CEO Interview – Donna Renney, Cheltenham Festivals
PUBLISHED: 15:07 15 July 2013 | UPDATED: 15:08 15 July 2013
Cheltenham Festivals’ Chief Executive Donna Renney is in charge of a
£5 million turnover business contributing millions to the local economy, but during Festival season what keeps her awake is legroom in the marquees
The Cheltenham Festivals are the Grand Daddy of cultural festivals in the UK. Older than Edinburgh and Aldeburgh – and even Saltzburg in Austria, they now comprise four festivals: Music, Literature, Jazz and Science.
But if people aren’t sitting comfortably, then things can begin to go wrong. “If there’s not enough legroom between rows in our tents in Montpellier Gardens, the audience can become uncomfortable and don’t enjoy themselves,” says Donna. “But lose too many seats and there’s less revenue.” It’s a fine balance between space and income.
The first Cheltenham Festival started way back in 1945 when the head of Leisure at Cheltenham Borough Council decided what the Cotswolds needed after six years’ of war was some cultural stimulation, and what Britain needed was a confidence boost. The festival had national ambitions right from the start, promoting British culture and 20th century British composers, and such was its early success that just four years’ later the literary festival followed. In 1986 the Jazz Festival was launched in response to calls for music with a broader appeal, and in 2001 Donna was recruited to launch a science festival.
At the time she was working part time for an Oxford charity but having followed a difficult European court case involving the use of antibiotics in animals in which her husband, a vet in the pharmaceutical industry, was involved she discovered how little direct access the public had to scientists. She observed that a lot of information was being fed to the public by the media, and a lot of it was wrong. So when the opportunity arose to launch a science festival, Donnas saw an opportunity to help put that right.
“At the time science events at the literary festival were selling very quickly and there was clearly public interest,” she explains. “Nationally there was a lot of public engagement at that time around the understanding of science and little in the way of festival support other than Edinburgh which was heavily focused towards children.”
Having agreed to spend just six months helping set the festival up, Donna saw the wider potential of the Cheltenham Festivals and stayed, becoming Chief Executive in 2006.
Cultural and sporting festivals can be a huge generator of income into the local leisure industry and Cheltenham is lucky enough to have both, thanks to the much bigger Gold Cup at Cheltenham Racecourse. However Donna’s Cheltenham Festivals are now likely to go international as the organisation is being asked to advise on cultural events across the world, after successfully advising on a science festival in St Louis, Missouri in 2008.
Sharing expertise can only help both the Festival’s reputation and its bank balances. Annual cultural events are notoriously difficult to sustain financially because funding is often short term, but one of Donna’s priorities is getting off the hamster wheel of always chasing money for the next festival and planning ahead. “For the Festivals to achieve their full potential we need enough money to undergo long-term planning and we are getting there,” she said.
Funding now comes from a number of sources though for the first few years the council bankrolled the festival. It became an independent charity in 1948 so the fledgling Arts Council could fund it, but still received a lot of ‘in kind’ support from Cheltenham Borough Council. More recently this has all but dried up as the Council tries to deal with what it sees as more pressing problems and Cheltenham Festivals has become more self-financing.
Now 40 per cent of income comes from ticket sales, four per cent from the Arts Council (though Donna thinks this should be more) and the rest from sponsorship, philanthropy, charitable trusts and commercial sales of hospitality, book sales and commissions.
Why should big business sponsor a festival that could be viewed as elitist? According to Donna, it can fulfill a number of objectives. “Barclays sponsored the Jazz Festival because they see it as a contribution to the local economy, and also because they see arts festivals as helping to underpin the creative industries which make a such a huge contribution to the national economy.”
Barclays also sponsors Premier League football for a lot more money so why shouldn’t the arts have a slice of the pie? And of course it makes excellent corporate entertainment for those of us who don’t know one end of the football pitch from the other. There are a number of sponsors for the Science Festival including significant local employers EDF Energy and Messier Dowty, and the Music and Literary festivals have a host of big name sponsors between them including The Times, Waterstones, the Wellcome Trust and HSBC.
“If you can get 3-year sponsorship deals in place that helps,” adds Donna. “And it’s also about getting the right staff in the right places. Then things really start to work.”
Such is the strong reputation of the Cheltenham Festivals that attracting high calibre people to work for the organisation isn’t difficult. “There is a caché about working for Cheltenham Festivals,” says Donna. “People will move here, often from London possibly looking for a change of lifestyle but still with a lot to contribute, and we also ‘grow our own’. Our Jazz Festival Director, Ian George, has worked here since leaving university and starting with us as a PR assistant.”
Having secured a growing reputation with the public, Cheltenham Festivals are now going after businesses. This year, for the first time at the Science Festival, it launched a Cyber Security Conference (reported on elsewhere in this business supplement).
“There is significant potential to engage more with business and we’ve wanted to do it for a while,” adds Donna. “We have done business breakfasts in the past which have been successful but haven’t gained momentum because we’ve not had sufficient resources. We decided to launch the Cyber Conference this year because we already had top quality speakers booked and space in the venues during the week when there were fewer public events. It makes sense to use them.”
However, Donna’s ambitions don’t end there. “There is a lot of opportunity to develop our cross festival working. We are the only organisation that has a science festival integrated with three arts festivals and massive opportunities exist for its development, with audiences growing by about 20 per cent a year.”
Cheltenham Festivals is also taking its educational work nationally, having recently completed a pilot project with EDF Energy. “Fourteen year olds from 10 schools across all the London boroughs associated with the Olympics had to present a scientific idea in three minutes. It was fantastic,” added Donna. “Our educational work is growing nationally.”
And of course there is FameLab. Started in 2005 by the Cheltenham Science Festival in partnership with the independent charity NESTA to find and nurture scientists and engineers with a flair for communicating with public audiences, it is now established worldwide as a model for successfully identifying, training and mentoring scientists and engineers.
“Fame Lab runs in 25 countries now and they come here to compete in the final at the Science Festival,” explains Donna.
Cheltenham Festivals have come a long way in the last decade thanks to Donna and her team. “I’m incredibly proud but there’s is a lot more to do. The job isn’t completed yet.”