The cultural events scene is booming - now it even has its own degrees

Think festival and most people conjure up a muddy field, a beer tent, some loud music and, depending on their taste, either one of the best or worst experiences of their life. Yet this limited scenario does the modern festival sector a disservice. There is a festival to suit every taste, be it the mega-crowds and headline bands of Glastonbury, the anarchic acts of the Edinburgh Fringe or the more rarefied atmosphere of the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

These days, there are festivals dedicated to choral music, jazz, books, food, glass and even hats. There are very old festivals, such as the Three Choirs Festival, which has been held each year since the early 18th century, and brand new ones, such as the Birmingham International Dance Festival, held for the first time earlier this year.

Festival-going is becoming big business in the UK. According to research commissioned by the British Arts Festival Association (BAFA) in 2007, over 5 million people attended 193 festivals in 2006-2007, generating £12.9m in ticket sales for its members and contributing almost £42m to the UK economy. But the contribution is not just economic. BAFA likes to describe festivals as "a creative powerhouse in the UK" and the figures certainly appear to back that up: in 2006-2007 its members put on over 10,000 events, created 50,530 opportunities for artists and performers and staged 1,250 world premieres and 500 national premieres. What's more, these numbers are likely to be eclipsed in the coming years because the research was commissioned when BAFA had 80 members; that tally has now grown to 115.

"Festivals have really boomed in recent years," says Richard Hawley, director of the Lichfield Festival, the leading multi-arts festival in the West Midlands. "New ones are starting all the time and it's very rare for old ones to flounder. It's to do with a sense of identity, a sense of community well being and, of course, it also taps into the tourism and visitor economy."

Putting on a festival is not for the faint-hearted, however. "Festivals look exciting and glorious but they are actually hard graft on every level," says Hawley. Festival organisers must put together an artistic and cultural programme that will attract the crowds. But they must keep in mind local sensitivities, comply with increasingly stringent health and safety and planning requirements, and still balance the books.

It is little wonder that forward-thinking higher education institutions see an opportunity to tap into the growing popularity of festivals and offer programmes designed to equip students with this demanding skillset. Queen Mary University in Edinburgh, for example, offers an MA in festival management, with modules that range from finance and fundraising to arts marketing and public relations. Napier University Business School, also in Edinburgh, runs an MSc in international event and festival management. The location of both programmes is no coincidence, says Constantia Anastasiadou, postgraduate programme leader at Napier, which has been running the programme for four years.

"We do have a natural advantage because we are based in Edinburgh, which is a festival city," says Anastasiadou, whose students range from arts graduates to biologists, and from new graduates to seasoned workers looking for a promotion. "It means we really emphasise the festival side whereas some courses concentrate more on events management.

"There are a lot of people who are extremely talented in their field but have no understanding of how to run a commercial enterprise," she says.

The MSc aims to fill in those business gaps, such as public policy, planning regulations, safety requirements, HR management and audience research. But the course isn't all theory and students work on a consultancy project for a festival or events company, perhaps looking at marketing strategies or researching potential audiences.

"This gives the students an opportunity to come into direct contact with companies that could be their employers in the future," says Anastasiadou. "Some of the students have then got summer placements with those companies and, because we have good contacts with the industry, we often get companies approaching us with recruitment or volunteer requests for events both here in Edinburgh and elsewhere in the UK."

These industry contacts are essential because it can be difficult to get your foot in the door. Most festival organisations are lean machines run on tight budgets, making them dependent on freelance contractors, part-time workers and, yes, enthusiastic volunteers, and often lack the resources to train someone from scratch.

"You have to realise you often have to take small steps to get started in this sector," says Anastasiadou. "You may have to volunteer and do part-time work in lots of different areas but it is those experiences that will make your CV strong. Doing our course does tend to speed up this process because it shows you understand the industry."

So what do potential employers think of the qualification? Richard Hawley of the Lichfield Festival is in two minds. "I don't have any qualifications in festival management," he notes. "I have a music qualification, and the rest of it I have learnt at the coal face, which is probably true for the majority of my peers. I'm sure there will be elements of these courses that will be useful but nothing will prepare you like getting your hands dirty. If these courses have a huge practical content then I am all for it but if it's formulaic and from a book then I would be cautious."

A spokeswoman for the Edinburgh International Festival says the value of the qualification lies in the quality of the course. "Qualifications are a good indicator of someone's commitment, work ethic and level of interest and therefore of course an important consideration," she says. "The skills required in working for a festival vary widely depending on the size and type of the festival; many can be gained outwith the sector, many others are largely dependent on experience and personality."

'I see it as helping me take that next step'

Olivier Joly, 39, is studying part-time for an MSc in international event and festival management at Napier University Business School in Edinburgh.

"I've been working in the festival industry for quite some time doing PR and press work, including four years doing PR for the Edinburgh Book Festival. I really started from the bottom up, doing work experience in a theatre, working front of house and back stage and it just grew from there.

I wanted to do this qualification to open up my career options and get involved with festival management, maybe even starting up a festival in the longer term.

I think it would be very difficult to make this change without doing a qualification, particularly if I wanted to go back to work in France where they are very keen on diplomas and might not appreciate all the experience I've had in Edinburgh over the last 10 years.

And for me it's also to build confidence and have a piece of paper that is recognised – something extra on top of my experience. I feel I'm at the right stage now in my life to look at management and I see this as helping me take that next step."

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