How will coronavirus change events?

With the pandemic making large gatherings impossible, brands, festivals and cultural institutions have been planning online alternatives. We explore how creatives and organisers are responding to the crisis, and whether it could inspire new kinds of digital experiences

Had this year gone as planned, the organisers of Hay Festival would be preparing to welcome over 200,000 visitors to the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye this week. For the past 32 years, the event has brought together authors, actors, politicians and thinkers for a lively programme of talks, discussions and parties, held against a backdrop of green fields and rolling hills. The event has become a major draw for book fans around the world, and has had a massive impact on the area, bringing in around £25 million each year for the local economy.

But with large-scale events no longer possible due to coronavirus, Hay Festival is having to do things a little differently. For the next two weeks, it will be hosting a free virtual festival through online platform Crowdcast, streaming films, dance performances and live Q&As with writers and creatives from Hilary Mantel to Maggie O’Farrell, Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Fry. It’s a star studded and varied line-up: alongside interviews with leading names in fiction and non-fiction, Hay will be hosting live readings of poetry by William Wordsworth, dance performances and talks covering topics from human history to US politics and social justice.

Hay made the decision to cancel its festival back in March, when it became clear that the event wouldn’t be able to go ahead in its planned form. Founder and director Peter Florence admits it was a “scary” time – particularly given that the festival makes most of its income through ticket sales – but after launching an emergency appeal, Hay managed to raise almost £100,000 in donations through crowdfunding platform GoFundMe.

Hay Festival; photo: Sam Hardwick

“The response was overwhelming. It became very apparent that people wanted us to have a future and that the festival was important to them,” he tells CR. The money allowed Hay to move the festival online, and the team behind it have spent the past two months working out how to bring the Hay experience to life online.

As Florence points out, a large part of Hay’s success is down to its focus on dialogue – allowing visitors a chance to discuss big ideas with other festival goers as well as some of the brightest minds working in fields from literature to economics, art and and science. And while most of its programme its made up of talks, it’s also well-known for hosting more experimental events and performances, as well as informal parties.

Creating a digital event that can offer the same mix of experiences has been a challenge. “We had to reformat an events company into a broadcaster, and adapt broadcasting knowhow to a new interactive digital platform that no-one has yet mastered, so the whole journey is one of discovery and adventure every hour of every day,” admits Florence – but the team at Hay have been using their imagination to put together a lively programme of events that goes beyond the traditional video interview or Zoom conference format.