Planning 360 Degrees events includes research, preparation, budgeting, comms, marketing, catering, accommodation, logistics, security & artist relations.

How NOT to run an event: lessons from the ill-fated Fyre Festival

Fyre Festival, promoted in 2017 as a lifestyle getaway on a remote island paradise - “a luxury Coachella-like music event in the Bahamas” - was co-organised by rapper Ja Rule and promoted by celebs like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid. It promised affluent Millennials a chance to hobnob with models on yachts and private beaches.

What could go wrong? (Clue: Everything.)

The organiser, Billy McFarland, managed to stuff up every single aspect of the festival: research, planning, preparation, budgeting, communication, marketing, catering, accommodation, logistics, security, artist relations, and even legal approvals. 

Impressive. 

As a result, festival-goers paid $500 to $12,000 to access an unfinished and ramshackle site, emergency tents, limp cheese sandwiches in take-out containers, and luggage dispensed from the back of a shipping container in the dark. 

As the night wore on and it became evident that the Fyre Festival was not going as planned - or, at all – the dejected crowds overwhelmed the small island airport and had to sit on the tarmac overnight before obtaining clearance to fly home.

Fyre Festival was the perfect storm, and it earned McFarland six years in prison. It also resides, says attendee Seth Crossno, “in the pop culture lexicon [as] synonymous with failure”. But, happily for us in the events industry, the catastrophe that was Fyre Festival has some truly valuable lessons. (Can you say schadenfreude?)

Lesson #1: Pick your partners with extreme care.

Billy McFarland is a long-time skelm, and five minutes of Googling would’ve revealed his tendency towards scams and con-artistry. 

What we’ve learned over time:

At 360 Degrees, we know that we’re only as strong as our suppliers and as robust as our client relationships. So we do the background checks we need to do, on potential clients and would-be suppliers. Both parties have the right to ask for audited financials and verified references, and if one party is unwilling… Red flag!

Lesson #2: Scope. Plan, plan, plan. Review. Plan, plan. 

Chloe Gordon, an employee of Fyre Festival, noted several red flags that were ignored: a rampant shark problem, no stage for performers, lack of transportation, and concerns about paying performing artists – and yet, the show went on.

This was possibly a result of sunken bias, where we invest time, money or energy into something, and persevere with it because we don't want to lose our investment.

McFarland’s team launched the marketing - and the big promises - first, before understanding what it would take to actually pull off the Fyre Festival. And then, almost immediately, Fyre Festival supposedly “took on a life of its own". 

Why we think this is nonsense:

Events don't take on a life of their own unless you let them, through inadequate planning. Measure twice so you can cut once, as the tailors say. And then measure again for luck. Only when the big milestones are under control, can you market. 

Lesson #3: Believe the bean-counters. They seldom lie.

McFarland was told that the event would cost between $5-12 million. He didn’t believe it. His investors said the same thing. Still: incredulity. Billy’s a kid.

How we tackle this at 360 Degrees:

Companies are budget-sensitive, fair enough, and it’s our core skill to make an event work within financial parameters. But clients must allow themselves to be educated about what events actually cost, while we maximise the experience as much as possible on our end. If the budget is so skinny, however, that it puts the outcome of the event at risk, it’s time to walk away. No good can come of this.

Lesson #4: Get expert advice. And then TAKE IT. 

A month before the festival, McFarland hired veteran event producer Yaron Lavi.
Lavi told McFarland to postpone the event from April to November, to avoid a disaster. McFarland said No, the weather would be better in April. 

Lavi then suggested that, given the short time frame, tents would be more realistic accommodation than luxury villas. Again: a Nope from McFarland. 

Then, McFarland decided that the festival should be cashless, with pre-loaded “Fyre Bands” for purchases. But the band needed Wi-Fi… and there was no Wi-Fi on-site.

What we’ve learned over time:

It is critical to listen to the experts and take their advice! Anyone can make an event look pretty on-screen, but only when the hard-core infrastructure is 100% right and fully compliant is an event ready to fly. Anything less can be very dangerous.

Lesson #5: Who’s sponsored and who’s sincere?

Be transparent. Tell the truth. Research the applicable law, and try not to break it. Of the 400 influencers who shared posts promoting the event, none admitted that they were paid to do so. (And none rocked up.) In the US it’s illegal not to disclose payment received for promoting an event, says the Federal Trade Commission.

How we tackle this at 360 Degrees:

Honesty’s not just the best policy. It’s the only policy. Don’t lie to your audiences. And don’t skirt the boundaries of the law. It will bite you in the bum eventually.

Lesson #6: Just… Try your best not to be a schmuck.

McFarland would not listen to reason – or even confront objective reality. Those who spoke up were pushed out; the rest went along with the farce. At one point, mired in debt, unable to resolve even the most basic infrastructural issues, McFarland became obsessed with taking a pirate ship to the island, to “elevate the aesthetic experience”. Driven by his vision, he did everything from falsifying documents to committing wire fraud – rather than cutting his losses and apologising.

What we’ve learned over time:

No one wants to change a plan – but sometimes this is the only course of action, particularly when it comes to outdoor events where the elements are a factor. Of course, there should always be a plan, a backup plan and a backup to the backup plan. When one of these needs to change, know how and why, and tell everyone.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. Now you know what NOT to do. But, above all, don’t be greedy and, unlike our friend Billy McFarland, don’t be a schmuck.