Cheltenham Festivals came close to being ‘sunk’ by the pandemic

Figures showing hundreds of thousands of visitors to 2020’s Cheltenham Literature Festival hide just how close the town could have come to losing its showpieces events.

By Andrew Merrell  |  Published
Just some of the faces that appeared at The Times & The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2020 and helped make it such a success.
Just some of the faces that appeared at The Times & The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2020 and helped make it such a success.

Had the team behind Cheltenham Festivals not executed a dramatic last-minute re-write of its business plan, the organisation may have been may have been ‘sunk’, according to its chairperson Diane Hill, OBE (nee Savory).

New figures showing how many people viewed Cheltenham Literature Festival digitally in 2020, underline just how successful and necessary the organisation’s sudden transformation to embrace online was.

In total, there were 473,000 views of the Literature Festival programme on the CheltLitFest player on demand service, and even with social distancing it also safely accommodated 7,000 people at Cheltenham’s Town Hall and Everyman Theatre to see the 290 authors and speaker.

Fran Pearce, director of marketing at Cheltenham Festivals and a member of its senior management board, said: ‘The viewing figures for Cheltenham Literature Festival online far exceeded our expectations and have brought the Festival to new audiences, with over 40 per cent of views coming from audiences new to Cheltenham Festivals.’

What Cheltenham Festivals’ most recent set of filed accounts (published on 4 January 2021) state is how significant this clever transformation was to the future of the town’s much-loved festival programme.

After turning from deficit to surplus for what was its third year in a row in 2019, the pandemic meant the showpiece Cheltenham Literature Festival faced a sudden and immediate crisis.

‘The staff have shown incredible fortitude through a very difficult time: next year’s report will be the right time to go into this in more detail, but for now it is right that, on behalf of the board, I express my thanks to them for keeping the ship afloat as it could have very easily sunk,’ said Ms Hill OBE, chairperson of Cheltenham Festivals.

Its decision to rip up the rule book and embrace online was a decision its main sponsors, The Times and The Sunday Times hailed as ‘an act of bravery as well as creativity’.

A survey of more than 1,000 who either attended in person or watched online showed 42 per cent were completely new to Cheltenham Literature Festival. With the social media reach of the event estimated at four million and media reach in its entirety was in the region of 22 million.

Sponsors committed £328,000 up front to enable Cheltenham Literature Festival 2020 to go ahead and without which it would have been ‘facing big deficits’, according to Ali Mawle, one of the directors.

Total income in 2019 for Cheltenham Festivals – which also includes Cheltenham Jazz, Science and Music Festivals, as well as education and outreach work – was £6.5 million (up from £5.8 million in 2018), with almost £3 million of that raised through ticket sales.

Ms Pearce said: ‘Our experiences during the pandemic have revolutionised our thinking. When life and the festivals return to normal, our digital focus will remain as part of our ongoing commitment to bring the festivals to as wide an audience as possible.’

By Andrew Merrell

Follow SoGlos on LinkedIn and sign-up to the weekly SoGlos business newsletter for the very latest Gloucestershire business news stories.

More on Cheltenham Festivals

More from Business