Approach with caution: why the Fyre story will give you nightmares

The promotional video for Fyre Festival in 2017 looked like Instagram come to life; you could jet off to a private island in the Bahamas, party like a Kardashian and hang out at the most exclusive festival ever staged.

Unfortunately, the reality turned out to be very different, with hundreds of millennials turning up on a battered old Boeing to discover the beachside villas they had booked were sodden tents (pictured), the festival site was a building site and the high-end catering amounted to nothing more than a floppy cheese sandwich. No one had been paid, all the concertgoers immediately demanded to go home and the festival got cancelled before a note had been played.

Inevitably the whole sorry incident went viral on social media and Fyre Festival got its 15 minutes of fame as the festival disaster to end all festival disasters. Now the story has been told in full in two newly-released documentaries (on Netflix or Hulu, take your pick) – and I have to warn you, it is like an event planner’s worst nightmare – squared.

I watched Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened utterly agog as 25 year-old entrepreneur/con artist Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, his business partner, ploughed on with their attempts to stage a festival despite having absolutely no idea how. They sell out the festival based on a lush-looking promo video starring social media influencers. However, it is only after the festival sells out that they start to think about how much it is going to cost to stage the thing. They sell out, then they do the budget. It is insane.

Just weeks before the event, they have no stage, no acts, no accommodation, no catering… virtually no anything. The site is not a luxury private island, it is a dusty bit of land next to a housing development. It is not the high-end event they have sold for thousands of dollars a ticket to their audience of moneyed millennials – it looks more like a prison camp. The anguished howls of festival-goers as they arrive on site and realise their fate are painful to endure.

And yet still, right up to the last, McFarland is raising money from his investors, making things happen, ignoring the basic truth of the situation he is in – because his event simply HAS to go ahead. (The similarities with aspects of the government’s approach to Brexit negotiations are difficult to avoid at this point.)

The things McFarland asks of his team are unbelievable. There is one anecdote about the lengths that one member of his team is pressured to go to to get the festival’s drinking water released from customs that is actually unprintable in a family publication.

Eventually reality bites and Fyre goes down in flames as McFarland’s trail of lies and unpaid debts finally catches up with him. Spoiler alert: last year McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud and fined a cool $26m.

It’s a fascinating and very modern morality tale that raises plenty of questions – and will also strike fear into the heart of any event professional. You have been warned.

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