Fyre Festival-An Event Planner's Perspective

As some of you saw, I wrote and shared a post about the Fyre Festival documentary on Hulu. In it, I talked about the event from an event planner’s perspective. Now that I watched the Netflix documentary as well, I have modified my thoughts a bit.

Again, an overview: young, successful tech entrepreneur Billy McFarland paired up with rapper Ja Rule to create an app called Fyre. This app was designed to allow users to book celebrity talent on demand for private and public events. When brainstorming how to launch the app, it was decided that the team would launch the first-ever Fyre Festival—a luxury music festival on a private island in the Bahamas.

The Hulu documentary (aptly called “Fyre Fraud”) seemed to be from Billy’s perspective, or at least that was the one he was interviewed for. The Netflix documentary (“Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened”) is the ‘‘other side'“ of the story, concentrating on interviews with his team and contractors/partners for the event. In the Netflix documentary, the event planner is interviewed at length.

The planner had known Billy at that point for 4 or 5 years, and had produced events for his former company, Magnises. While I am unsure of his other credentials, it seemed from the movie that he had experience producing large-scale international events. At one point in the interview, he says that it should have taken “at least a year” to produce a festival of this size and magnitude, including concept design and fundraising.

I have to disagree, not only with that point, but with a number of things that were discussed in the documentaries. Below are a few key places where they missed the mark.

Timeline: A first-time event of this scale, on a site that is this blank of a canvas should take at least 18 months, if not longer. Chartering flights for thousands of attendees, setting up lodging, food, running water, and an overall infrastructure takes long enough in and of itself, let alone booking entertainment, setting up staging for artists of that caliber. At the very least, having a firm idea of your event goals and objectives, artist lineup, event costs and ticket price markups, and firm commitments from investors should be completed prior to marketing the event and putting together ticket prices and lodging packages. Many of these things fluctuate over time, especially travel related costs. In the event planner’s own words, the full event team was not put together until 6-8 weeks prior to the event. The staging company didn’t begin their contract until 45 days prior to the event. The event site was moved about 6 weeks prior to the event, due to a conflict with the original island’s owner. (Note: I am getting anxiety just thinking about this)

Costs: It truly does not seem like anyone, even the event planner, considered real-life costs or sponsorship opportunities for anything. From shipping costs, to customs requirements and costs, and overall logistics of having to bring virtually everything on to the island by plane or boat, this is a unique situation—but not impossible. Many vendors were unpaid even up to the day of the festival, which by contract typically states that the services requested will not be carried out. One huge example, to go from a $6M budget to feed 6,000 attendees to a $1M budget on an island (with no running water) is a huge cut into what you’re able to deliver. Labor costs were also not a consideration, presumably because Billy thought that he would be able to con more money out of some of his closest investors.

Logistics: What is also obvious, as I continued watching, is that no one had a plan B. When the first attendees arrived on the island, they were re-routed to a venue that had no warning of the impending crowds, and when they were finally brought to the event site, lodging was not set up, luggage was misplaced, and it was, essentially, a free-for-all. As one of the contractors notes, all of the tents were occupied at the end of the first night, which only made up one-third of the total expected attendees. When it became obvious that the festival itself would be cancelled, there was virtually no plan B. Marc Weinstein noted that, as of a few weeks prior to the festival, they had not booked return flights for anyone. This is not only a logistics issue, it could have quickly become a state of emergency if an “act of god” had occurred on the island while attendees were there.

Project Management: From what I could tell, simply based on some research and these documentaries in particular, it seemed like everyone was operating in a vacuum. Furthermore, when information or words of caution were communicated, they seemed to only be communicated to the very top (Billy and his “Chief Marketing Officer,” Grant). While everything should be communicated to the key stakeholders, everyone on the team needs to be kept informed about the status of all aspects of a project this large; even a 15-minute check-in call on Mondays and Fridays would have an immense impact on the ability to problem-solve and identify gaps.

Marketing: Obviously, with this event, false advertising was the cause of a lot of the issues from the start. From there, the ego of the founder and his colleagues got in the way, as well as false promises made to investors and, we come to find out, inflation of assets and valuations of the company as a whole. From a marketing perspective in general, they shot the initial marketing video without having an official location. Therefore, from a logistics perspective, expectations could not be managed from the start. In fact, one thing I agreed with from the event planner’s perspective was that they should have managed expectations prior to everyone getting on the island, rather than continue to sell the initial dream from the video. What’s more, they actually photoshopped the ‘event map’ from a map of the nearby Sandals resort. Completely false advertising.

Attendee Experience: One thing that was missing from, especially Billy’s, thought process is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes—empathy. In my opinion, this is a critical skill when planning an event. Whether he decided to ignore that perspective or just simply was not emotionally or cognitively able to have such a perspective, that was lacking in virtually every aspect of this event.

Ego over Expertise: Above all, the overarching theme is that the ego of the founder in particular superseded any advice given by the experts that were hired to execute the event. This actually happens more often than not, especially when the founder is a successful entrepreneur in their own right. They only see success, and not the barriers to execution that were very real. Again, that is sometimes essential to success—and sometimes a detriment.

Troubleshooting/After-Event Follow-up: This was a heartbreaking part for me to see. Once the team was able to (finally) get the attendees off the island, Billy and the founding team were nowhere to be found. Some contractors stuck around, some made an escape plan themselves. To make matters worse, Billy and his co-founders did not pay their vendors, including the 200+ Bahamian citizens who worked 24 hours per day in the weeks leading up to the event. It was estimated that they were owed over $500,000, not including the restaurant owner who had to clean $50,000 out of her savings to pay her employees.

Did you see one or both documentaries? What did you think?

Note: if you want to donate to the effort to repay the citizens of Exuma Point, please click here for the GoFundMe account.