The business of festivals: How Body & Soul does it differently

Avril Stanley on Burning Man inspiration, finding the right sponsors, and how sustainability is key...

It's the night before the festivities that Avril Stanley cherishes the most.

With her sold-out Body & Soul event – an Irish festival with a genuine twist or 12 – returning to Westmeath's Ballinlough Castle this Friday, the weeks and months just past have been a busy but "tedious" time.

"Some people think it's a glamorous moment," Stanley smiles. "'The festival's sold-out, amazing!' Nonsense. It's the time when the team needs to pull together."

During the three carefree days for punters, Stanley's also preoccupied, "involved with everything", though she is aiming to delegate more this time out.

"It's a bit like having a gathering of all your family members, where you have this very large sense of a 'duty of care' for all the people there."

The moment she can step back and marvel, then, is a fleeting, quiet one.

"My favourite is the Thursday night before everyone goes in. It's a personal highlight because I see the cogs of the wheel and how amazing it is that these intricate plans that come to life.

"The lights are going up, the stages are coming in, the PAs are being tweaked and the soundchecks are happening. Everything's pointing where it's supposed to and the art installations are at their absolute best.

"People are weaving the final threads of this beautiful tapestry before anyone arrives.

"For me, it's this very silent moment of 'this is why we do this, this is what it is about'."

Body & Soul founder Avril Stanley

It's Stanley seeing the annual fruition of a dream that started on very different terrain. Standing on the black rocks of the Nevada desert years ago, she had something of an epiphany at that grandaddy of alt. festivals, Burning Man.

Trained in psychotherapy and having travelled extensively to find her calling in life, Stanley decided this festival lark was for her. Body & Soul made its name in Ireland as a special spot in Electric Picnic, before it grew legs of its own and settled down in Ballinlough Castle in 2009. 

Welcoming the likes of Mercury Rev, Hudson Mohawke, The Gloaming and Girl Band to its main stage this year, Body & Soul is nevertheless something of an outlier on the Irish music & arts festival circuit in that it doesn't live and die by it's musical line-up.

Instead, the self-described "bizarre and beautiful banquet" has carved out its own identity and made that the selling point, bringing a Burning Man ethos to the Irish.

So what exactly did Avril Stanley experience in the Black Rock Desert that she just had to bring back across the Atlantic?

"It was being in a place where we were absolutely void of any of the demands of life and the only duty that you had there was to be absolutely free. Explore music, art and this incredibly unique atmosphere in the desert that was shared with thousands of like-minded people.

"I'd never experienced anything like that before. It set alight a feeling of 'oh my God, I can't believe this thing exists'. And, secondly 'I can't believe this can become a career!'

"This could be something that you could vocate your life to and that you could actually make a living from it.

"We set the scene but, for me, it's what happens in the spaces in between that's the most intriguing. The connections that happen, the love at first sight, the babies that are created!

"People can come and experience somewhere that's set up for them. There's fresh water, toilets, water, food, entertainment, places to chill out, massages, hot tubs, seaweed baths... You can go and make pottery if you like, and bring everything from your glitterballs to your wellies!"

With a thoroughly holistic approach and emphasis on wellness, it seems miles away from the dodgy chip vans and mass scramble to escape Slane that the Irish originally associated with the festival experience.

Could Body & Soul have existed even 25 years ago? Its organisers makes the case that we've come through the recession with a new found sense of "solidarity" and an openness to new ideas.

"I believe it would have needed to be communicated with a different language," Stanley concedes. "But I do believe the Irish spirit and our culture is very fond of the art of celebration...

"And we can speak now about meditation and about all sorts of things. Push the boundaries a little bit more and people are open to it. Look around Dublin right now and every yoga class is bursting at the seams. Every second person I meet is on their way to meditation.

"'You're going to meditation, you're kidding me? You're the CEO of such-and-such!' That's great because these are really simple tools, there's no Ju-Ju in it. This isn't about a new version of spirituality.

"The funny thing is, while it's more open now, these are the roots of our culture. We're getting back to roots we didn't even know we had. And that's what I love.

"[That's why] our festival is based on the solstice; you need to have some kind of meaning or else you're just throwing a party."

From previous chats with the men behind both Castlepalooza and Indiependence, and having heard Stanley's original aims for Body & Soul, it doesn't seem like the business for those who want to get rich quick...

She laughs.

"There's certain people for whom it's just festivals-by-numbers..." she ventures. "It's like the Tesco of festivals, where it's generic. But personally I've never been a fan of anything that's generic. It certainly doesn't work for me as a human being.

"But no, you wouldn't go into it to make money. If you're good at it, you can make money from it but it depends on where you come from. 

"If you're someone like me, unfortunately you're not so good at that side of things! Because you want the festival to be the absolute best it can be. If you go about it in that way, there's not very much left in the end that you can fuel back into the company.

"Nonetheless, you still have to get to a point where the festival is sustainable.

"Otherwise, why are you doing it? You're doing it to live out your wildest fantasies but you're not sustaining festival culture and you're also not sustaining your team. It has to be something that perpetuates and continues years on.

"It's a very fine balance between a festival being commercially successful and a festival being creatively at the top of it's game."

And when those intertwine...

"That is the dream, that's the place we're striving for... So you have to try your damnedest to come out with a profit."

A large part of that is attracting sponsors. When you have the ethics that Body & Soul holds dear, however, the potential pool of investors becomes dramatically smaller. Has it been hard to find brands that the event can properly get behind?

"It's been so tough," Stanley confirms. "It's normally a 'no' from us, unfortunately. We've had to say no when we're desperate to say yes.

"It's like a relationship, you have to look at that 'person' and want to hang out with them. You have to be happy to wear their coat sometimes. You have be happy to communicate their message.

"That's definitely where my background as a therapist makes me go 'what is it that we're doing here?' It's not just about taking the money and running. It's about feeling like you can stand by them and they'll stand by you.

"We have very few sponsors, and the ones we do have I'm very happy with.

"Over the years, we've become better and more discerning at being able to identify who the people are that we'd love to work with. The most recent one of those would be [vodka brand] Absolut.

"It's been a real joy to work with them because of their own values and what they stand for themselves as a brand who really pioneer creativity."

As the Body & Soul brand builds, so does the interest.

"In the first year, no one wanted to know us! They looked at the name 'Body & Soul' and thought we were hippies! The thing is, we're not hippies at all. I would say we're the antithesis.

"It's like anything, you have to show your worth and prove yourself: 'you mightn't want to talk to us just yet, but we're going to just keep doing what we're doing.' That didn't happen overnight.

"And we've never gotten funding from arts councils. Or any leaderships or any of these grants that are out there.

"Ever.

One of the chief tenets of Body & Soul is to have as little impact on the environment as possible. Their approach to sustainability isn't just paying lip service to the cause; it's integral in practice.

"A lot of people say they're green but actually they're not. I've no interest in just saying it, I'm only interested in how we can take steps towards it."

The festival itself recycles as much as it can and offsets its carbon footprint by planting trees annually.

"In truth, the greatest amount of most of the rubbish generated at a festival comes from what the public bring into it themselves. Not what the festival generates...

"Where we want to get to in the next five years is that our entire festival is people who have chosen to be a 'conscientious camper'. It will take us that long because you're changing the psyche.

"'I've bought my ticket' doesn't mean 'I've bought my ticket and you're my mom and you do my laundry'.

"When we did our first festival, 1,800 people came and they were clearly real followers of the ethos. There was no litter and maybe three tents left behind. I was so touched because I was used to dealing with large festivals where you'd nearly cry at what you saw on the Monday. It'd be beautiful if we could return to that.

"The only way was to set up the Us&You campsite. Literally, a campsite where you choose to be a conscientious camper and choose to put your litter into the bags, and take all your tents and belongings home."

It's a slow process, but Stanley is ambitious. Just under 5,000 people have signed up for the Us&You campsite this year. Next year, they're aiming for 8,500.

"It's like how we've grown the festival –  incrementally over time. I believe we can do the same with this."

For more on Body & Soul, go to bodyandsoul.ie