MC Meets: Fiona Stewart, Managing Director of Green Man Festival

Fiona founded the Green Man Festival, and has been working on it for a decade. Here she talks to Marie Claire about festival survival tips and career highlights

Fiona Stewart, 55, is Managing Director of the Green Man Festival, the folk and music festival held annually in August, at Hay on Wye.

Fiona fell into her line of work thanks to living in Camden Town when she was younger, a place made famous by its fantastic music scene. When Big Chill Festival got into some legal problems with the council, Fiona was pulled in to manage and redesign the festival. However after six years she decided she wanted to run her own event and in 2006 she ran her last Big Chill event, and her first Green Man Festival.

What has been your highlight so far?

Seeing Green Man evolve into a national event, and working with friends and family to achieve that. We all put our hearts and souls into the festival, and to get that validation through people enjoying Green Man means a great deal to all of us. Receiving the UK Festivals Outstanding Achievement Award was an amazing experience too. To be grouped with other recipients all of whom I admire such as John Peel, and Michael Eavis was really thrilling. I was actually the first woman to receive it! More women are entering the events industry but it’s taken a while for them to have senior controlling roles, so it’s a real sign things are changing.

What’s the hardest part about your job?

Running a festival is risky and there are lots of things that can trip you up. Weather does play a big part, but if you have a lot of cover, people can still get around the site and see things, and there are a lot of comfortable warm places, it can still be a lot of fun. Oddly enough it’s not the festival operation that I find hard, but having to react to changes in financial, legal, health and safety legislation or fee changes from collection organisations. There are so many aspects to a festival that connects with different organisations such as keeping up with their requirements. It’s a challenge and determines whether your event can run or not if you get it wrong.

What advice would you give to anybody else starting out in this field?

Promoters don’t wait for others to make things happen, so start a small night in a pub or a cheap venue like a community centre. Aim to break even or factor in a slight loss in your budget. A few mistakes will be made but stress is a great teacher and you will learn loads from the experience. At the end you will have two outcomes – ‘yes this is for me’, or ‘never again!’.

What is the ultimate mistake when starting out in the festival business?

A lack of understanding of the festival market, that tends to lead to a concept that doesn’t attract enough people to attend. Competition is harsh and although new festivals do achieve success, a lot of start-ups go under. You need something different enough to stand out from other festivals.

What do you wear when you’re working on site?

I am the worst person to ask as I never wear anything practical! I’m most likely to be wearing Chanel red lipstick, a floaty dress and ballet pumps.

How many festivals have you been to in your lifetime, and what is your best festival memory?

I have been to hundreds of festivals over the years and had a blast at most of them. It’s difficult to pick out one great memory as there are so many, but a highlight tends to be when you know an emerging artist is about to break through, or the sweet kind things people do – like handing in lost wallets with all the money in them, strangers helping each other out, or crew going the extra mile for an audience member or artist. Some festivals can really bring that out in people and it’s inspiring to be around. Then there are the unique and wonderful moments that only live events deliver – when artists talk with an individual audience member from the stage, or some bonkers arts installation emerges from the mist of an early festival morning, or the joy of sharing an incredible festival moment with your friends – these are memories you keep forever.

What’s your top festival survival tip?

Get a programme as you come in so you can plan your weekend. If you are taking children make sure their ears are protected from loud levels of noise from music speakers, and take some wet wipes, they are always useful.

Can you describe your most surreal festival moment?

Seeing a group of people wearing horse heads discussing the best method of making Yorkshire puddings is one. It was made more bizarre as it got quite heated. Another memorable moment was standing on a sinking Land Rover roof whilst instructing a group of crew – that was not my most dignified moment, but it was hilarious.

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