Interview with Andy Fryers, Sustainability Director, The Hay Festival

Andy Fryers, sustainability director at The Hay Festival discusses how the pandemic has caused him to rethink the Festival’s approach to digital engagement with audiences. And how the organisation can be run more sustainably in the future.

‘We increased our new audience by 50%’

In April 2019 we knew that we were going to have to cancel everything. In three weeks turn 750 live events into a 125 event digital festival.

We had the advantage of being one of the first major events to be cancelled. Everything was still fresh. But there were also a lot of the pitfalls – such as not being able to see what everyone else has done.

And we were lucky. As the lockdown was in full force people didn’t have much choice about what they could or couldn’t do. People were just grateful to be able to see something. We had over 421,000 views over the 11 Festival days.

The beauty of digital is you don’t have to watch live. So we had massive figures. We increased our new audience by 50%, with people from 140 countries watching. It was an eye-opener for us.

‘It really changed how we think’

Being forced to go fully digital really changed how we think about what we can do. And at the same time, it re-emphasized how important live performance is. You don’t get the same level of engagement or connection with people online. But it does mean you can reach places where otherwise you can’t.

And from a sustainability perspective our carbon impacts and overall impacts were massively reduced.

Next May (2022) is hopefully going to be live again. But now it’s about how we capitalize on the digital success, whilst maintaining a live event. And what we do to capture and keep some of those sustainability wins, whilst giving people the chance to meet, celebrate and talk.

‘A good opportunity to rethink and draw breath’

Due to the continuing success of our live Festivals, we were already looking at how to manage the number of visitors to Hay. This has given us the opportunity to draw breath and to rethink and redesign the live space. As we now know that we can capitalize on the digital side and grow audiences remotely. And more. That’s the exciting bit – we’re looking forward developing. It’s been a good opportunity to rethink and draw breath.

In any form of interaction with people, there’s a series of barriers. Whether they are financial, educational or physical. Digital isn’t by any means a panacea for all access, but it certainly just gives us an opportunity to reach more people.

‘Innovation from the gaming world’

The exciting thing for digital events is the innovation coming from the gaming world.

It tends to lead a lot of virtual reality. I believe this will spin out into events like Hay. We will become much more of an interactive space – where you can almost feel as though you’re there. That’s where the interesting developments are going to be.

If you take the gaming industry and dissect it, you’ve got some amazing mathematicians, graphic designers and creative people. It’s a creative industry, much the same as I work in. There is a natural linkage between the creative industries – we can learn from each other.

‘With digital we have the whole world open to us’

For next summer I’m trying to arrange some kind of virtual reality event, so that we can test it. It will be fairly niche because people don’t have access to the technology yet. But with digital we have the whole world open to us.

We have to take a strategic approach. To understand where the differences and crossovers are between three different audiences. Some people will only want digital – it’s the only way they’re ever going to experience Hay. Others will only want to be involved with us live. And some are in the middle – wanting a bit of both. They like coming live, but they’ll watch online to catch up if they miss an event.

And somehow we have to monetize it – to pay for what we do. There’s lots of different models around which we are currently exploring.

‘To reach new audiences’

The opportunity to reach new audiences is huge. For example, we know that the disabled audience is huge, and is desperate for good content. We already subtitle all our events and it’s one of the key audiences we are thinking about growing digitally.

We’ll continue to use customer research of course – to help us focus on what people want. What topics are of particular interest? Which would really resonate with different types of audience? And it’s also about marketing. Making sure that those people are aware these events are on and are accessible.

‘It’s made us completely rethink how we approach work’

We used to travel down to London for publisher meetings. It’s a three and a half hour journey into London and the same back. We would have two or three meetings a day. But for the 2020 festival we lined up two weeks of Zoom calls, and we met around 40 publishers back-to-back.

In terms of time efficiency and overall impact on the environment it’s phenomenally different. It’s made us completely rethink how we approach work. I won’t be going to London as much as I used to.

‘We take it for granted – until it’s taken away’

It’s also made me think about the importance of our surroundings on our mental and physical health.

I live just outside Hay, surrounded by fields and mountains. I could go outside whenever I want to. If I’m on Zoom calls all day I want to go outside and get some fresh air in a nice space. It has reinforced the need for a combination of inside and outside.

But not everyone has this opportunity of access. We take it for granted – until it’s taken away. The lockdown has reignited the need to ensure that everyone has access to quality outside spaces.

Whilst I’ve always known that change could be possible, I was surprised by the speed of change that society achieved. It showed that as a community we can work together – it was a positive thing.

‘It’s about ‘Good or Better’ not ‘Bad or Good’

I was furloughed for a while and I found it quite difficult at first. It was hard for me to stop working.

Then I realised that the longest I’ve had off in my whole career is four weeks. Suddenly I had three months and I appreciated the luxury of that. But also, how ridiculous it is that in 30 years of work I’ve never had more than four weeks off.

It was clearly a luxury – but should it be? Shouldn’t we be able to build this into our working lives more often? I think that our work-life balance has been skewed for a long time now.

And, from a climate change perspective, people spending less time working or commuting has many positives. As a society we need to move towards a better balance and whilst still having choices, those choices should be between ‘Good or Better’ not ‘Bad or Good’. There isn’t one size that fits all, clearly there are financial implications that need to be addressed for many people but we could have one ambition for sustainable lives that fits all. That should be the future.

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