And that, Grahamstown, is what a recession looks like


the 2017 Festival took a slight knock in numbers. We’re still doing the final tally, but early indications are that our theatre audiences dropped by about 10% from last year. While we would love to grow continually, and usually we do, it’s unrealistic to expect to keep doing so. There is a tough economic climate, with low levels of consumer and business confidence, and the tightening of belts all round. Why should Grahamstown be immune?

This year’s Festival has brought into sharp focus the impact the recession is having on what people do when they’re here. Most are still going to shows – ticket sales, even with a slight drop, are still strong. This is an arts festival, after all. A common refrain on the streets was “we’ve seen some great shows, but town seemed quieter”.

True, when it comes to other activities, people are cutting back. They’re making some hard choices. They’re cooking at home, eating before they go out. They’re skipping that cup of coffee. They’re choosing not to buy the same fluffy slippers, lampshades or biltong they can get at home. They’re staying for three days instead of four. They’re skipping the tequila shots and that last glass of wine.

They’re living the recession.

Money is tight and people are making choices about where to spend and what to do. They’re doing so in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. And they are going to do so when they’re in Grahamstown. We now need to be asking how we can make the City, and the Festival, recession-proof in years to come?

The Festival is a bucket-list experience for most South Africans. The experience of coming to Grahamstown is unique and special, and is our single biggest selling point. Our most recent economic impact survey found that 99% of Festival visitors would recommend the experience to others. That’s a staggeringly high number that would be the envy of any event anywhere in the world. And we need to protect and capitalise on that to get through the stormy seas ahead.

How, then? Here are four thoughts.

Quality First

Our visitors are searching for quality experiences – at every touchpoint. From the moment they decide to come to Grahamstown, to when they get back home. Our website, app, roads and accommodation. They demand excellent service in restaurants, warm, comfortable rooms; and great performances. Let’s give them all that, and more.

We need to protect, nurture and grow our audiences. We need to stage an enticing programme that can keep Festinos happy and that is also designed to get younger people into theatres. We need to wrap things around their Grahamstown experience that make them want to keep coming back.  We need to be unmissable

Farm the Festino, don’t harvest them

Everyone is entitled to earn a living. And, for the hospitality sector, Festival represents a ‘High Season’. We get that. But our visitors are increasingly cost conscious and seeking value for money – and 4-star hotel rates for 2-star rooms won’t cut it any more. Nor will R40 beers or R80 bowls of soup. Nor will restaurants who openly tell patrons, “We’re just waiting for our Festival menus to come back from the printers” (ie you’re about to get ripped off).

Artificially inflated prices leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth – the long-term, strategic approach is to offer value for money and widen the customer base so everyone does better. As one trader said to me, yes, there are fewer people in Grahamstown this week. But there are more than were here the week before Festival. Let’s think of great ways to galvanise and grow the city’s tourism industry, taking the pressure off Festival-time, so we enjoy more steady income year-round.

Cultivate one, positive Grahamstown “voice”

Nothing damages the Festival and detracts from visitor experience more than locals saying in hushed tones that the festival is “dead” or “dying” or “about to move to Cape Town”, nodding with the wisdom of someone who has the inside track merely because they live here. If we don’t have faith in our Festival, if we don’t defend it from outsiders maligning it with disingenuous campaigns, how can we expect our visitors to get excited about it and to come back every year?  What are we gaining by jumping on the negative train? A short-term endorphin rush or the momentary ego boost of a few Facebook likes doesn’t take anything forward.

Last week I got a call saying, “We hear you want to move the Festival to a new city. Want to come to us?”. The city official who called got the idea from the rumour mill that some are so quick to fuel and that panic-mongerers relish in stoking. Of course I said no, but the rumours do more harm than good – sponsors will think twice about investing; other Festivals will pounce on the opportunity; people might make other choices and opt out of the Grahamstown experience.

This Festival isn’t going anywhere. We are totally committed to Grahamstown (as is, hopefully, evident by the range of projects we run and support year-round – Cinema Under the Stars, Masicule, the Creative City project, the Puku Story Festival, Gruffalo etc). And we’re constantly building our business by diversifying into new areas of growth.

And let’s give credit where it is due. We know Makana has its challenges. We all live here. And are frustrated and angry with crumbling infrastructure, scarce resources, the lack of public toilets in the CBD and patchy waste removal, the seeming lack of political will to make things right. These are things we need to grapple with as a City. But at this year’s Festival we had no power outages, no water was cut off. Every morning there were cleaning crews working up and down the streets so by the time most Festinos were awake, the town was reset for another day. Local business and teams of volunteers pitched in to make everything look okay. If we invested as much energy into trumpeting the positives as we do in muttering the negative; and if we stop Festival-bashing as a proxy for the anger we feel elsewhere, the difference would be palpable.

If there are things you don’t like, let’s talk about them. Let’s engage in good faith and build rather than break the Festival.  We may not be able to realise all of your dreams but we are ready and willing to listen to ideas. But at some point in the conversation a decision needs to be made and we all need to buy into the bigger picture and hope for the best, regardless of whether or not we agree with the final call.

Embrace change and innovation

Innovation and change are critical to being recession-proof. Audiences expect us to move forward, not backward. The move of Village Green next year is a case in point – we want to design and build a whole new craft market experience, modelled on some of the world’s best markets. It’s an exciting opportunity and the news has generally been well received.

We also know there are some who would prefer we move the market back to Fiddlers Green and the adjoining alleys. We’ve looked at this. The reality is that you can’t shoehorn 13 000m2 into 8 000m2 and still have room for growth. And why would you want to take a giant leap backward when forward is more enticing? VG is an easy stroll from Church Square, and is closer to the Queen Street taxi rank than Fiddlers Green is, making it more accessible for more people.  It has beautiful tree-lined fields and park-like areas; nooks and crannies; space for street theatre and buskers; plenty of space for parking, an “art walk”, a box office and a beer tent. The challenge now shifts to the traders: innovate in what you offer for sale. Improve the variety and selection, and price your goods realistically.

Yes, the “back to Fiddlers” argument is loud and passionate. That doesn’t make it persuasive. There is an equally passionate argument to be made about moving forward, and giving something new a chance before deciding it’s a bad idea. We’ve already heard some great ideas for the new market and have formed committees comprising local business, traders and ordinary Festinos to generate more ideas and consult more widely. And over the next few months those ideas will proliferate as we bring the plans to life.

We have some other innovations in the pipeline that will help shore up support for the Festival. But we need business to innovate too. What can be done? Extra services that didn’t exist before – taxis and tuk tuks; babysitting; grocery packs for visitors; more and better accommodation; valet parking services; pop up restaurants; ticket packages; game drives; rounds of golf; a daily Festival newspaper… there is so much value we can offer visitors to keep the Grahamstown experience a “premium” one, and that results in business opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Let’s divert our civic energy to getting the airfield operating, the station running, buildings rehabilitated and murals painted. And let’s encourage local businesses and SMMEs to unearth new opportunities. Let’s add to the Festival experience and extend it beyond the CBD to the township so that our visitors can get an authentic, rounded experience when they visit.

And I need to put a word in for the artists: if we don’t make it easy and affordable for them to come to and be in Grahamstown, the costs of performing here will outstrip the benefits, and our core offering will begin to weaken. So some innovation in that direction would be appreciated!

We need to pull together. To be positive and proud of our Festival. Tough times may be around for a while and attendance could continue to drop in years to come before it starts lifting again. But if we make sure that what happens on our stages continues to be amazing, and if we innovate and keep the rest of the Grahamstown experience fresh and unique, we’ll ride the recession out and emerge with a better, stronger Festival.

We’re in, if you are.

  • Tony Lankester, CEO, National Arts Festival.


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