If you have worked in the events industry, you are likely privy to the fact that festivals do not pop up overnight, that they require substantial planning ahead of time, and that things going wrong on the day are a complete given. Even events industry veterans, with the most professional and experienced team possible, attest that a multitude of issues is likely to occur as a result of human error, or despite a team’s own professional experience. In fact, it would be foolish to imagine that nothing could possibly go wrong at some stage across a 3–5-day event, especially if your festival is Open Air (outdoors). For this reason, we’re going to dive into how to organise an accessible music festival.
You might be aware that a festival often lives or dies based on the reception of those that attend it and having just one element out of place that attendees badly respond to, can have a detrimental effect on the reputation of your brand, and subsequent festivals under the same name. So, providing appropriate sound equipment, stages, food stalls, merchandise shops, lavatories, camping areas, security, parking, and medical staff, are all essential.
There are many other areas to consider beyond what we just listed, but accessibility is probably the most important, though often the most dismissed by festival organisers historically. On the contrary, there are so many reasons that accessibility is a make-or-break element of your festival, especially in the market today, where companies are more frequently tarnished by news stories detailing scenarios of public disgust to their service, whether by a disabled person themselves, or a disability rights advocate. Whether you like it or not, these situations can influence your organisation’s image in the public eye through social media, or even traditional press. And there is nowhere more likely for this kind of controversy to occur than an event that people want to attend in order to have Fun. However, we must not treat accessibility as another, or like a burden. In fact, when we consider the full scope of what accessibility can achieve for your event it is neither a financial liability nor especially difficult to implement, in comparison to when you ignore accessibility during the planning stages of your festival. In fact, summarising the full-scale benefits of accessibility in just one blog would be an incredibly difficult task.
Taken simply as a concept, accessibility means, broadly, the idea of making the breadth of your events’ experience available to as many people as possible. Nobody would argue this as a negative, especially from a financial perspective, as festivals are there to bring people together through the power of shared interests, and welcoming that community is the key to getting fans to spend time and money at your event. Acknowledging that disabled people are not only part of the community but may want to attend concerts to see their favourite band, is the first step to creating an accessible festival. Though more than often, event organisers ignore the needs of their own audience, due to a lack of knowledge, or overestimating the costs of providing accessibility. In this blog, we will break down some of the key things to consider for disabled people when organising a festival.
At Direct Access, we understand the range of requirements by law (Equality Act 2010) for outdoor public events, as well as the disruptions and potential dangers for not only disabled patrons but also general attendees. These include preparing for unexpected weather conditions affecting terrain, creating quiet camping/rest areas, setting up food stalls that cater to a range of dietary requirements, providing appropriate signage or warning for intense light shows, offering accessible routes from car parks, and building at least one disabled entrance to key areas of the site such as arenas or camping areas. This might sound like a lot of work, but the truth is that these things ultimately benefit everyone and not just a niche of disabled people. In the eyes of modern festivalgoers, these are all merely hallmarks of a quality event.
Although we just listed a small handful of a wide range of requirements, it is important to also be mindful of the many rewards that come from providing an inclusive experience for disabled people. Not only can your festival be leading within your industry by ensuring participation for everyone, but your festival would automatically become a promoter of accessibility through your actions, which can only benefit your brand long-term as a trusted event. Influencing other organisations through your own actions helps you stand out from the competition to an audience that not only wants and has the intrinsic right to experience life as risk-free as non-disabled people but opens your event to the incredible financial power of an untapped audience. Accessibility will also make your event stand out within the events industry and allow you to attract talent both from an organisational perspective, as well as artists that are mindful of the experience of their audience.
It is vital that the second thing you consider after acknowledging the existence of disabled concertgoers, is bringing in an accessibility consultancy team during the planning stages, as retroactively fixing accessibility issues after the fact is guaranteed to be more costly to your event than if you consulted an appropriate team from the beginning.
Before we get stuck into what you can physically do to increase accessibility, we must first dispel another myth; that accommodating disabled people is intrusive to the aesthetic of an event. This is a complete falsification driven by culture, and media presentations of disabled people, among other things. The reality, however, is that changes are often minimal in comparison to what a festival needs to change to a site in order to turn it into a festival, to begin with.
So, with all this in mind, what sort of things can be done to create inclusive and accessible festivals?
Choosing a suitable venue to build your event upon is the first step. It is crucial that access is a consideration when shopping around, so be prepared to scrutinise coordinators when visiting different venues. If there is no firm suitable ground for wheelchairs, for instance, it is your responsibility to facilitate it somehow. Other important considerations such as accessible toilets, accommodation, lighting options in campsites and on the stages, tarmacked parking areas, and accessible shuttle bus transportation to/at the festival should also be accounted for.
As music and food festivals tend to attract hundreds to thousands of people, it is important to consider the potential abilities of all of them. So, if you intend to accommodate personal tents for guests, provide raised platform tent pads, as these will benefit wheelchair users when they transfer to their tent, saving them from being forced to go directly to the ground. In shower areas, providing a small step stool or portable shower chair is a must.
If food is provided, it is important to consider what type of food (attendees may have limited dexterity in their fingers or no hands at all). You may also want to consider hiring a team to help customers carry their items from the car park to the campsite, as this is often a physically strenuous and difficult task for most festival attendees. In addition, not every disabled attendee will necessarily be attending the festival with a friend who can help them out with this.
For potentially disabled festivalgoers, they are often dissuaded by the lack of accessibility, not for the lack of personal desire to enjoy themselves. So, it is vital to communicate directly with this audience through social media channels and within your wider marketing strategy to encourage them to voice their opinions publicly or privately. This will allow you to determine where the demand is and provide accessibility that covers as many potential attendees as possible. In addition, providing information regarding your accessibility policy, as well as what to expect at the event in thorough detail, not merely an event schedule or timetable, will greatly improve the sensory accessibility of your event for people with anxiety, autism, or other sensory disabilities, especially in the likelihood, there will be loud noises at your event, intense lighting or crowds of significant sizes.
In terms of the festival layout, consider extra-wide paved paths, modified accessible tables, water fountains, and a raised area or platform on which disabled people can stand/sit if they cannot see past a standing crowd. Offer tactile and sensory maps of the overall site as well as braille information leaflets for blind or near-sighted attendees.
Direct Access is a disability-led organization and as such we are proud to offer advice, audits, and award-winning access consultancy based on our personal relationships with disability. We believe events big and small can work towards universal accessibility if they too approach disabled people directly in conversation. Change ultimately comes from the “ground up”, and knowledge of the issue at hand is key. As with every other major shift in attitude throughout human history, merely knowing where improvements to inclusion and accessibility are required, results in the generation of personal responsibility. When you know where you are going wrong, you will improve.
We implore festival organisers to be part of the change and lead the pack because we have been made aware of many upsetting testimonies based on negative experiences of concerts by disabled people. A very recent example: is when a fan hoped to attend a My Chemical Romance concert at the Milton Keynes Bowl after travelling across the country to see them, but could not enter the arena due to a lack of accessibility, and was forced to sit outside the arena and listen to her favourite band at a distance. This incident attracted much attention on social media and was met with disgust by the people that make events like concerts and festivals viable, yet it also attracted no media or organisational uproar whatsoever.
These horror stories are especially appalling to us, and we sincerely hope for anyone putting on a music event, that they avoid their mistakes, and do the right thing by considering accessibility and inclusion for their audience.