Edinburgh Festival Fringe is feeling the effect of its growing pains as accommodation problems loom – Brian Ferguson
It’s certainly not a new bone of contention. I can well remember certain councillors taking hotel operators to task around 20 years for hiking up their prices to take advantage of demand in August. However, the expansion of the Fringe over that period is crucial content for the recent debates about the future of the event.
It is interesting to look back at the 2003 Fringe, which boasted 1,531 shows and was something of a turning point. One of the biggest venue operators, Gilded Balloon, had lost its original home in the Cowgate fire the previous December. It consolidated its efforts on its new Teviot Row House venue that summer, when the Spiegeltent appeared for the first time in George Square Gardens.
The expansion of the Fringe's footprint and the arrival of the hit Spiegeltent show La Clique seemed key to it breaking through the million-ticket sales barrier. The Fringe’s centre of gravity had shifted towards George Square and began the acceleration of the event’s expansion. Within 11 years, the Fringe was recording ticket sales of two million, despite competition from the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. By 2019, when the Fringe sold more than three million tickets for the first time, the number of shows had soared to 3,841.
By then, the growing pains of the Fringe and the city's wider tourism industry were increasingly obvious. The Fringe Society had been campaigning for several years for the cost of accommodation to come down. But with venues constantly expanding and Edinburgh growing in popularity with international visitors, prices only headed in one direction. This was despite the huge growth in the number of homes in the Old Town in particular being used for short-term letting, with nearly one in three properties said to be listed on Airbnb.
Four years on, the accommodation landscape has certainly changed for the Fringe, but not the way that was hoped for. Although new legislation aimed at curbing short-term letting is yet to take effect, the main impact so far has been to send prices even higher. The tightening of the rules from next year and beyond seems certain to reduce the amount of “festival flats”, a prospect giving many Fringe folk sleepless nights.
However, given that the clampdown has been on the cards for several years, the need for radical and innovative alternatives has been long overdue. It was intriguing, to say the least, to see the Fringe Society put some of its own ideas in the public domain the other day, including approaching schools, colleges and universities, exploring the possible use of ships, tents and yurts as “creative solutions” and even suggesting the creation of “Olympic-style pop-up villages.
While none of these seem achievable by the Fringe Society on its own, all seem worthy of a collective pursuit involving Edinburgh Council and the Scottish Government. In the meantime, performers and companies who have been used to staying within walking distance of their venues might have to consider looking outside the city centre, or even outwith Edinburgh, to try to keep their budgets down.