Something exceptional is happening in Edinburgh and the whole events industry is on trial. Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay events have put the industry under the spotlight, and the light has reached some very dark places.
There is an old tradition in Scotland called first footing. My dad was the perfect “first footer”, tall, dark and handsome, the neighbours would say. The ideal first person over the threshold on a New Year morning.
So every Hogmanay our neighbours would promise my dad a glass of whisky, if he would pop into their house “just after the bells” to perform the ritual of the first foot.
My mum would always get some chunks of coal, a sign of good fortune, for my Dad to take with him on his few short trips around our little square, where he would be welcomed and would repay his hosts with a gift.
Unfortunately, even the best traditions can disappear quicker than my Dad could sink a wee glass of whisky.
Respect towards your host has all but vanished from the official New Year event in Scotland’s capital city, and the Christmas spirit has faired equally as badly.
Welcome to Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay 2019.
Pretty standard events have generated anything but a standard response
It is not the events that are exceptional – by all accounts they are decent outings – but rather, how many residents are reacting to the negative impact of having these events in their city.
This is on the surface, the story of events in Edinburgh, with the views of an experienced event organiser (and former resident) dropped on top.
But the importance of this little story comes from the general themes. These scenes are being played out, in many different guises, across the globe.
The characters might be different from your home town or city, but the issues will be the same: spaces once enjoyed by locals now pitching their wares to attract visitors and tourists, a tale of cities losing their identity.
But it is about so much more.
This story pierces the heart of cities as simple backdrops to events, rather than places where people live.
It covers the “grey area”, that is the use of public spaces.
It questions who the main stakeholders are for event companies, and it casts a shadow on the idea that our successful events can continue to grow forever.
It is a story about Edinburgh. But it is really a global issue about a global industry.
And finally this tale is about sustainable cities: places where people want to live, not simply, where they must live.
Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay events: a short tale
The 2019 Christmas market was held in Princes Street Gardens. It has this as a backdrop.
I know, wow. This is undeniably a spectacular backdrop for events.
There’s been a Christmas market in Princess Street Gardens for a few years, and the event has been getting bigger and bigger, seemingly adding more features every year. But this year something very different happened.
Locals began to complain, and the Press started to listen.
In response to this unprecedented amount of media coverage of the big winter events, Edinburgh City Council announced they will: “launch a public consultation to seek residents’ views on how the Capital should celebrate Christmas and Hogmanay in future years”
As well as a consultation, the Council released an extended press release with the title: Key facts and further information on our winter festivals. I have referred to this release throughout this article.
I have followed the story for the last couple of months. It is ostensibly about these big events, but there is clearly an undercurrent that touches on many of the issues affecting other global cities.
It may say “events” on the Tweets and Press Releases, however, what is being scrutinised, is the balance between private and public space. Between the rights of locals and the importance of attracting visitors.
To find a balance you first have to work out what you are measuring
Local Governments across the globe have an exceptionally difficult job.
They have to balance many competing ideas. Edinburgh is no different from many of the world’s popular destinations in having to encourage and support a tourist industry, while minimising the negative impact on the residents. It is a fine balance.
You will have no doubt read about the over-tourism concerns in many European cities and I have written on the impact of an ever growing number of tourists in Barcelona. And Edinburgh has similar issues.
However, much of the focus in Edinburgh is on the city’s events, and this means it is a particular interest for event organisers.
The organiser of these two winter “festivals” is events company Underbelly.
It may be Underbelly’s name that is being called out by many of the residents, but it is the wider event industry that is being taken to task.
So let’s look at those events in detail.
The Edinburgh Christmas market
It’s not hard to imagine what the Christmas market looks like when it is in full flow. The market, no doubt, looks a bit like the Christmas market in your town or city (possibly a bit tackier and unlikely to be spoiling the view of your cities most famous monument) but probably similar.
But here’s a more useful “events” image that gives a clearer idea of the build.
Something else made the 2019 market unusual. Believe it or not, it didn’t have planning permission. In fact it came to light that the 2018 market didn’t have planning permission either!
A retrospective planning application was sought by Underbelly, however, as the build was rising from the ground, it was doing so without having gone through the normal planning processes.
This understandably jarred with many residents. It just looked like the events industry didn’t have to play by the normal rules.
Once in place the market was undeniably garish, in no way blending, or even attempted to blend in with the city.
But Edinburgh is used to this. The city becomes a multi coloured cardboard canvas for the whole of August during the international arts festivals.
The market had, of course, been designed to stand out.
From a business perspective this makes perfect sense, however, shouldn’t a temporary market and entertainment complex, in a location like this, look more like the rest of the city? Shouldn’t it in fact actually blend in?
The size of the Edinburgh Christmas Market
The Christmas market and the accompanying entertainment needed a lot of space. It pretty much took over three levels of Princes Street Gardens, the public land at the centre of one of the 250 World Heritage Cities.
It was in situ for a month. But you have to add to that the week or so either side it took to erect and dismantle.
However, its impact on the site will be seen for months.
The Council admits “The reinstatement works are weather dependent and a target of Easter for full reopening is usually set” Christmas in Edinburgh, basically lasts the whole of winter.
The image above is of Princes Street Gardens from mid January.
As an events organiser, who has managed over 700 events, many in outdoor sites, I have one very important thing that I would like to state before we move on.
I would not place a private event on any public space if it had such long lasting, negative impacts. I would reject it out of hand and start to look for an alternative site.
If some mishap or accident led to this damage, that would be bad enough, but taking an event into a public park when you KNOW that it is likely to take that space out of commission for 4 x as long as you have used it, should lead any organiser to choose a new site.
The fact that this, relatively simply, event management step didn’t take place, should lead to the organisers and Edinburgh City Council answering this question:
Q: Why was a private event allowed to take place on common ground when it would have such a long lasting negative effect on public land?
The Christmas market was undeniably popular
The Council and the organisers are of course keen to point out some facts. The market was busy. Actually it was very busy. “In 2019/20 there was footfall of over 2.5 million through East Princes Street Gardens”
To give you some perspective, that’s five times the size of the population of Edinburgh, and almost half the number of people who live in Scotland!
No one can be in any way surprised that a Christmas market, in a prime location during Christmas, was popular.
Popularity isn’t always a great way to measure things, especially at Christmas.
The 2019, UK Christmas Number 1 pop song was popular. It was an unbearably bad 3 minutes about loving sausage rolls.
Indeed, this use of popularity equating success, is at the very heart of the problem.
The Council and the organisers see a larger, busier market as “successful”
However, many residents see the issues amplified as the market grows.
There are of course simple fixes to the main problem.
A large Christmas market somewhere else in the city. It could be on public land, if the organisers could maintain the space in a fit state for public use.
Or simply find a private site. Edinburgh is a big city.
Or reduce the size of the market. In a sustainable world, things have to stop growing, and our popular events are no different.
As in many cities, Edinburgh’s Christmas celebrations lead into New Year celebrations. So, the Christmas market continued across the first week of New Year. Some of the Christmas features made way for the infrastructure to support the New Year celebrations.
In Scotland, Hogmanay is traditionally as big a celebration as Christmas, and for the last twenty years or so, Edinburgh has managed to hold massive street parties and 2019 was no different.
Put this way, they have around 70,000 first footers! You can see details of the *** review on Tripadvisor.
Unfortunately, issues for the organisers Underbelly seemed to follow them into the new year.
Two of the main pain points were addressed by the Council’s press release.
The first was the removal of a Christmas tree donated by Norway. The tree was replaced by a screen that was used for the Hogmanay street party.
It has been taken down with the consent of those who had donated it. There was no mention that this was unusually early to take down the main Christmas tree in the city, especially when it was a gift from a foreign land!
The second issue that was seized upon by some residents, was the removal of a nativity scene.
This, the council told us, was relocated to somewhere it had been in previous years.
There was no mention that the nativity scene was replaced by a big advert for a whisky brand, which isn’t really the Christmas spirit most people associate with nativity scenes.
Both these issues give substance to the general feeling that Christmas in Edinburgh wasn’t really about Christmas, but was simply a vehicle for certain people (events organisers being highlighted of course) to make money.
When your host has this feeling about your visit, you can’t be surprised that you aren’t invited back.
There was one other area that was highlighted by concerned locals that didn’t make it into the press release.
There seemed to be a general lack of concern about some of the things that were moved to make space for the market and the Hogmanay events, including the benches which line the top of the Gardens.
This seemed pretty minor at the time, but these benches gained much more significance as a side story developed. Who would give the order to set fire to memorial benches?
I’d like to look at the three main “charges” from an event management perspective.
When you organise an event that has an impact on the community (and any large event which uses public space has an impact) the organisers have to consider the optics of the event.
Allowing a Christmas tree to be removed and a nativity scene to be downgraded, so you can put up a screen and an advert looked bad.
An advert and a screen could have been placed in other locations.
The City Council suggested that the screen is “necessary for safety announcements” and I am sure it is, but given the size of the event space, I can’t really imagine that there was nowhere else to place a screen. And of course an advert could really have been placed anywhere.
These incidents gave the impression, once again, that these events are not suitable for the city centre location. It also brought to the fore the idea that certain stakeholders have more value than the hosts.
I know as you read through this you could think that was all pretty trivial, especially when you consider the size of the event.
Undeniably when you have a “site” of this size you will make some mistakes, and removing a few things early isn’t a major event crime. Maybe simple mistakes, or errors of judgement.
So let’s deal with the most shocking aspect of the Hogmanay event: the need for locals to apply for passes to enter their own homes during the duration of the event.
The police state
Over a few days, as outlined above, Edinburgh starts to prepare for a massive street party. And to make way for the revellers, trees were removed and displays relocated.
Barriers were put up, which restricted access to and from local buses, and made it difficult for buggies to traverse the streets.
Owing to these are other small changes, it was easy to have the feeling that over these few weeks, the city didn’t belong to the residents.
Unbelievably, as part of this “take over”, residents had to notify Underbelly if they were planning a private Hogmanay party within the Hogmanay zone. Underbelly stated on their website that “a reasonable number of additional access passes to be issued”
It is for Underbelly, a private event organiser, to decide your guest list.
Talk about a closed shop, well this was a closed city.
You are no doubt asking yourself why was a single events company given so much power over a city? But you haven’t heard the best of it yet.
Every events company has to monitor the number of attendees at an event; that is an unavoidable as it is necessary. But for residents to show a wrist band to access their street?
You would expect to see this level of security at a large professional event, but this isn’t a normal event. The “stage” includes many streets in the city centre. No pass: no entry doesn’t work in the same way.
This alone, surely suggests that the format of this event has somehow lost sight of its responsibility to its host: the residents of Edinburgh.
Giving over Edinburgh city centre as a canvas for a 70,000 person event is absurd.
The city centre, a huge chunk of public space, becomes a private fortress, where only those who have paid in excess of £30 to enter or those residents who choose to show personal information to a total stranger, are able to enter.
Please ponder that. To enter your home you may have had to show someone (a security guard paid for by an events company) more personal details than you legally had to tell a Police Officer.
The unworkable nature of this, of course, inevitably led to much confusion, misinformation and misunderstanding.
However, what has become crystal clear is that the format of this event has to change: and I am about to say something akin to event heresy, the event has to become smaller. Big isn’t always beautiful.
Unfortunately all the council would state was that “communications around this will be reviewed for 2020”
Fortress Edinburgh looks set to continue.
An organiser’s dream as well as a nightmare
Being in charge of an event that is fast becoming one of those bucket list events is a dream for any event organiser.
Underbelly list the Edinburgh festivals as their keystone events, and they worked super hard to grab the Hogmanay event away from the previous organisers.
But for some residents the events are turning into a nightmare.
The organisation in charge of maintaining Edinburgh’s World Heritage status fear that Edinburgh’s new tourist strategy will jeopardise its status. The strategy places events at its heart.
And there is a grubbiness that surrounds Edinburgh over the festive period.
Money seems to be talking ever louder.
Events that were once free have been commodified.
Streets that were once open to the public have been closed.
Public spaces are now private.
And at the heart of this is the events industry, currently represented in Edinburgh by Underbelly and Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay events.
The Loony Dook
There was one other event that took place under Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay winter festivals, and this too, merited comment in the City Council press release.
It was a strange event called the Loony Dook. It costs £12 to enter the sea for a few minutes. Public space at an absolute premium.
It looks like a brilliant time is had by all of the 1000 plus crazy people who head into the sea in Scotland on New Years day, most of them in fancy dress!
The background to this event is perhaps the most interesting piece of the whole press release.
From an organisers perspective it is worth looking at this part in detail.
Here is a chunk of the press release:
“For safety reasons, primarily due to the narrow access route on a set of stairs and the size of the beach, there is a limit on the number of participants taking part at the Loony Dook in South Queensferry. The number, 1,100, is agreed jointly with the local community, the Council and safety advisors.
The price of the Loony Dook was set at £10 including a donation to the RNLI by the previous contractor, Unique Events, in 2016. Underbelly set the price at £12, including a £1 donation to the RLNI in 2017 and it has remained the same price since. Underbelly operates the event at a loss to itself of over £7,000: the income after VAT and the donation to the RNLI is £9,912 and the costs – stewarding, policing, safety and production – are over £17,000.”
What should strike you first of all is that we get straight into talking about money.
It is the only part of the release that mentions any kind of income, cost, expenditure and profit (and when you read the rest of what I’ve written you will probably see why)
If you are going to talk about these parts of one event, why not all of them?
Underbelly know the income, cost, and profit for the Christmas market and the Hogmanay celebrations, so why omit these details?
And also, I’ve looked at the figures and they don’t really make any sense.
The details allow me to break down the event, which is SUPER interesting from an event organisers perspective and is hopefully revealing from a wider view.
From the press release we can construct this budget.
Income (ticket sales): £9,912
Expenditure (stewarding, policing, staffing and production: £17,000
So let’s look at those figures in a bit more detail.
It was free until 2011, when a £6 fee was introduced. So back then it had an income of around £6600. It now has an income double that.
The VAT comment (after VAT and the donation to the RNLI is £9,912) is a strange one. The ticket price will include VAT and Underbelly will claim that back as part of the VAT they pay out. So it’s a weird thing to include.
As an event organiser you tend not to include VAT in your budget because it pretty much levels out.
Not everything that comes under ‘expenditure’ would actually be an external cost. Part of that £17,000 expenditure is PAID to Underbelly who will allocate their fees to the event budget.
Accepting that the event makes “£7000 loss”, then you have to also accept that part of that loss is caused by the payment to Underbelly.
So if you accept these figures, then the budget has a loss, but Underbelly doesn’t incur that loss, because part of its profit making activities are included.
So my rough and rounded up budget (based obviously on missing information so I am very happy to be corrected, would be)
Income ticket sales £13,000
(Assuming no sponsorship income, although I would be surprised this wasn’t sponsored) £0
Donation to RNLI £1000
Policing and safety, plus external suppliers like the band, structure hire etc £4000
Underbelly production charges / event management £15,000
It looks quite different when put like this.
Now I have to state that this is my best guess, but as someone who has organised over 700 events, I would be surprised if I was off by a large margin.
The point I want to make is that the loss figure is likely to be misleading but it could, on paper, very well be true.
And a final note on the loss.
If you ask me to run three events and two of them make a big profit, I would have no issue with the smaller event making a loss. Because I look at the project overall.
And that’s what we would all love to know. How much profit are the organisers making from this extensive use of public space?
It is exceptionally important that all the figures for these events are made available.
The Events Industry has to be more sustainable
As we move towards a more sustainable world, our green city spaces become ever more important. Cities can become smart, in a way that the countryside can not. But city dwellers need green spaces, as one sustainability expert said to me at an event, “Green spaces are the Ying to the hustle and bustle of a smart cities Yang”
Event organisers have to show more respect to those spaces, and to those who have a right to use them.
In an article on the Edinburgh August festivals and the need to respect the locals, I wrote:
“Event organisers and promoters should work with Government agencies, local authorities and local communities to ensure their events are welcome and they must place profit alongside their social and community responsibilities.
Event organisers have big responsibilities and it’s time to live up to them.”
I hope that by writing this extended piece on Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay events, I have added to the debate in a constructive manner.
I am happy to respond to any and all comments and to amend this article if any mistakes have been made in my calculations.