Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Recovery on a ‘knife-edge’ as promoters issue plea to spark ticket rush

It is the world-renowned cultural event that is set to burst back into life three years after its last full-scale edition.

Monday, 25th July 2022, 4:55 am

But venue operators have admitted they are concerned the recovery of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is under threat from slower than normal ticket sales.

The late publication of the official programme and marketing of the event, concerns about Covid, the cost-of-living crisis and the price of overnight accommodation are all thought to have dampened demand and left the festival on “a knife-edge”.

Promoters and producers have issued a rallying call for the people of Edinburgh to throw their weight behind an event that will boast 3,364 shows when it returns – just 477 less than the number registered for 2019’s record-breaking edition, when the festival attracted an audience of more than three million for the first time.

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    The Fringe, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary next month, is said to have been badly affected by a trend for booking later for live events, which has emerged across the UK as festivals, events and live entertainment have returned with the easing of Covid restrictions.

    Although the first shows went on sale in March, the official programme was not published until July 7, a month before the first shows were due to be open – a move the Fringe Society, which oversees the event, insisted had been requested by venues and performers to give them more time to register.

    William Burdett-Coutts, Assembly’s artistic director, said: “We’ve been tracking just above 2018, but nowhere near 2019. However, that curve has been narrowing over the last couple of weeks. We’re about 30 per cent behind 2019 at the moment.

    “Inevitably a lot of launches have been late, so I think that has had an impact. I’m concerned that we’ve not all got our act together about marketing the whole festival ahead of the festival. It’s all kicking in at this stage.

    Assembly will be staging Fringe shows in George Square next month.

    “I think we will get to the local audience, but the bit that concerns me is the audience that comes from outside Edinburgh and whether there has been enough noise to alert them to the fact the festival is happening again.

    “Across the industry, the general trend is for booking late. People perhaps don’t want to go to something unless they are certain it is happening. I just think the whole mood has changed.

    “Inflation has to be an issue. People are feeling affected by it. For visitors, there is also the worry about the cost of accommodation.”

    Anthony Alderson, artistic director at the Pleasance, said: “Whilst sales are slower at this stage, everyone I have spoken to seems to be bursting with excitement for our return.

    Underbelly's big purple cow venue will be back at the Fringe for the first time in three years next month. Picture: David P Scott

    "We have to understand that people have changed their behaviour and late booking is now very normal. We look to be busy and those numbers are growing everyday.

    “People should take a small risk, buy tickets and enjoy the amazing work on offer, not just gather in beer gardens. There truly is something wonderful to see for everyone.

    "The risks involved in mounting this festival are immense for everyone involved. Break-even is incredibly difficult to achieve and we can only do that if people come out and enjoy themselves.

    “The long-term future of the festival is not currently sustainable. With all of the difficulties our industry has faced, our future is on a knife-edge. We have been all, but closed for three years. We must think positively, but recovery will take time, it can’t be achieved in one year.”

    Gilded Balloon founder Karen Koren, who has programmed 180 shows, down around 40 from 2019, said: “We want the people of Edinburgh to really embrace the Fringe, come out and buy tickets, because sales are down across the board at the moment.

    “Everyone is nervous at the beginning of the Fringe, but it’s actually always been like that. We didn’t used to start selling tickets until August.

    “People are cautious at the moment, but you only have to look at what an amazing success Glastonbury was this year. I think it’s going to be the same for the Fringe if people come out and support the event."

    Charles Pamment, director of theSpaceUK, said: “This year is vastly different to a normal year given the lateness of all preparation, with the Fringe Society putting tickets on sale six weeks later, registration deadlines seven weeks later and the formal media launch being four weeks later.

    “We are down on the 2019 number, but post programme-launch sales have pushed on and are catching up daily. We are ahead of our 2018 numbers, so actually it all bodes well.”

    Just the Tonic director Darrell Martin said: “There’s been a lot of nay-saying going on about this year's festival, but I’m actually feeling very confident about it.

    “It’s quite difficult to compare things to 2019. I run events throughout the year and everything has been selling slow because of the cost-of-living crisis and people holding off in case a show gets cancelled or they get ill.

    “The Fringe programme wasn’t launched until a month later than normal, so there was a definite lag, but it really feels like it’s picking up now.

    “I live in Edinburgh and I’m now getting a real sense of excitement about the Fringe coming back, which I wasn’t getting a month or two ago.”

    Graham Main, Summerhall’s executive director, said: “When we came out of the pandemic we promised we would reassess how we do everything, which has included scaling back our programme by 30 per cent to give our audience and artists a more meaningful experience. In part due to that, our sales are on track with pre-2019 levels.

    “Across Edinburgh and nationally, audience booking patterns have changed, so we’re not underestimating the more 'impulse buy’ trend across theatre, gigs and live performance.”