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Once upon a time at a literature festival

It would be all too easy to write a gushing review of the 30th annual Hay Festival, which has expanded internationally, but has its heart and roots in Hay-on-Wye, the town of books. Instead, this is my account of GL events’ partnership with the event, and its impact upon the many thousands of new and returning visitors who travel, from around the world, to the world-famous arts and literature festival.

I’ve just returned from my second visit to Hay-on-Wye, where I spent three days hooked by the festival, both as a participant and a story-telling observer. But let’s start at the beginning. My first trip to the Welsh border town took place on an overcast morning in April. I’d travelled to meet the film crew who are documenting GL events UK’s season of events, and found myself parking up in an unremarkable field: unremarkable, that is, except for its gravelled car park and the presence of crews in GL events-branded safety gear, absorbed in the meticulous installation of a vast and rapidly growing expanse of gleaming white tents.

For eleven months of the year, the Hay festival site is a farmer’s field, overlooked by the Black Mountains and grazed by sheep and cattle. But GL events UK’s crew arrives each spring to build the Hay Festival team’s ideal event space; installing nearly 100 individual temporary structures, pagodas, marquees and festival tents; all flanked and interconnected by a circuitous network of covered walkways, to create the temporary event village that has become home-from-home for visitors, staff, volunteers, exhibitors and speakers at the event.

As 30m-high aluminium frames were craned into the sky, flooring cassettes were slotted into position, and PVC roofs were pulled taut by teams of men with ropes, I took a moment to chat with Fred Wright, site designer at Hay Festival, who was instrumental in agreeing Hay’s latest, five-year contract with GL events. “From an operational point of view, it’s a particularly fluid relationship,” Fred explained, as we watched the skeleton site expanding. “After seven years of partnership with GL events, we know the festival infrastructure will be installed exactly as we want, and that we can challenge the GL events team with changes and amendments as the site takes shape. It’s a dynamic relationship, and one that works really well.”

Fast-forward three weeks, and I returned to Hay to experience the event in full swing. Crossing the fields from my campsite, I felt a swell of pride as the event village came into view, its frames fleshed out with colour, branding, and bustling life, as thousands of people of all ages flocked to the entrance. The site, so recently a field, was now an extraordinarily enticing maze of auditoriums, bars, seminar spaces, restaurants, box offices, colourful gardens, book stores, administration points, food halls, trade stalls, weather-proofed corridors, enclosed picnic lawns and inviting nooks and crannies.

Within the eight temporary theatres created by GL events, row after row of hushed spectators gathered under black-out linings to attend audiences with scholars, politicians, authors, illustrators and celebrities; having queued within the event’s temporary foyers to listen, learn, and direct questions to speakers under the spotlight on smartly constructed temporary stages.

Outside, guests reclined in deck-chairs, absorbed in newly-signed books; enjoyed cocktails on the decked terraces of boutique bars, and sheltered from the infamous Welsh weather beneath photogenic pole tents. Children skipped and cartwheeled, with painted faces, while elderly guests relaxed on benches, watching camera crews at hard work capturing the Festival’s action.

I chatted with a group of stewards sheltering from a brief downpour. One lady had volunteered at the festival, coordinating events in its various temporary auditoriums, for more than a decade. How did she feel about the event village, created by GL events every year, to house the festival she loves so much?

“The roofs over our heads are something I’ve always taken for granted. I’ve noticed improvements and changes to the layout and venues, of course. The structures, tents and routes around the site are completely integral to everything we do; but every day is non-stop, and the infrastructure obviously works so well that I’ve barely thought about it, except for that rush of excitement and familiarity when I first arrive and see the site appearing over the hills.”

This was my overwhelming impression of Hay Festival. Once within, I lost my sense of time and place. A member of the Hay Festival operations team told me with a knowing smile, “we call it the ‘Hay days’ effect. We’re always asking each other: ‘what’s the date today?’, and very often nobody knows. It’s addictive, energising and restorative. Hay Festival is a powerful place. It’s a community as much as an event, it’s a world of its own.”

The Hay Festival team, with the support of GL events UK, delivers an impressive feat: bringing about a complete temporary transformation of the rural landscape – creating a space that transcends limits and departs from the ordinary. But during the festival, it’s wonderfully apparent that visitors to Hay Festival exist in the moment, immersing themselves in a physical and experiential space where, for just a few days, they enjoy complete freedom to engage, recharge and explore ideas, losing themselves in time and space, and forgetting the outside world.

Nicola Forman, Marketing Coordinator at GL events UK

If you’re organising a literature festival, or would like a fresh perspective on your arts and literature events, why not contact GL events UK to discuss your requirements?