As the latest Netflix documentary re-ignites discussion around the controversial 2017 Fyre Festival, Ellina Webb looks at why it should be seen as a cautionary tale for the project management and construction sector.

The failure of Fyre Festival has become one of the most famous fiascos of the past few years. Not only was it a poorly executed festival experience (after all it has been dubbed “the greatest party that never happened”), it also opened a can of worms when it comes to misleading marketing and the toxic Instagram culture.

In short, Fyre Festival highlighted that with the right mix of marketing techniques you can sell anything, even a “pipe dream to your average losers”. But if you dig a bit deeper there is so much more to examine so I’m going to brush the juicy bits aside (it’s worth watching the documentary for all that) and look into what it highlights to the project management and construction industry about the importance of infrastructure and planning.  

“We gotta go to Home Depot and buy a thousand toilets”

To some point, Fyre Media CEO Billy McFarland and his team might have been able to pull Fyre Festival off if the basic infrastructure required at a festival, and for basic human living, had been implemented. For those who didn’t watch the documentary, Fyre Festival was to be held on an island in the Bahamas (originally this was Norman’s Cay but later changed to Great Exuma) in a secluded area which unfortunately had limited access to running water, shelter, drainage, electricity and food. This meant there was nowhere for the guests to sleep (even though they were promised luxury cabanas), not enough food and water (again they were promised 5 star food) and there was nowhere for them to shower or use toilet facilities.

According to the documentary, this basic infrastructure was the last thing on the organiser’s minds. In fact one of the standout quotes from the Netflix documentary is “Instead of thinking about models, you have to think about toilets” which is in reference to the team being told that models were the most important thing to focus on. After all, how else were they going to convince 10,000 people to part with thousands of dollars?

 

Infrastructures, even in the most basic form, are just expected. So when they aren’t provided or they fail, the results are chaotic. At festivals, infrastructure is critical and should be the top priority.

Ellina Webb Ellina Webb Senior Marketing Executive at Mitsubishi Electric

Essentially, what the organisers failed to acknowledge throughout the planning process was that hosting a festival is actually as complex as building a mini city – “It was almost like we tried building a city out of nothing and it took almost all our personal resources”, McFarland told Rolling Stone Magazine after the disaster unfolded. For a festival with 10,000 people for example, the power alone can cost between £60,000 – £100,000. There are also infrastructures such as security and police which need to be factored in; at the Isle of Wight festival this is estimated to cost around £1 million.

Another great example from the Isle of Wight festival includes the extra infrastructures which are mapped out and budgeted for based on its locations. The current Isle of Wight green field site is ideal for camping but an additional £250,000 has been spent on building roads (as reported in 2012).

At Fyre Festival, the documentary highlights that these extra costs were not considered and even the transport taking guests to the island were secondary thoughts scrabbled together last minute.

I do have to point out however that Billy McFarland was the puppet master in this whole debacle and many of his employees who remain unpaid and heavily burdened by the experience, had no idea of the catastrophe that was unfolding.

Lesson learned: Basic infrastructure should not be compromised (and communication with your team is very important!)

“To do these tents without air conditioning is pretty brutal. It's just not possible."

Whether building a city, a single building or a festival, planning requires a significant amount of time. In the UK, legislation is just one mechanism in controlling how all these elements are executed correctly so it’s surprising that festival organisers weren’t guided by these types of rules (I assume maybe things are more relaxed in the United States).

Either way, from small scale to large scale, so many different types of people need to be considered in the process along with materials and suppliers. They also have to be given adequate time but unfortunately the labourers hired for the Fyre Festival site were only given 45 days! They were set up to fail.

Ultimately, with this project the fundamental elements of the planning process were ignored; scope, time, cost, objectives, milestones, a work schedule and project tracking. Even more alarming was that a new member of the team , who was brought in to help plan for ‘unconsidered issues’ – like the massive lack of suitable shelter, was just ignored and eventually he left.

It seems that everyone involved in the project had no control over what was going on; it seems there was no plan.

For those who did watch the documentary, you will already be aware of the standout clip where Event Producer Andy King is pushed to contemplate a huge sacrifice just to overcome the unplanned hold up of Evian water at customs….

The planning process should be the post important element, so if there is any major lesson to be learnt, this should be it. In Billy McFarland’s own words he even admits that they were a little naïve and that they didn’t have the foresight to solve all the problems – one of which being this lack of infrastructure on The Exumas island.

Of course, the documentary only scratched the surface of what happened and it’s hard to uncover what other corners were cut. Did they even have public liability insurance? Was there any form of health and safety report? All I know is that McFarland is now in prison on a 6 year sentence which includes other forms of fraud post Fyre Festival.

Lesson learned: Planning is everything

“Let's think of how to dig ourselves out”

The fallout of Fyre Festival has ultimately left hundreds of people out of pocket, from the Bahaman labourers to the guests themselves. It was a mess of poorly managed expectations and even Billy McFarland was seemingly oblivious to the reality of the situation until the guest arrived.

In construction, managing expectations and scope is really important. Clear communication and honesty is crucial even for your own mental wellbeing. Lying and overestimating to investors and the general public is another route to failure and eventually is what put McFarland in jail.

If you want to read more about the expectations Vs. the reality of Fyre Festival, take a look here.

Lesson learned: Manage expectations (even your own)

Final Thoughts

There are so many twists and turns in the tale of Fyre Festival and I’m pretty sure it will be a topic of conversation for years to come – even as a discussion point on courses such as Project Management, Marketing, Business Studies and Law.

If you have seen the documentary yet, it is currently available in the UK on Netflix.