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Edinburgh Festival ‘needs a reset’ to manage numbers

Edinburgh Festival crowd

Edinburgh was packed for the 2019 Festival (pic: Terry Murden)

The Edinburgh Festival will need a “reset” to tackle some of the concerns that had arisen before the Covid pandemic, it has been claimed.

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Edinburgh Fringe Society, said the “noise” around the issue of “overtourism” would have to be tackled when normal conditions resumed.

Speaking to an audience of event planners at the Balmoral, Ms McCarthy said: “There was a bit of noise, and we need a more sophisticated conversation about managing tourism because this will always be a city with tourists and people will want to come here whether there is a festival or not,” she said.

This had to go beyond having more or fewer tourists. She pointed out that 800,000 tickets were bought by Edinburgh residents and fewer than 8% were from overseas visitors.

Asked whether the organisers would go into 2022 “all guns blazing” or with a different approach to the Festival, she replied: “It needs a renaissance, a reset.”


She said there was no specific plan to be the biggest, adding: “I would prefer if it was the best possible experience.”

The panel addressed the issue of hybrid events and whether they would become a permanent feature.

On the viability of this year’s event, she said a £1 million loan had been vital, though “we will be paying it off for years”. She said the change in distancing from 2 metres to 1 metre the biggest plus factor. As an example, with 2 metre distancing The Stand Comedy Club could accommodate four people, With 2 metres it could allow 60.

Speaking via a link from Rome, Jan Arnold, vice president of salon at Balmoral owner Rocce Forte Hotels, said technology had allowed meetings and events to bring people together, though it was “like watching a cookery show… you still want to taste the food.”

He added that a lot of technology had come out of the past year’s experience. He did not expect a return to 2019 levels of trade until 2023.

Wedding planner Kelly Mortimer said the industry had expected 2020 to be a big year, not least because people liked the number. She said digital technology had been a benefit to the bookings side of the business, with more people willing to book before visiting a venue.

“The desire to travel and party has not gone away,” she said.

The Balmoral, which has an average room rate of £400 a night, has seen a switch from 75% of visitors being from the US, to 98% from the UK.

It has also adjusted to cater for a lower level of staff, many of whom left the industry and, in some cases, left the country. There are currently 60 vacancies at the hotel across a range of roles.

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