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Festival boss defends move
Published 22/07/13

ORGANISERS of the Henley Festival have hit back at criticism of its decision to relocate after revealing losses of £50,000 for this year.

A total of 18,500 fans of art and music attended the five-day event, which ended on Sunday — well short of the 25,000 capacity.

Headliners the Beach Boys, Madness, Jamie Cullum, Paloma Faith and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra hosted by Joanna Lumley all failed to sell out.

The festival is relocating to the Henley Business School at Greenlands next year in a bid to cut its running costs which this year hit £2 million.

Artistic director Stewart Collins was booed on last Wednesday’s opening night when he reminded the audience of the two-mile move down the river.

Letters have been sent in to the Standard calling for a new lease to be negotiated with Henley Royal Regatta following the end of its 10-year agreement.

Gill Mitchell, the festival’s chief executive, told the Standard that people have not fully understood the reasons why the festival has to move.

She said: “Everybody is thinking that we pay £25,000 to the regatta and that includes everything.

“In 2012 it cost £175,000 in rent and about £20,000 for lawn damage to the regatta, and then £150,000 to Arena for the marquees.

“Then there are the other costs such as the groundsmen, waste disposal and the power we use. This year it is probably more.

“People have got the wrong end of the stick that we pay a nominal fee. We don’t get anything for free — not even the deckchairs.”

Mr Collins said there would not be a festival in three years’ time if it stayed at the regatta site.

He said: “There is a view that if it is not broke then why fix it — but the point is, it is broke. There is no option but to move.

“We would not be able to wash our face on a regular basis without putting tickets up to absurdly high prices so we have made the deal with the business school.”

He added: “We have had to reduce every single cost. Believe me it is the leanest operation. Salaries haven’t gone up, production budgets haven’t gone up — there is no leaner operation than us.”

Mrs Mitchell said the rental agreement with the royal regatta — which meant paying 10 per cent of all its revenue — had not been a good deal. Negotiations to arrive at a better deal had broken down.

“Somewhere along the line, before the current board members, someone negotiated a deal with the regatta which was in error,” she said

“They had a deal with a rising percentage of revenue and I think it has been a 10 per cent deal for the last five years. We have gone back to say that it has been too high.”

Mike Sweeney, royal regatta chairman, said: “For us to create the site — from the toilets to the grandstand, the kitchens and ground maintenance — is £1 million worth of infrastructure. For 20 years we were the major behind-the-scenes benefactor because we didn’t charge a lot because the festival was not making much money.

“But in the early 2000s the festival started to make a lot more money so we felt we could charge more. We had discussions with them earlier in the year and there was an indication they were investigating alternative venues.

“We can understand it. They have got three days to turn round the site and they must work incredibly hard.

“They said they weren’t prepared to continue with the same contract because they couldn’t afford it. They made us an offer which was out-of-touch with reality and we said no. It is a loss of income for us but we didn’t presume it was there forever.

“Like the festival we have our own charitable trust and it has given away £3 million since 1988. We want to fund our trust as they do theirs.

Mrs Mitchell conceded that the regatta had provided a rebate in previous years.

She said: “We just want to pay a fair price and we have tried to renegotiate — we are not being arrogant. The move makes us sound incompetent but it is because our cost base is higher here.

“We tried to renegotiate. We even considered moving the dates to make it easier for everybody. Our first inclination is that we wanted to stay here but we were so far apart from what we were prepared to pay on a commercial basis that works for both parties.”

The festival has signed a 15-year lease with the business school, which is part of the University of Reading. The new rent will be a quarter of the cost for the regatta site and money will be reinvested into infrastructure such as a power supply and drainage for the festival.

However, Mrs Mitchell said the drop in costs for next year would not automatically mean a cut in the ticket prices.

She said: “It will depend on what the acts are. If we go for a mega name then the prices will have to match that. We can’t absorb the price and we have to pass it on but we don’t want the ticket prices to go up and up.

“We realise the regatta site was a great position and we’ll miss it, but give us a chance.”

Published 22/07/13

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