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The Singapore Night Festival (above) started out with just 40,000 visitors in 2008, but achieved an attendance figure of 680,000 in 2015, with an average spend of S$35 per person.
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New festivals like the Singapore Coffee Festival (above) and Keong Saik Carnival were launched to take advantage of the appetite for these things as well as to raise the visibility of the respective products and places.
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Crowds at the eight-year-old Beerfest Asia

Festival frenzy

Singaporeans' love for festivals has led to a surge in the number of mass events themed around everything from music to coffee. BT Lifestyle examines the festival phenomenon and the savvy entrepreneurs who have jumped on the bandwagon.
Jun 17, 2016 5:50 AM

TO the outsider, every day must be carnival day in Singapore. Not content with traditional or religious stalwarts such as the Dragonboat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival or Hari Raya, Singaporeans are flocking to anything that promises food, fun and entertainment - at all times of the year.

Just this year alone, Singaporeans will have their pick of festivals - from the recent Singapore Coffee Festival, Beerfest Asia, Singapore International Film Festival, Savour, Singapore Heritagefest, to upcoming events such as the Neon Lights Festival, Peranakan Arts Festival, Singapore Night Festival and more. Food festival Savour, for example, has grown in size from 14,266 visitors in 2012 to 26,700 in 2016. New festivals like the Singapore Coffee Festival and Keong Saik Carnival were launched to take advantage of the appetite for these things as well as to raise the visibility of the respective products and places.

"Locals really enjoy going to festivals," says Ian Lim of Sphere Exhibits, which is behind the inaugural Singapore Coffee Festival. "We wanted to start this because coffee-centric events were previously limited to only trade fairs. The surge in festival culture almost guarantees that people will come."

The National Museum's Angelita Teo, director, festivals & precinct development, is well aware of Singaporeans' hunger for such events. She has been involved in the organisation of three festivals over the years including the long-running Singapore HeritageFest and Singapore Night Festival. The latter started out with just 40,000 visitors in 2008, but achieved an attendance figure of 680,000 in 2015, with an average spend of S$35 per person.

She says: "Our region has experienced a multitude of festivals with cultural roots. Look at pasar malams, for example, they've always had that festival-like nature. Over the years, the reasons for holding such an event have changed and that can be attributed to people looking for ways to make Singapore more exciting."

Ola Polczynski, a marketing director at PR firm Mutant Communications, has definitely noticed an upward growth in the local festival culture. With the variety of events on offer, she's learnt to be selective.

She says: "It's absolutely fantastic that there are so many to choose from given that Singapore has such a social culture. What I look for is a festival that gives me a new experience, and as long as it does that, I don't mind paying an entry fee."

To that end, every festival has a different focus. The older festivals highlight more expansive genres like music, film, food, or the arts.

Yuni Hadi, executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) which began in 1987, says: "At that time, it was difficult to access films internationally and one had to wait and see what the cinemas brought in. SGIFF offered access to different cultures by bringing in films from all over the world. Today, festivals act as a launch pad for new talents or products and good festival curators have become taste-makers and influencers in their own right."

Instead of trying to compete with existing festivals, the newer ones have carved a niche for themselves by offering the unexpected; festivals featuring coffee, craft beer, or even yoga have been seeing attendance figures that number in the thousands.

Creating an identity

"But you can't be too niche," says Marc Dass, the founder of yoga festival Soulscape, which will be putting on its third edition this year. "You want to create something with an identity so you need to have a captive market segment. People want to belong to something, and if you cater to that, you'll have a successful run."

In setting up his debut festival's persona, Mr Dass cultivated the elements of other festivals he enjoyed like setting the yoga classes to music and having classes throughout the day. However, he also nixed other things that made festivals popular. Alcohol, for instance, wasn't on offer because it just didn't fit in with the health-conscious vibe of the event as a whole, because "we had to be true to its inherent nature".

Despite that, the first edition of Soulscape made an overall loss. He says: "We knew we had a growing community so we didn't want to write it off altogether. We learnt from it, pinpointed that our costing had been off and got better at managing our partnerships with other companies for the next one."

The lesson paid off, and the 2015 edition saw an increase in attendance from 800 to 1,300 people, and a profit margin of 25 per cent.

According to Declan Forde, the festival director of the music-centric Neon Lights, putting on a festival can cost "more than you would think". For example, the National Museum-presented Singapore Night Festival, which saw 680,000 visitors over its four days of operation last year, incurred a cost of about S$2 million. In contrast, the recent one-day Keong Saik Carnival, helmed by Potato Head Folk, estimated its costs at S$400,000.

The carnival, which was a balance between a music festival and a street bazaar, took 11 months to organise and with the idea of it being to "showcase the historic area of Keong Saik Road with a modern twist", traditional programmes shared the spotlight with local and international musical artists, says Potato Head Folk's creative director Earn Chen.

The costs of the event included international artist fees, flights and accommodation which ranged from US$2,000 and US$5,000. Most of the revenue came from sponsors and sales of beverages to the 10,000 attendees it garnered.

But as they say, sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Mr Lim, senior manager for festivals at Sphere Exhibits which also runs the eight-year-old Beerfest Asia, explains: "Our profit margin is about 10 per cent or less for our festivals, which isn't a lot. The direction we're taking is to eventually look at expanding our concepts outside of Singapore, but still in Asia. We're hoping to do that within the next two years, because we think that's where the better profit margins are."

Food festival Savour, launched in 2012, has done just that, by expanding to Hong Kong in 2014 and then to Shanghai in 2015. They plan to continue this growth to cities like Chengdu and Zhuhai this year, and estimate their annual revenue from Savour including its overseas editions to be over S$6 million.

Eunice Chua-Sandri, director of marketing of Savour, says: "We had to make it successful here before even thinking about expansion, but once the event had proven itself, we were invited to take the concept abroad."

And it isn't just the festival organisers that stand to benefit. Distributors and exhibitors which take up space at these events also piggy back on the organiser's publicity and marketing machinery to promote their brands and products. The myriad variety of festivals also means they get to choose the one which best fits their own objectives.

In Savour's case, alcohol company Martell, Pernod Ricard, saw a good fit. Aaron Yang, its senior brand community manager, says: "Festivals typically attract like-minded people and a festival like Savour has a similar demographic of consumers that we target. It's a good opportunity to engage and communicate with this community and get to know them on the ground."

While an event like Savour is a good opportunity to reach out to new customers, newer entrants like Park Bench Deli say that standing out against established exhibitors can be tricky.

Tan Huang Ming, its F&B director, explains: "You have to have a clear understanding of the potential patron numbers, types of patrons, and the food that is offered by competing vendors. While there is a friendly atmosphere, the pie is still finite and the things you do to attract customers will set you apart. I tend to look at aligning the dishes we provide with the potential crowd in terms of the actual item, its price point and its relevance."

For Martell, the challenges in participating in these events are that some organisers sometimes fall short on their deliverables and that setting up and managing booths can be a logistical as well as budgetary issue.

To make it more enticing to exhibitors and distributors, some festival organisers can offer support before the event even takes place. At the DBS Regatta earlier this month, the bank pre-ordered some items from Park Bench Deli, which meant that they didn't have to worry about breaking even. In fact, they achieved a profit margin of 40 per cent, which has been their best performance in a big event yet.

Mr Tan says: "Such arrangements are far more attractive because it gives us a certain confidence that we won't lose money and that allows us to focus on giving better service and putting out higher-quality dishes."

It may seem that exhibitors have their pick when it comes to festivals here, with more than 50 being conducted on an annual basis but Mr Lim, who estimates the festival business in Singapore to be worth about S$100 million annually, reckons there's room for further growth. He says: "A lot of our festivals have been inspired by overseas concepts and it's clear that a lot of event organisers are seeing the potential of bringing in festivals that have a proven record outside of Singapore."

Saturated market?

"It might seem crowded now compared to how it was 10 years ago, but if we were to compare ourselves to other global cities like Tokyo and London, it's quite clear that we haven't reached the same level of saturation yet."

Charles Guerrier, founder of Craft Singapore and Singapore Craft Beer Week, says: "The festival scene here will be stronger if events do not try to compete with each other. When we started our craft beer-focused events, it was because nothing else existed in the space. As long as they aren't all the same, we do have 52 weekends in a year to fill up."

Although there does seem to be space in the market for new festivals, it appears that in the event of oversaturation or sub-par events, self-regulation is the key.

Ms Teo says: "I think the market is very discerning. It's all about feeding the demand, and if people don't like a certain concept, it won't make any money and will have to eventually shut down. It's quite organic like that."

She adds: "But as far as the notion of festivals goes, it's here to stay. People coming together to celebrate something goes back a long way, and though the format may evolve with time, Singaporeans are willing to pay for good entertainment and unique experiences and that's not going to change."

- Additional reporting by Sue-Ann Tan