Inside the Hay Festival Experience

Reading is usually perceived as a solo activity, but the Hay Festival has turned it into a community experience. We talk to founder Peter Florence about why a live event works for literature and how they’ve spread the Hay brand around the world

Festivals are booming in our digital age. Perhaps prompted by a need to connect in the real world, or because of the increased value of the offline experience, audiences are flocking to them all over the world.

One of the more surprising success stories of the festival circuit is the Hay Festival, which takes place annually in early summer in Wales but has also grown to include offshoots in Colombia, Mexico, Spain and Peru.

Its success is surprising as it’s an event devoted to literature and ideas, and instead of offering its attendees the escapism found at a rock festival, they are ideally required to think. There is a starriness alongside this intellectualism though, with the festivals attracting the glitterati of the book world, as well as rock stars, politicians, scientists and comedians. A Hay Festival provides sustenance for the mind but can also transform the local fortunes of where it is held: according to Hay’s founder and director, Peter Florence, the Welsh iteration generated £28 million for the region last year.

Above and top: photos from the 2018 Hay Festival by Adam Tatton-Reid
Hay Festival; photo: Sam Hardwick

The expansive world of Hay that exists today is all quite a long way from what the founders imagined when it was first set up, back in 1988. In fact, Florence balks somewhat at the slightly pretentious notion that they had a vision for it at all.

“We started off literally wanting to have a party weekend and invite some mates to come and talk about some stuff,” he says. “And it took off very, very quickly because in those days there was only really the Cheltenham Festival that existed.”

Florence puts a significant part of is success down to its setting. “I think Hay has, for all the inaccessibility and remoteness, an astonishing beauty and a sort of easiness which makes it a wonderful place to have a conversation,” he continues. “People feel relaxed here, it’s very informal, its rural setting is really important to the way in which I think people feel outside of the polite and formal constraints that you have in cities and big grand institutional buildings.”

The growth of the festival was swift, helped by early endorsements by some of literature’s most towering figures. “I think Arthur Miller came in our second year, after which nobody was ever going to say ‘why would I go?’,” says Florence.

“What we’ve found over the years, and we’ve done 200 festivals on five continents, is that the essential pleasure of a festival, which is universal, is that old, really ancient thing of sitting round a campfire, or a picnic rug or a kitchen table and telling stories. Everybody treasures that. And the more digitally connected we are, the more technology informs us of stuff, the more that being in the room, being at the table thing is important. The face-to-face contact is vital and seems more important now than ever.”