Will Darley’s a few minutes late for our online meeting, a Safety Advisory Group(SAG) meeting had gone on a little longer than expected but it went well, which is not always the case as many will know, but he’s unfazed which, when reflecting on our conversation, is no surprise. We’re together to talk about Access, The Festival, its origins and its development from student club night to 5000 capacity weekend festival.
The story begins in 2015 at Warwick University when Darley and his friend Alex Neidhardt put together a club night called Enter, with nights themed on and a DJ from a specific location, be it London, Paris, Lisbon…until they ran out of locations. A change of name, to Access, followed as well as new variations on themes, but still very much based on the music. Selling out a 500 capacity night in Leamington Spa was the pre-pandemic norm, expanding the venture was the next task, especially considering the pair had left University and moved to full time jobs in London.
With a mainly local-to-Warwick student audience, it might seem at first that a move to London would be a step too far but, as Darley says:
“We timed it quite strategically in the sense that a lot of students from this Uni go to London after they finish as graduates. Let’s say we were in our third year of events in university, so people have grown to see the events at university, they’ve moved to London, and we sort of followed that. We had a base in a group of people in London that we knew would come to the event, and then they’d bring their friends that they made in London to the event, and it’s grown like that. So, we sort of timed it with the student, moved to them and built it there.”
With the Leamington Spa nights still doing great business, space for a bigger audience was next on the agenda; Darley continues:
“It was interesting really because we, we’d built the club nights to a point where we were selling out in under 5 minutes, 500 people sell-out straightaway and it was crazy. Well, that was the case very much before the pandemic, it’s slightly changed now due to people’s attitudes going out with a bit more last minute, but at that point we were looking to find bigger venues in the area so we could sell more tickets, get more people going, but also get bigger names; we’re DJs ourselves, we wanted to get a bigger name DJ to play alongside. So, in October 2019 we started looking around and thinking about the festival. We’d seen a few event spaces in the area, there was one in Coventry, The Ruins event area. We approached them, they said, ‘Yeah, great, it’s 50/50 at the minute’, because the pandemic was starting to cause issues.”
We look back at those innocent early months of 2020, when we all thought it would be over in a few weeks and events would be back in the summer, we venture to ask how it felt to feel the adrenaline running, only to have plans scuppered:
“It wasn’t like we’d been working for months and months and it all just gets stripped away; we weren’t as upset as the idea of all of our club events being cancelled. We sort of looked at the pandemic and that time and that break to then really focus on building it to the best we could for the next year so, accept it and move on.”
Some of that time was spent on finding a festival venue, as Darley explains:
“We found the one we’re at the minute, which is Sherborne Park, and that’s just it’s a beautiful venue, surrounded by trees and it has a good feel”
When asked about ticket sales ambitions, Darley is honest in his answer:
“We had no idea, to be honest, if you’re selling out those 500 people, you might get a capacity for 1000 and you only sell, you know, 800, that’s the limit, people. We were trying to go for 1500. The field that we’re in now, it’s a venue licenced for 5000; last year was a bit of a limitation with COVID with half capacity, but this year we’ve got full freedom.”
Adding to the list of ‘launched in 2021’ festivals, the timing of the first Access festival was a challenge that, perhaps, came as a blessing for the local authorities. With an event date dictated by the end of the university year, Access was destined to be, as Darley describes it ‘that comeback event’. We hark back once again, this time to the 4-step route to Freedom Day, with Access’ festival debut right at the start of step 4…until it was delayed:
“The point we were setting our dates was 6 to 8 months in advance of it happening, so we had no idea if the pandemic will be still going then we didn’t know if we would have Christmas and we’d be released again, we didn’t expect it to roll and roll on. I think we were the first weekend that an event of its type could happen in step four and then it got delayed, so our event actually fell within stage 3. We thought, well, this is the end, you know, this is ruined, is the event going to be ruined by everyone having to be sat down at tables? Are we going to have to do all of this other stuff? But we pressed on and worked with the council, we were on weekly calls with Public Health England, to put every single measure we could in place. As an example, they’d say everyone needs to do testing and we’d then go away and design a really rigorous testing system and put it to them. We were actually sort of leading it and they were almost coming to us to ask for our plans and our policy to then feed to other events that were trying to make the same thing happen, but we were sort of designing it based upon their feedback.”
Without being an official ‘test event’, Access was beginning to look very much like a test event:
“It was very much a case of being so upfront with them and very, you know, not trying to push against things just unnecessarily. We were trying to work with them rather than against them and they really like that and helped us out a lot.”
Of course, having a greater capacity than required for break-even sales can help, so with measures including a reduction in licensed capacity and room to increase queueing lanes to a mile long if necessary (it wasn’t) and a compliant audience that was willing to partake in a lateral flow testing regime, things were looking good until another curve ball gets thrown, as Darley explains:
“I can’t remember what it was maybe 48 hours before the event, that actually changed to the council asking us to ask people to do PCR tests at the local test centre. So, on the morning of the event, they increased capacity at the local test centres, and everyone would go and do their PCR and then be allowed into the event. It was a massive struggle but at that point everyone was coming to the event, everyone wanted to go, so they were very keen to be cooperative. From our point of view, we were keen to do everything we could with the council to make the event happen, but also our customers were aware and appreciated that it’s not a normal time and they would have to do a few extra things.”
Of course, 6 years of audience development, following students as they left the Midlands for the Southeast had created a loyal fan base, so a first-year sell-out in just 24hours, despite the Covid-related doubts, is easily explained, but the local authority’s support seemed to go against the general consensus. It seems, though, that their thinking was that a student population, ready to celebrate the end of their course, would be best served in a controlled environment instead of scores of uncontrollable, super-spreading indoor house parties. A fine example of a council seeing the advantages of events.
The conversation moves to suppliers; amongst the much-documented issues that many faced in the compressed season in 2021, we find wisdom in the choices they made, with many bringing experience as well as kit. as Darley said:
“We approached it well, because obviously me and Alex were two young people coming in, you’ve got to prove yourself. But also, we surrounded ourselves by other seasoned event people, our health and safety guy does food festivals, our bar Guy, he runs festivals in Birmingham. So, we basically went into the SAGs with these three or five other people that all knew what was going on there.”
Audio and visual supply came from AV Matrix, a company familiar to Darley as he’d freelanced for them, learning the ropes during his student days, not only providing a supplier but also a head start in overall production management for Access the Festival. Or as Darley puts it:
“I suppose, from my point of view, that background doing freelancing in events before, helped out a bit. Knowing these contacts before I could speak to them and work out plans. Initially when we were doing it, I didn’t know there was a SAG or what that was, so I spoke to different people, worked out what was required, got advice, and put the event manual together. So, it was very much me going around and just seeking advice and help from lots of different people. Rather than just saying ‘organize my festival’ to one person, I wanted to take it on myself rather than just outsourcing; I feel bad asking someone all the time and chasing up. And if something’s not right and you’re not happy with it, you have to, you know, fix it. So, I have very much taken it in my own remit to make sure I do everything correct. But then if there’s something that’s not, and I’m not sure about or not done before, I’ll learn how and what needs to be done.”
Not everything was easy on the supplier side in year one, with the 2021 issues of power, sanitation and temporary structures still in use at vaccination and testing centres. The 2022 issue of rising costs has, of course, been an issue, with fuel and VAT delivering heavy blows that can’t be offset by increasing ticket prices. But doing what needs to be done and learning what needs to be learned seems to come naturally to Darley and Neidhardt; taking ownership has had its advantages too, knowing where savings and adjustments can be made being crucial to managing in a time of rapidly rising costs.
We move to our usual question of footwear and we discover another fan of the comfortable walking boot, but then, last year, there was no other choice, as Darley remarks:
“I don’t think I put another pair of shoes in for the event, so I was walking around in walking boots on the stages and things everyone else is in, like trainers, white trainers, Adidas and stuff. I sort of stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Finally, the issue of the act that will get Darley out front this year. We start with the dream booking:
“I love Carl Cox and I’d like to get him mainly because his breadth and experience is so wide. But I’d love to see what he would do here.”
But this year?
So Mathame is one we’re excited about, which is actually quite a funny story. We booked them for our club event for 500 people 2019, start of 2019 and they had to cancel because of an illness. So that got rescheduled, then they then had to cancel because of COVID so they got rebooked to the festival last year, but because it was only UK artists that could perform, that’s cancelled them from last year and rebooked them this year. So in that time they’ve gone from being a tiny, tiny, insignificant cost in that time for us to now being a mega-money booking where the headlining IMS this week and things like that”
So, year 2 beckons, or perhaps that should be year 1 proper. A tale of growth, of building a brand, of knowing your audience, of learning lessons and surrounding yourself with the right people. Oh, and a cool head, organisational capabilities, good boots, a positive attitude towards SAGs and a love of the end product. That’s a recipe for Access.