Party leads to rave leads to festival, it’s easy when you say it; but add the logistical challenges of a site 850m above sea level in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains and the inevitable growing pains as the audience and festival offer expands, the organiser’s toolkit needs to grow.
We take the opportunity to learn from Benji Sasse, co-founder of Meadows In the Mountains about the growth of their festival from a small party in June 2011 and their adoption of Easol as their specialist web commerce provider.
Let’s start at the beginning and how Meadows in the Mountains came about:
“It was completely unplanned. But through the love of music, the community and nature, and then the spontaneous discovery of this epic sunrise, it then became something that we really wanted to share with more people.”
So you had a party because of the location?
We had a party because my parents retired to Bulgaria, randomly. My brother [Damian] and I visited; he was just kind of out riding a horse one day, doing a bit of soul searching and was like ‘wow, this place is pretty cool, we should have a little party here.’ It started.”
From humble beginnings then?
“Yeah, in year one we discovered how magical the sunrise was, which kind of added a new dimension to it. I also think from the first year we realised as well how important the local community was because, you know, it’s like going back 80 years from England; a lot of the locals don’t have cars, they’ve got donkeys and they all have outdoor toilets, but they’re the most hospitable, kind people. From that first year, seeing how they welcomed us and how really important it was for the local community to build this new local economy there, because it was a dying village basically before we came.”
With that first party audience being mainly drawn from the brothers’ circle of musician and DJ friends, how did that local community react to what might be seen as a bit of a change from normal?
“I wouldn’t say you would see the grandmas and the grandpas there on, on, on the sunrise, you know, going for it. But they definitely welcomed our community into their homes and really like nurtured them and cared for them. They were just really thankful that there was this injection of life.”
Far from objecting and actually providing accommodation in their own homes, it seems the locals embraced growth in year two.
“Yeah, I think it grew from like 20 to 200 people. It wouldn’t have been 200 sold tickets, but we definitely improved in the first year. We were developing the idea a bit more. Damian, nor myself, nor my mum and dad, who were also part of the team in those early years, had ever done anything like this before. So there were lots of mistakes and pitfalls and a huge amount of money lost in those initial years. But the magic…I seem to remember one press piece was saying how beautifully shambolic the chaos was. But from that shambolic chaos was this beautiful thing that was created.
“Even now, we’re coming to the end of a decade and we’re starting to reflect on the last ten years and look at what the plan is for the next ten years. There hasn’t really been a plan for the last ten.”
Looking at the Meadows web site, there’s an array of accommodation that looks like it’s just local homes, a direct income for the village.
“Exactly. And you know, and I can’t fact check this, some of the locals have told me that they make more money in the four days that Meadows is there than they have from their whole yearly pension”
And when did you make that transition and realise you had a festival rather than a party?
“I would say when we started reaching about 1000 people, that’s when the site filled out – it’s on top of a mountain on a ridge, it’s quite an expansive location. As we grew, we started bringing in more event professionals and the operation started getting a bit slicker. That’s when it felt like it was not a party anymore but becoming a festival.”
And how does such a beautifully shambolic festival meet the team from Easol, who seem to have drawn together a few of you online strands?
These connections were really spontaneous and just almost like it’s fate, it’s meant to be. A friend of [Easol co-founder] Ben Simpson’s, that he went to university with in Leeds, had been to the festival and just randomly reached out to me and said he really needed to connect me with his friend Ben, who at the time [had the company] called Fixers. I think we had a brief call with Ben and it was good vibes from the beginning. We officially started working together in 2019.
What attracted you to, to make the switch?
“We were working with huge ticketing companies we just really felt like another number on their roster. I think Ben and Lisa [Simpson, Easol Co-Founder] really impressed [because] they were pretty clear to explain that this was a partnership that we wanted to build between two family companies, and we’re both small world; well we’re still small, Easol’s getting a lot bigger, but that that founding connection was always there. It seemed that Easol were doing things differently and they gave us a real personal approach in terms of building our relationship, compared to [other platforms] where it was really hard to get someone on the phone. And even then, when you had someone on the phone, they couldn’t really answer your questions or really get to the root of the problem.
What can you do now that you couldn’t do before you had your new platform?
What we couldn’t do before? It wasn’t all under one roof, so we couldn’t build our website and sell tickets on the same platform. I think that’s something that Easol really pioneered really was website building and ticketing under one roof, and not just any Squarespace website, Easol really helped us create a custom-built website with illustrations and animation, building something that’s unique and special.
They pioneered not only just selling tickets but selling accommodation, transfers, bell tents…all of our sales, everything comes under one page. So that was just really seamless, in terms of for our customers wanting to be able to just package everything up and click buy it, it was just very smooth.
With everything in your hands, does that mean a greater burden when it comes to customer service, for things like refunds and changes?
“Again, that’s something that Easol have always been great with, the customer service. They’re always there and they do a huge amount of work to help us deal with refunds or name changes, they’re just on hand. You know, it almost feels like we’re the left arm and the right arm. It really feels like we’re synchronized in that way”
“It seems that it’s always been Ben, Lisa and their team that come up with pioneering new ideas. We never really had deposit tickets. Easol came to us and said this is a way that you could improve your ticketing, try deposit tickets. So we tried that in 2019, this year Easol developed this pay monthly ticket which I think, with everything around COVID and the pandemic and people’s money problems is another fantastic idea that really helps. And I think the most recent the most recent suggestion is the Easol Capital”
Drilling down into figures, it seems that the partnership yielded some impressive results, with an 80% increase in sales between 2019 and 2022 editions, and average tickets sold per day increasing by 55%. With the village house accommodation all on the same site, that sold out in a day rather than several weeks and extras such as healing and yoga sessions saw an increase in saes of 50%.
One important part of the Meadows in the Mountains ethos is to respect the mountain and leave no trace, that also requires the buy in of people coming to the festival. Is that something that they bring with them or do you have to make some effort to convince them?
“That’s a really good question. And I think the English people don’t have a great reputation of looking after their festival sites. If you compare it to like Californian festivals where it’s really inbred in their culture, Leave No Trace policies are kind of standard for them, so I think it has been a bit of an educational journey with our crew. But because the mountain is just so pristine, it’s not some farmers field, close to some village in Cambridgeshire or something. It’s literally on top of a mountain surrounded by forests that have bears and eagles, right at nature’s door. So I think it’s quite clear that people see how important it is to protect that place and regenerate it and not to have this destructive approach that a lot of other festival [goers] have.”
And suppliers – how did you find local suppliers who were willing to carry everything up a mountain?
“Well, luckily, there were already there was already a Funktion-One sound supplier in Bulgaria who came to visit the site and recce the road. It’s really a dual effort; it’s the sound supplier heavily assisted by us. We’re the ones that arrange the big forest trucks that are four by four with cranes on the back and we kind of connect the two suppliers together. Luckily it just works, there’s this just beautiful weave of things that just work. Sometimes they don’t work, sometimes it rains the day that we’re trying to get the sound gear up the hill and we might have to postpone it for a day; we’ve had days where we’ve had to delay the beginning of the festival because of that. But most of the time we find solutions, I would say that’s one of the biggest challenges we’ve had over the last ten years, is really navigating the logistics of trying to build a festival in such a challenging location.”
It’s a classic tale really, the flash of inspiration, the party that grows, learn as you grow and take on partners and suppliers that can weave into your ethos. Meadows in the Mountains has grown because of its location yet despite the challenges that the location presents. Final word to Benji:
“I think we’ll all agree that the festival industry is saturated with way too many commercial festivals [that are] all about making money, it’s not actually about the magic place or the magic production. It’s just about making money and corporate commercial success. We’re just privileged to be able to be on the other end of the scales. We might struggle, we don’t always make money and we don’t always get paid, but all of our people away with joy and feeling good about going back to their day to day lives.”