Festival Planning 101 — Part Four: Presenters and Performers

Image courtesy of Unsplash

It’s going to sound cheesy, but there’s no lie when I say that festival organization really does rely on teamwork to make the dream work. No single person or group can pull off a festival without the help, skills, expertise, and vision of the others. Every event, though, is going to have a cadre of folks who are primarily responsible for providing the content that is most frequently the heart of the fest. These are the people who deliver the keynote addresses, lead the rituals, teach the classes, play the music, and do the dance numbers — and possibly engage your attendees in a dozen other ways. 

We’re going to consider a few factors in finding, working with, and taking care of these folks so that your event can balance budgeting concerns, build a reputation as a great destination for content creators of all types, and grow according to your vision.

High Profile v. Local Talent

Some festivals are dedicated to the premise of highlighting the wisdom, skills, and experience of local or regional volunteers. These events are often community-driven and smaller in scale (50-300 attendees, as opposed to thousands). Presenters and performers may be well-known within this regional community, but there is usually the opportunity for new talent to find a way onto the scene. One of the major benefits of working with local talent is that they are often connected to hearths, covens, kindreds, or other groups that may become actively involved in festival life as paid attendees, volunteers, or even organizers. 

Other festivals and cons seek the BNP’s (“Big Name Pagans”) who have published books through Llewellyn and Red Wheel/Weiser (etc), amassed 100k social media followings, or otherwise found large-scale public awareness and “traditional” markers of success. These high profile folks get top billing in promotional materials, but there is usually still lots of room for lesser-known subject matter experts to have proposals considered for inclusion. One of the major benefits of working with high profile talent is that they are often able to help promote the event to a wider audience, both directly (by blasting it on their social media) and indirectly (because some people will choose to attend simply because they saw on your website that So-And-So was coming). 

Presenter/Performer Proposals

One of the best ways to make sure your event is getting accurate, detailed, and usable information for presenters and performers is to have a standard proposal form that is submitted for basically everyone. It can give the organizing team a real leg-up on being able to consider which proposals you want to accept versus which ones might not be a great fit for this year’s line-up (or for your event, as a whole). And if you start with a fairly comprehensive form, you won’t have to pester your presenters and performers to track down details later. 

I like to use Google Forms for this because it is free, easy to create and modify, and easy for respondents to complete. You can also embed the form on your website or share it as a link, which I find helpful. There are probably more techy tools out there, but I’ve seen fests both big and small use this one successfully. Being free makes it accessible to start-up festivals that might not have a big budget for back-end expenses, and being easy makes it so much more accessible for less tech-savvy presenters and performers who have great content to share.

You’ll want to include some sort of disclaimer that submission of a proposal doesn’t guarantee acceptance. When it comes to large events, most folks understand that the selection process can be quite rigorous. However, it isn’t unheard of for folks at smaller events to make some fairly bold assumptions — including that standards are more lax for content (which isn’t necessarily true).

The information that you need might include some other factors than those listed below, but this is a good place to start:

  • Legal Name (as it appears on state-issued ID)
  • Preferred Name (as you’d like it to appear on festival-generated materials)
  • Preferred Pronouns
  • Email address
  • Phone
  • Preferred contact method
  • Short bio (for website and program)
  • Presentation Title 
  • Presentation Description (for website and program)
  • Type of Presentation (class/lecture, discussion/round table, workshop/demo, ritual, performance, other/combo)
  • Length of Presentation (1 hour or less, 1 to 1.5 hours, 1.5 to 2 hours, more than 2 hours — provide explanation of time needs in additional notes at end of form)
  • Equipment Needs (work table, projector, white board, water access, electricity, other)
  • Space Needs (specific room, stage, workshop/ritual area)
  • Timing Needs (morning, afternoon, evening, night, any)
  • Availability 
  • Additional Notes

That’s a lot of information to gather, but it can be so helpful when your team is making its initial decisions and again later when you are piecing your schedule together and trying to sort through rooms/areas and equipment. Nothing is more frustrating than thinking you’ve got a plan only to discover that you never asked about a basic aspect of the presentation, and now the whole plan has to be reconfigured. 

Pro-tip: When you’re recruiting a BNP (aka, you dropped them a DM to start the conversation, as opposed to them reaching out to you to ask about presenter opportunities), you’ll probably be recording this information yourself. You can always politely ask them to complete the form, but it might be just as easy to ask for the bio and presentation descriptions to be emailed to you, and then you transcribe all the details into your form once you have everything. Usually, you’ll have a great amount of detail from your previous communications because you will have negotiated compensation, availability, travel, lodging, and more.

Compensation and Other Considerations

Compensation for presenters and performers varies significantly from event to event, but there are a few basic factors at play. 

Most Pagan festivals, conventions, and retreats offer discounted or free admission to presenters and performers as a baseline compensation. The rate of the discount usually depends on how many presentations or performances the individual is delivering, and most well-established events post this rate somewhere on their website — usually as part of the presentation proposal or adjacent materials. 

The question has been asked by author-friends of mine in the past: “Why do some authors get paid, and even get travel and lodging paid for, but others of us only get free admission?” As someone who has been both a presenter (at large and small events) and an organizer (of both “muggle” and Pagan events since the early 1990’s), I’m sensitive to both sides of the discussion and well-positioned to answer the question. 

The truth is that this free or reduced admission is all that many events can afford to offer to the majority of presenters because of basic budgetary considerations. As I mentioned in “Festival Planning 101: Size, Venue, and Pricing,” venue rental and fees are going to be one of the largest expenses for any event, and most venues either charge very high flat rates (and therefore are unconcerned with your headcount), or they charge a per-person rate. Depending on the ticket price for a given event, you can assume that somewhere between ⅕  to ½ of that money is going straight to the venue. Another sizable chunk, if it is a camping event, is going to sanitation (refuse rolloff, port-o-johns, cleaning supplies, etc). 

Pagan fests and cons typically operate on a very slim margin, with somewhere close to half of the people in attendance falling into a category of free or reduced admission as compensation for their hours of labor or their expertise. If the culture shifted, though, and payment was expected for all presenters and performers (let alone staff), festivals and cons would likely cease to exist. They would either have to charge $500-3500 for events that currently have tickets at $50-$350, or they would only be able to offer the presentations and performances by the people they feel are the biggest draw. These scenarios present all new issues of equitability and access that hurt the community.

“Featured” or “keynote” speakers and “mainstage performers,” then, are able to command honorariums (speaker/gig fees) and sometimes also negotiate for travel expenses, lodging, food, and other accommodations — just as well-known celebrities do for cons and events in every market. Nothing is standard from speaker to speaker, because people value their time at different levels and get different benefits from attending your event. 

When I am negotiating with a presenter, I always start by asking what they need. Simple? Yes. Obvious? You bet! It’s also usually the most effective way to figure out if my event can afford to consider them. You might have authors tell you they need you to make air travel arrangements, provide hotel lodging offsite from your campground, arrange for dedicated transport between the hotel and the venue, provide an acoustic guitar on arrival, provide all meals during their stay, and pay a gig fee of $500 for the 3 days of your event. For that rate, they will present 1-2 lectures of 1.5 to 2 hours each for each paid day (one with musical accompaniment). Your event will have to determine if that author is bringing something you value to the event. 

That “value” may very well be based on the fiscal reality of ticket sales. Will people buy tickets for your event based on the inclusion of this speaker? But it might be something else, depending on your event’s philosophies and goals. Does the speaker add a new and needed perspective? Do they offer an experience you haven’t been able to have before? Etc.

Pre-Fest Communication and On-Site Coordination 

Communication and coordination are going to be vital for developing good working relationships with content creators — before, during, and after your event. 

Pre-Fest Tips

  • It’s generally best for a given presenter or performer to have a single point of contact from your festival team leading up to the event, in order to keep communication clear and redundancies to a minimum. If you’re a very small team, maybe this is a Workshop Organizer, Stage Manager, etc. If you’re a larger team, you might have divided your content areas differently. The “talent” isn’t necessarily going to know your org chart, and they don’t need to. Just put them in touch with their “handler” (who is reliable and diplomatic), and let them handle it.
  • Put your agreements in writing. Whether you’re compensating a presenter/performer with free/reduced entry or gig fee, airfare, food stipend, and free vending space, create a final document that stipulates these terms and includes the presenter’s name, event name, event rep name, dates of their appearance, event location, and any other details you discussed. You can go so far as to make this an official contract, if it makes you or them feel more comfortable. But the main point is that all parties are crystal clear on the expectations.
  • Make your communication availability known. Things get hectic in the lead-up to an event. You’ll get swamped as an organizer, and at least five new questions and ideas will occur to every presenter on your schedule. As you get closer to the event, let your presenters and performers know when they can reasonably expect to hear back from you. And if you lose connectivity (no cell service or internet access) when you arrive at your venue, you might want to build a heads-up about your departure day into your pre-fest reminders, along with a secondary contact person if possible.
  • Send pre-fest reminders to your presenters with everything they need to know to arrive prepared and confident to your event. I like to send these about 7 days before the event starts to give folks time to utilize the info, but not so much time that they forget about it. This can be an email with a bulleted list of notes or a packet that includes their program, map, and more. 

On-Site Coordination Tips

  • Checking in with presenters and performers as they arrive and then again as they are setting up for their presentations is so helpful for heading off problems. Give them a tour or at least talk them through the event map. Verify their schedule. 
  • Double check that they’ve made it to the room/area beforehand to get started at their scheduled time, and then come back at the end to see if they need assistance breaking things down (or being reminded to wrap up so they don’t spill into someone else’s time). Everyone jokes about Pagan Standard Time, but most people really hate it. It’s especially not useful at events where dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people are trying to coordinate their time and resources. 
  • Let your presenters know where and how to find you or the capable volunteers who are helping you with check-ins while you’re at the event. It might not be YOU handling every need once the event is rolling, but the presenters should know where to go for help.
  • Provide a few simple amenities in presentation spaces. A solid chair, a camp table, and a battery operated clock can go a long way to making a presenter’s life easier. (Communicate the basic set-up in your pre-fest reminders, too, so they don’t pack things they don’t need.)
  • Offer a few complementary spaces to presenters, if you can. A hospitality area can feature seats and shade for respite to presenters and other attendees alike, but presenters especially might feel otherwise stranded without somewhere to perch. This can sometimes also be a place where authors and musicians on your schedule can sell their merch, if you don’t mind coordinating that. Another option is to allow them free vending space where they can have their own vending tent, tables, and chairs. Many presenters and performers have swag and services (like readings) to offer the festival community and make a little side money.
  • Feed and water your presenters, if at all possible. Have some snacks and water available in your hospitality area (or admin/check-in area). Presenters are very often working hard in esoteric ways and very, very often neglecting the care and keeping of their bodies. Let them know that you can help them out if they start to drag. (Depending on their travel circumstances, packing a cooler might not have been an option for them like it was for other attendees.)
  • Arrange for reliable transportation between airports, hotels, and your venue for presenters who need that. This can be a volunteer position, if your event can’t pay for a rental car for each presenter but also can’t spare your top-level organizers to run thither and yon. Just make sure whoever does this job is safe, reliable, and (of course) sober when on duty.

Post-Fest Follow-Up

We’re going to cover getting feedback from all parties in another article, but I want to mention that your presenters and performers are a treasure trove of useful information for improving the quality of your event. For one thing, they are very likely to have been to several other fests and cons and can give you ideas, let you know where you are innovating, and essentially hold up a yard-stick that you would otherwise never have. They also have two perspectives on the event because they get to be attendees, too. Very rarely do presenters only attend their own workshops/performances. Most of them are excited to learn from others, do ritual, and get involved. They give great, informative feedback on these other presentations, too. 

Even if you don’t have a mechanism for collecting feedback yet (and I highly suggest you do), you’ll want to thank your presenters for their important contribution to your fest. Do this individually, if you can — and do it within a week or two of your closing date. Think of it as sending “thank you” cards after graduation. It was a big event, and you really are grateful for the time, energy, and gifts this person shared. Letting them know helps continue the relationship and build toward future collaborations.

[Written by Laurelei Black.]