The much-anticipated insight into the notorious Fyre Festival went live on Netflix on Friday. Must-watch viewing for Event Managers everywhere, the trailer promised an ‘exclusive behind the scenes look at the infamous unraveling’ of the 2017 event.
Fyre Festival was the brainchild of ambitious entrepreneur Billy McFarland and music mogul Ja Rule. Its unique point-of-sale was selling an Instagram dream; an island paradise in the Bahamas, private planes, luxury accommodation, headline performers and an audience full of the most beautiful, most popular, and most dewy-faced supermodels and influencers.
For a small fortune, you too could be a part of it! And in a world fuelled by FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), many people did want to be a part of it. Fyre promised to be the music festival at which to see and be seen and anyone who was anyone (and had a few thousand dollars to spare….) bought tickets. The festivals launch pad was Instagram, where a well-funded series of orange squares appeared on the grids of key influencers overnight, creating the ultimate FOMO. Within 48-hours, tickets had sold out.
Fyre’s social media popularity was however also instrumental in its downfall. When festival goers arrived in the Bahamas to ‘luxury accommodation’, which were actually hurricane relief tents and the infamous cheese sandwich ‘exclusive catering’….they took to the ‘gram. And Twitter. And Facebook. They posted pictures, and videos and shared their experience with the world. Any hopes of trying to salvage a bad situation or Billy keeping it all hush hush were dashed. The world knew it had gone horribly wrong, and they wanted to know why?
And so did I! So, on Saturday afternoon, I sat down with a cup of tea ready to get a behind the scenes look at how it failed so spectacularly. The documentary was fascinating, and scary and quite frankly, pretty shocking throughout!
There are a million and one lessons to be learned from the Fyre Festival; it is a true case study of how not to put on a music festival. Below we explore four of the main storytellers from the documentary and some different lessons to be learned from each of them:
Ja Rule, Festival Partner
Ja Rule was the celebrity face of Fyre Festival. His existing business partnership with founder of Fyre Media, Billy McFarland, worked as the perfect breeding ground for new ideas and they agreed that the Fyre Festival would be the perfect way to promote their music-booking app. Having an established notoriety within the music business, Ja Rule gave the new venture the authenticity it needed to gain the trust of other influencers, acts, and brands. If Fyre Media had convinced him, then it was good enough for others.
If you are looking for sponsors, start small and initially just try to secure one brand. If your event is a success, that brand will come back, and spread the word. The same works with influencers and customers. If you contract one key celebrity to promote and attend your event in year one, their fan base will follow. Do the event well, and they will tell their industry colleagues, meaning more people will open to attend your event in year two. The level of trust and reputation will already be in place.
Since Fyre Festival, influencers and celebrities are even more acutely aware that what they are promoting and attending needs to be reputable. They need to know what they are putting their face to.
Lesson to Learn:
If you are putting your name to something, know it. Know it inside out. And if you are asking (or paying) someone to put their name to something, make sure it is clear that it is an #ad and they know what they are promoting.
Maryann Rolle, Owner of Exuma Point Bar and Grille
Maryann’s interview was the one that really pulled at the heartstrings and showed the wider impact of this failed venture. Maryann runs the Exuma Point Bar and Grille, and was contracted to supply up to 1,000 meals per day for staff, artists and guests. She explains how she drafted in 10 additional staff, working 24 hours a day to ensure she fulfilled her end of the bargain. And she didn’t get paid a penny. As soon as they had decided to pull the plug, the Fyre organisers jumped on their private chartered plane, and never looked back. They left hundreds of local Bahamians unpaid for the work they had completed and totally out of pocket. Maryann put her hand in her own pocket and paid out around £50,000 of her own money to ensure her staff got the wages they were promised. Any hopes of Fyre ever paying up what they owe people seem slim.
The footage of Maryann highlights the wider impact that big events can have on the local community, infrastructure, and economy. A large scale event like a festival or exhibition can bring in huge amounts of visitors, suppliers, and staff. Not only will they be there to get a job done or enjoy a show, but they will also need somewhere local to stay, to go and eat, to buy a drink. The additional spend into a local community that an event can generate in turn creates additional jobs for the people within the local community. The potential economic impact that an event success, or failure, will have on the surrounding community cannot be underestimated.
Lesson to Learn:
Your event is bigger than you and the client. Think about the wider implications all your decisions and actions will have.
Billy McFarland, Festival Founder (And Fraudster King)
I’m not even sure where to start with Billy McFarland. He is the ultimate salesman, the ultimate con man, and the ultimate liar. His dishonesty seems to know no bounds (proven when he continued his dodgy dealings even when out on bail.) Fyre Festival was his idea, and his disaster to take responsibility for. He is the extreme example of a client with an amazing event idea but literally no clue how to go about pulling it off, but also not willing to listen to good advice. For many organisations, events are just an added extra. For example, Fyre Festival was intended to be a launch event for Fyre Media app. It was an added extra to help launch the service, sell the product and impress existing customers.
Events of this scale take a huge amount of planning and non-professional event planners can often underestimate how much attention an event project needs and deserves. In some organisations, existing members of staff, with other responsibilities, priorities, and areas of expertise, are often asked to take on the additional load of event planning. This seemed to be the case with Fyre Festival. The documentary seemed to show that McFarland thought he knew it all and was reluctant to bring in experts until he really didn’t have a choice. Had he done so sooner, the situation may not have been as dire as it was.
Lesson to Learn:
You are not an expert in everything, and you are not expected to be an expert in everything. Get help from people that can do things better than you and your combined efforts will make you successful.
Andy King, Event Producer
Billy McFarland was a long time client of Andy King and he was contacted by Billy late on in the project (45 days until the event) when it became glaringly apparent that the Fyre team were in desperate need of some actual event planning expertise. The documentary highlighted Andy’s unwavering determination to pull rabbits out of hats and get a good result. If you have ever worked on a difficult project or with a difficult client you will understand that the feeling of responsibility to ‘pull it out of the bag’ is huge. The client’s idea becomes your idea, and you eat, sleep and breathe the event.
If you know the event vision is a good one that could be a huge success, advice landing on deaf ears, a lack of budget to build basic infrastructure and warnings not being heeded, are all incredibly frustrating. The event success is no longer just business, it is personal. It is your responsibility to get the client to listen, it is your responsibility to fix their problems, and it is your responsibility to make it happen no matter what.
However, (and it is a big HOWEVER!) Andy King’s on-the-record admission of just how far he was willing to go was probably the most shocking revelation of the entire documentary. (If you haven’t watched it yet, watch out for the Evian catastrophe and what the client demands to fix it!).
Lesson to Learn:
“No” is not often a word in the Event Managers arsenal. We are ‘Yes’ men, determined to make the impossible possible. That is part of the pride of the job and proof of your talent as an Event Manager. But sometimes, personal pride needs to come first, and a NO is absolutely entirely necessary.
American network Hulu released a similar documentary, Fyre Fraud, five days prior to the Netflix release and the social media frenzy around the Fyre Festival since both documentaries aired has been massive. And all without the help of any paid influencers!
Whether it is condemning McFarland for the fraud committed, questioning Ja Rule’s financial gain and how he got away with it, making a donation to Maryann & Elvis Rolle of Exuma Point Resort or being absolutely baffled by the lengths at which Event Producer Andy King was willing to go to, social media has been full of Fyre Festival commentary.
Since the documentaries were filmed, McFarland has been jailed for six years for multiple counts of fraud and is banned from being a company director for life.
The Fyre Festival dream held so much promise. With the right management, event team, time, money, and resources it could have been the event of the year. Instead, it was probably the most epic festival fail in history.
Have you watched the documentary yet? Do you think Billy’s prison sentence is enough? What did you find the most surprising element?