and a Limited Company.  Overall this has been a positive experience. 

If we follow either the model of a company or of a charity, we are probably talking about setting up an umbrella organisation which then franchises the use of the IVFDF name to individual festivals.  In either case more stringent control of each IVFDF is likely to be necessary to comply with charity and company law. 

Become a membership organisation - share the risks & benefits

Another way of reducing a risk is to share it.  Is it worth becoming a membership organisation of some sort ?  Benefits might include cash in hand earlier in the year, or to help to guarantee the success of the festival through underwriting the festival by say a tenner a head.

Roles of Information Point

Information Point has two main roles: holding the separate account to fund a re-float of the festival if it should fail, and provision of advice on running the festival.  As a result of holding the separate account Information Point is restricted by the IVFDF constitution from being involved in hosting an IVFDF.  This means that information is not shared as actively as would perhaps be ideal.  It may be worth considering splitting the Information Point roles so that a more active advice role can be taken.  Indeed, it may be worth having a panel of people with IVFDF experience who could be called upon to provide advice in different areas of the country, or on different subjects.

Regionalisation / Rota

IVFDF 2000 has been organised by a group of Universities from Scotland.  Is this a model which could influence others to offer to host IVFDF?  Would small groups who individually feel they could not host the festival feel more able to do so if they worked together ? 

One of the benefits of changing location for the festival is that every few years the travel costs are reduced for individuals or members societies.  Whilst it is probably not wise to be prescriptive, it may be worth thinking further ahead than two years on who should organise IVFDF.

‘How To’ manual

A good deal of experience has been built up over the years in how to run IVFDF.  There used to be a ‘Hints for Hosting’ document, but this fell out of use as the situation for running IVFDF was changing so fast that it needed to be revised too frequently for it to be of use.  In addition, at the time it fell out of use a number of festivals were run where there was a lot of experience available.  A new document which gives tips of the things to look out for would I think be seen as constructive help; and might help those who feel they have less experience of IVFDF to be more confident about offering to host the event.  An starting point for creating such a document might be the risk analysis that IVFDF 2000 undertook to identify potential problems and ways of addressing them.

Proposal

These are issues which require more and deeper thought than is possible in the time available within a Reps meeting.  I therefore propose:

  1. Information Point is mandated to convene one or two workshops before Christmas 2000 at which member societies and interested individuals who have attended at least one IVFDF in the past five years can consider these and related issues, determine options and make proposals; 
  2. A report of the workshop(s) is circulated to all member societies before IVFDF 2001, with if considered fit, suggestions for constitutional change;
  3. Information Point be mandated to spend such funds as seem reasonable but not excessive to implement points one and two above, such funds to be accounted for at the IVFDF 2001 Reps meeting;
  4. The Reps meeting in 2001 should consider these issues, including adopting or rejecting recommendations which may be made by the workshop(s).

I am prepared to help organise these workshops.  Provided they are of moderate size, I am also willing to offer to host them (Peterborough is relatively central in the country and has good road and rail links).  I suggest suitable times of year to hold these meetings would be late June / early July and late September / early October.

© James Williams 2000

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