Edinburgh – the Fringe Festival, a bank holiday weekend. 24 degrees Celsius and not a cloud in the sky. There’s four hours of comedy shows ahead of us and we’re sat on the grass with the Ashes test cricket on the radio (we seemed to be the only ones cheering for some reason when we won). I’ve a gin ‘n’ tonic in hand and there’s an amazing, buzzy, happy, relaxed atmosphere. Silent disco participants are dancing and weaving their way through the city entertaining everyone in their path. The perfect day – the Fringe Festival at its best.
When I told people I was going to the Fringe Festival for five days, most responded with: “Oh, I have always wanted to go there but I never managed to get my act together.” Of course, my response is always: “Just go.” I know though it’s a bit of an intimidating prospect and difficult to get your head around. How do you decide what to see? How far ahead should you book? How much should you try and do in a day?
It sells 2.7 million tickets, making it the third most booked event behind the Olympics and the Fifa World Cup. There are more than 350 performers, 317 venues, 3,548 shows and 55,000 performances. It’s experiential on an extremely large scale.
Booking shows is the relatively easy bit (but time consuming and needs to be treated like a military operation) albeit the website is not as intuitive as it could be (though that could be me). We book acts we like well ahead of the festival and then book others once the reviews start to appear. We also buy tickets day by day based on the gossip in the queues about the shows to see and find lots of free (but often very questionable) stuff.
It’s easy to watch eight hours of comedy a day, every day. Perhaps there is an opportunity for an aggregator to set up, ask you what sort of comedy you like, recommend shows to you and then book tickets on your behalf but until that day comes it’s just about girding your loins and getting on with it. There is quite a sense of achievement when the schedule comes together. Favourite shows this year included Rhod Gilbert, Henning Wehn, Ivo Graham, Sarah Keyworth and Reuben Kaye (only for the very brave or foolhardy however). We should have given Eddie Izzard reading “Great Expectations” a very wide berth though.
The shows are exceptionally well organised. They all start and finish on time and there are lots of team members ready to guide people to their seats, so the venues fill up in an orderly fashion with no running away from the front row for the drag act – a nightmare place to be.
This year I made a concerted effort to eat and drink from food stalls – fish and chips, filled flatbread, organic pizza, burrito and toasted cheese sandwiches. Without exception the food was fantastic but what it wasn’t, was speedy. It just seems to be accepted that customers have to wait up to 20 minutes to collect their food. I do get it. The food stalls are small, equipment is limited and its often a challenge to have three to four team members working there at once. It’s hot and its frequently beyond busy.
There must be a way, perhaps via technology – ie ordering and paying in advance – to sort this out. The food stalls must be losing a lot of potential business. Time and time again, I saw customers walk up to a food stall, look at the queue and then walk away because they know that often, a 15-minute promised wait time can morph into 25 increasingly frustrating minute. This just wouldn’t be tolerated on the high street and should be sorted here.
Food waiting times apart, the Fringe Festival is the most amazing experience and one everyone in the sector could take year-long learnings from.