Turn your fair into a festival

Take your summer event to the next level by incorporating elements of family-friendly festivals, says Daniel Etherington

If you’ve missed that festival feeling lately, you’re not alone. Research from Mintel found that in 2019, 43% of people aged 20-39 attended a festival. Lauren Ryan, UK leisure analyst at Mintel, said: We expect festival attendance will continue to increase with the rise of day festivals which appeal to wider audiences. Evolving demand for unique experiences means that the focus on non-music elements, such as wellness activities, is becoming more important.’

With only a few late-summer festivals going ahead last year, the abundance of options on offer in 2022 suggests our appetite for these gatherings is stronger than ever. The organisers of family-friendly festivals such as Camp Bestival, Latitude and Elderflower Fields spend hours planning and curating their events. What better place to find inspiration for your fair?

Of course, the scale of your ambition depends somewhat on how much the PTA is able to invest in the event, along with the perennial issue of how many relevant skills are at your disposal. But if you have a dynamic PTA, willing to reach out to the wider community and get local businesses and organisations involved, there’s so much potential.

Set the scene

Avoid clashes with other local events and festivals, particularly if you’re hoping to attract local businesses and third-party vendors. Put your committee’s heads together and come up with a good name, something to grab attention that will work well as a hashtag. Whatever you offer, make it distinctive for your school and your event. Encouraging children – and their parents – to come in fancy dress immediately adds colour to the proceedings.

On the main stage

The biggest component of any festival is the acts, and to make them stand out, you’ll need a stage. Many schools already have portable wooden stages that can be brought outside. Failing that, pallets are wonderfully versatile. Even one layer of pallets (plus any extra boards) can be used to create a robust, raised platform. Ask a local business or reclaimed timber charity if they can donate materials. Builders or scaffolders can then create a simple structure for rigging lights, banners and bunting.

Ask if any of the parents can DJ. The DJ is essential for pulling the day together and keeping the mood buoyant. They can either play through the main PA system or in a dedicated disco tent. As the day goes on, move between loud, lively disco, a silent disco and even a chill-out zone when children – and adults – need a rest.

You may be surprised at how many parents and staff play in bands or have connections to live music acts. Ask the pupils to play, or contact local storytellers, puppeteers, magicians and comedians – particularly those who run children’s parties and would benefit from the exposure.

Ask local experts to give talks on anything from beekeeping to ecology.

Get the word out!

Think about branding and communication channels. Going beyond the school newsletter should guarantee a bigger attendance. If your PTA doesn’t already have a communications officer, now is the time to recruit one. They can work with a graphic designer (ideally also a volunteer parent) to develop an eye-catching campaign. Use free website-building tools, create new social media accounts, put adverts in the local press and distribute posters and fliers. To add to the festival vibe, hand out recyclable branded wristbands on entry.

Massage, makeovers and messy art

As well as the music, family-friendly festivals focus on a wide range of other activities to keep everyone happy. Contact local street dance, yoga and Pilates teachers and ask if they can run low-cost taster sessions. Ask if martial arts or circus skills organisations can give a demonstration. Health and beauty professionals may offer anything from mini head massages to hair braiding or makeovers. Emphasise the business benefits and offer promotion in return for their involvement where appropriate.

To keep everyone active, set up a climbing wall, an assault course, a skateboard ramp or that old favourite, a bouncy castle. Games are always fun – how about a giant football competition? Workshops found at family festivals often include things like campfire cooking, bushcraft, science sessions or arts and crafts. Set up dedicated tents or spread out, creating giant paintings and sculptures outside. If you don’t have resources within your immediate community, reach out to local organisations, from forest schools to holiday activity clubs.

Street food in the field

A key element of a festival is the food. While you won’t be able to recreate the foodies’ paradise of a big weekend festival, you can look beyond the basic burgers and cupcakes. Reach out to the school community – are there any experienced caterers or parents who could run a stall? Does anyone own a portable pizza oven? Children love a margherita!

Contact local food truck businesses and event catering operations, perhaps familiar from a nearby farmers’ market. Come to a mutually profitable arrangement with third party caterers – waive pitch fees, and ask them to donate back a percentage of their takings. Indian snacks, Mexican food or fish and chips are good options, or hire a spit roast for a delicious festival twist that’s not too far removed from the usual fare.

When it comes to booze, ask a local brewery if they will set up a bar or sponsor a PTA-run bar and give you a good deal on drinks. Serve other popular summer choices such as Pimm’s and gin and tonic. Cocktails and mocktails will turn a good profit, and you’ll only know if there’s a mixologist in your school community if you ask. Adults love a margarita!

Step up your stalls

Set up a merchandise stall to sell tote bags, T-shirts and cups or mugs bearing the festival logo. Or do a shout-out to your community for vinyl and CDs, then ask a music buff parent to run a music stall. Offer fun, old-fashioned games, such as wooden skittles, shuffleboard or any games unique to your locality such as Sussex’s toad-in-the-hole pub game. Create a colourful archway or backdrop containing your logo and encourage visitors to use it for photo opportunities.

Success stories

Raising funds is a bonus; festivals are about getting us back together’

There were only 30 pupils at my children’s village infant school. It was losing numbers each year and under threat of closure. So the PTA organised a beer festival to raise funds and make people aware of our expansion campaign. The festival featured live music, traditional games, a barbecue and face painting and ran for three years. It really helped turn things around and now the school is a thriving and full primary school.

I’m the PTA chair at their secondary school now, and when the head asked if the Friends could suggest ways to rebuild the school community after Covid, I knew I had the right experience to run something special.

We’ve rebranded our events as festivals, and we’re holding one in April and one in June. The first is a cultural event called A Glimpse of India, which is a way to include the Indian school community with the Friends. We’ve got a merchant bazaar, Indian street food and cultural favourites such as henna art and yoga sessions. There’s also Indian dancing from different regions, and we’re asking parents to bring their dancing shoes for a show-stopping finale.

Our second event is a music festival, which we’re calling RLS Fest. It’s a celebration for the children, and we’re inviting leavers from the past two years to come and have some fun too. There will be live bands, a barn dance and lots of stalls. We’re hoping to engage the wider community and bring parents into the school who’ve never set foot in the buildings. If we raise some funds, that’s a bonus. Our aim is to build a reputation for holding great events. That way, we can get it on the annual calendar and encourage people to come again next time.

Rachel Seago, Chair, Friends of The Royal Latin School, Buckinghamshire (1,200 pupils)