Sociable Distancing at the Tatton Park Pop Up Festival

Promoter and Producer, Rebecca Hartley

While many were seeing socially distanced events as an alternative during Covid restrictions, Saving Grace Events’ Rebecca Hartley saw it as an opportunity to bring ideas for a new type of festival to fruition, Tatton Park Pop Up Festival, taking what started as a socially distanced pop up to create a sociably distanced, boutique event.

“I think I organised the first event I remember when I was seven years old, that was a surprise party for my parents” explains Rebecca during our conversation about the beginnings; fast forward a few years and a career mainly in the corporate world lead to the 2017 formation of her own event management company, the aforementioned Saving Grace, delivering events and positive outcomes for an impressive roster of clients. March 2020 saw activity grind to a halt like the rest of the events sector; She continues:

“It was a strange time, wasn’t it? Because I think everybody was trying, floundering around trying to work out what they should do; we were lucky because we have got corporate clients and they still wanted to do something. So, we did quite a lot of virtual events, particularly studio based virtual events for charity clients and corporates such as Virgin Media, so we did have work coming in because they still needed to communicate with their teams. One of our clients who we would usually be doing events with, they in their own way pivoted and decided to communicate with their employees via a virtual newsletter, we’ve done some e-communications for them. But yes, I was watching what everybody else was doing and people were finding their own way with it, really. But some people would just say, ‘we’re carrying on, everything’s fine, which I never did, and I never understood why people would stick to that line when it clearly wasn’t.”

Like many, Rebecca chose to use the time to “do all the things I hadn’t been able to do, day to day in the business; redo our branding, get that right, get some of the infrastructure stuff that we hadn’t done because we’ve been growing so quickly or so busy. And then I went to a couple of events that were outdoor. And I just thought we could take inspiration from this and if we could do this at Tatton Park and we could do it lakeside and make it amazing! I’m from Knutsford well, I’ve lived here for 13 years so Tatton Park is, close to my heart and it’s just an amazing venue. I just thought I could do this so well at Tatton Park, but it didn’t feel like an idea that would really come to fruition. For a start, I thought Tatton Park probably wouldn’t buy into it because they’re very selective about who they work with and what they put on there. But from the very beginning, I wanted to do something that was very respectful of the park and very in keeping with their brand and what they’re all about.”

Of course, with a rapidly evolving regulatory framework, we were keen to know the challenges of permissions and licensing: “We had a period of consultation, so I think I first approached them about it in October 2020. It wasn’t until the end of February that they gave us the go ahead. So yes, they definitely had to think about it and everybody was finding their feet in terms of what would happen. We were really, really lucky because Tatton Park is a National Trust Park, but it’s run by Cheshire East Council, so that made things a lot easier for us in terms of relationships between the venue and the council, also they were very close to what the council and the health authorities are looking for in terms of safety. The whole point of our event was that it was safe, that it was socially distanced, and we were very aware of that, putting together the event management plan and everything that wrapped around that, so we got very little pushback from them. They asked questions and there were certain conditions, but we’d really done our homework beforehand in terms of putting that together and making sure that they had confidence in the concept and the safety of the concept, but also the delivery team and the process that we had in place to make sure we kept people safe.”

When we ask for an explanation of Tatton Park Pop Up Festival in a nutshell, we find that the event’s brand book is just out of reach, a document developed after the event, suggesting that this was no one-off. Rebecca explains further “It was all in my head, I knew what the event was, and I knew what I wanted it to be. It’s reflective of my brand values, really, and what my vision was of the festival. But obviously, by our standards, [compared to] our normal day to day business it’s a massive operation. We’ve got over 100 staff that we bring in on a temporary basis, plus the core team, plus all the contractors and suppliers and partners. So, defining that was actually really important because it can’t just be in my head, it needs to be something everyone buys into and understands.”

“Our mission is to rewrite the rulebook on festivals, so to do things differently, we don’t want to be the same as every other festival. Essentially, it’s a boutique outdoor festival that has a little bit of something for everybody. It’s still this year going to be socially distanced in terms of how your seating will be set up, but obviously we’re not going to enforce social distancing rules within the festival so people can move around freely. There’ll be a VIP lounge and area and bar this year and we’ve got walk up bars as well as table service this year. It’s something a bit different, it’s somewhere that people can come and sit down, be served at their table, and enjoy and experience live music and entertainment, lakeside, which is not really something you can do anywhere else.”

Where socially distanced, segregated events were seen as making the best of a bad lot, Tatton Park Pop Up Festival has taken the positives and developed an event for a specific audience. Rebecca once again picks up with an explanation: “We obviously saw first-hand customer reactions, so I never saw the format that we put in place as a downgrade, it has massive advantages and we knew we could go with it unless we went into full lockdown, we could go with it regardless because it was it met all the restrictions. But the setup of it is not for me a downgrade, it’s a massive upgrade. I would say our main target market is what we call the Young At Hearts, which is my age group. I’m [information withheld] this year; it’s people with a high disposable income who like the nicer things in life, and they don’t want to be in a mud pit being pushed around by people jumping up and down and having to queue at the bar for hours to get a drink. They want that civilised high end experience.

The conversation moves to suppliers, we ask if the move to an outdoor event meant sourcing a new type of supplier outside of Saving Grace’s usual black book. “We definitely expanded the black book and we worked with some really amazing people that we’re working with again this year. And we worked with some people that we don’t want to work with ever again.” We focus on the positives: “Icon Events are our AV provider. Danny, who runs the company, was one of the first people I met in events like ten years ago, I work with them on most of our events from an AV point of view, they’re fantastic, so they did all our production, staging, lighting and the crew were amazing. We worked with Pop Up Entertainment, who are a performance company we’ve worked with for years, Ideal FM we used for all of our cleaning, toilets and maintenance; they were fantastic, and we’ll be working with them again this year. Some of the catering partners that we worked with will be coming back this year.

It wasn’t 100% smooth running though, ambitious attempts at remote ordering in an outdoor setting was one challenge: “initially we were going to go with a model where people ordered and paid on their phone, but it just didn’t work in the middle of a park when you had 6-700 people in there. So, from week one to week two [out of ten] whole operating model, all of the ordering systems before the next weekend. We moved to an at table service model [which] meant that we needed a lot more people to be able to fill it than we’d originally had in our staffing model. So, like I said, we have over 100 people on our books that work at the festival, and in the first week we had to use a staffing agency, which if you’ve ever used agencies, temp agencies, you probably know what that looked like! We quickly decided that we wanted our own team and we wanted them to be local wherever possible; we got adverts out and we brought on local people, local kids as well who were at college or on their summer break. The community that we’ve built and the team spirit within the people that were on board was one of the best things for me. We had such great team spirit last year and a lot of them are coming back this year.”

We asked how they found acts last year, were many simply not expecting a call? “Acts were easier last year because there was less competition and people that probably wouldn’t normally do an event in its first year were keen to do it. This year we found with some of the acts, the conversations have been a lot more difficult; they’ve got more options, more choice, they’re back on the road. Saying that, our best acts weren’t necessarily named acts, the things that people loved the most, weren’t necessarily the main acts, they were things like Lost in Music, Ibiza of Symphonic, West End tributes, Abba Mia; some of our in-house shows were popular too. We’re bringing all of those back, things that were successful last year, but also add new content in there as well.

Bringing back acts, keeping teams together, developing the brand book, we’re keen to know when Rebecca realised that this wasn’t a one-off: “I always believed it could work, we’d done the numbers, we had a very complex model and last year was challenging. You would think from an infrastructure point of view things would be cheaper because not as much was happening. But there were a lot of things like, for example, marquee companies had all their tents out at testing centres, some things weren’t as easy to get hold of. Also, a lot of the festivals that should have gone early summer then pushed back to the end of the summer when we were still running and we didn’t have a lot of choice around things like toilets, so we ended up overpaying a lot for things. We’ve managed to strip a lot of that cost out this year, it’s more favourable.”

Interesting then, that the 10-weekend run of Tatton Park Pop Up Festival straddled ‘Freedom Day’. We wanted to know if that changed the attitudes of ticket buyers, whether their attendees abandoned them for the old normal: “No, I think people were still nervous last year and because the tickets were bought in advance; it didn’t really impact our ticket sales last year. Our ticket sales grew and grew as people heard more about the festival and came out because we were obviously brand new with no background and no reputation whatsoever. I don’t think it hindered us from a ticket sales point of view because I think people were still nervous, they weren’t going on holiday, they were still looking for safe things to do. In the hairdressers a few months ago, a girl said she would definitely be coming this year, she wanted to last year but a lot of her friends were still nervous about doing anything. This year will be interesting; we’re selling in a different way because we’ve gone on sale a lot earlier; we’ll see the natural trajectory of sales, which really wasn’t accurate last year.”

“Our aspiration is to make sure that anybody within 30 miles knows about us this year, there is some marketing going a little bit further afield. I think for me it’s important to take it step by step, so last year was about launching the concept: What do people think? Is there an appetite for it? Do people think it’s a good experience? What do people want to see? What do they not want to see? What do they spend money on at the bar? This year is about stabilising it, making it profitable, improving the bits that we that weren’t as great or that could be improved, adding extra features like the VIP, then next year is an opportunity to build. And whether that’s building in terms of reaching further afield or replicating the concept somewhere else.”

The removal of Covid restrictions has enabled the addition of bars and VIP areas, we ask what other changes have been made in terms of dates, capacities, and site layout: “Last year we did 46 shows over a ten-week period, this year we’re doing 35 shows across seven weeks, which I think just works better. We’re also not going as far into the summer holidays because obviously this year is different, people will be going away.

And the site layout, we’ve kept everything that we think is great about it; we’ve got the same kind of like backdrop, we’ve got the same stage layout and side screens, but the side screens are bigger, and the stage is bigger, and we’ve got the same kind of seated layout, but we’ve added another layer of VIP, more luxury, which is literally stage side, sponsored by Moda Furnishing. And we’ve improved the overall VIP experience; our VIPs can turn up an hour and a half before they can go into the bar, they get a welcome drink, and they can listen to the music in there before they find the way to their seats. We’ve got more going on around the site because people can move around more, but we’re still sticking with that table service luxury boutique feel. If you want to go and grab a drink from the bar, you can do, we’ve got a fast service bar, but otherwise sit back, relax, your food and drink will be brought to you and enjoy the show.”

“So last year we had a capacity of just under 1000. This year we’ve got a licence of 1500, but we’ve put in a capacity of 1200. But if it sold really well, we can grow that if we want to. But again, that’s about growing but growing steadily and sensibly”

Of course, the 2022 season question du jour is, how are ticket sales? “We are a hell of a lot further ahead than we were last year because we were only just going on sale we got the go ahead and in February and were going on sale by the end of April, which was just craziness, just absolute lunacy. But yes, we’re a lot further ahead than we were last year, and sales are looking good, we’ve got a lot of repeat customers we’ve got new customers as well and of course, we’ve got a database this year which we didn’t have last year, so it’s a lot easier to communicate with people and get that message out there.

So, to what is becoming our regular final two questions: What band will tempt you out of the site office and out front, and the all-important footwear choice: “Last year I was excited to see The Real Thing because I grew up listening to them and also, they remind me of my sister who we lost last year to cancer, so that was special for me. This year I haven’t made any self-indulgent bookings because I’ve gone off what works and what didn’t work. There are so many great shows this year from Disco Classical, which we didn’t have on last year, to House and Garage Orchestra. I love that combination of DJ, live band and live vocals, I really like the way old meets modern. But it’s really pathetic, I’m really looking forward to meeting Martin Kemp because I am a middle-aged woman and I actually think I’ll be a bit starstruck when I meet him.

And footwear? “If it’s raining, some nice Holland Cooper wellies, or just some nice trainers”

We round up our conversation reflecting on what you can learn by producing so many shows in 10 weeks, learnings, and experience that Rebecca has valued enough to invite the stress back into her summer: “For me, what is the point in going through all of those learnings and understanding the model to not put that into practice in year two?  The great thing about doing it over ten weeks is that by even four or five weeks in, it’s such a well-oiled machine and you’ve learnt so much by doing that many events.  To me, it wasn’t even an option that we wouldn’t have done it this year, because to go through all of that and take all those learnings and then not do anything with it, the next year would have almost been criminal.Towards the end of the festival, I just wanted to get to the end of it, to just to get it all down and go right, what worked? What didn’t work? how can we improve it? Where can we save money? Where can we do more of so we can get onto next year?”

From concept to completion in a period of heightened restrictions is impressive, a 10-week operational boot camp not for the feint hearted. A concept proved, improved and primed for growth, Tatton Park Pop Up Festival is no Covid one-off, it’s the real thing.