Edinburgh science festival is spreading its wings

Experiment: Abu Dhabi science festival
Experiment: Abu Dhabi science festival
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SOME events are simply synonymous with Scotland’s capital city: the firing of the one o’clock gun from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle; the gasps of wonder at the sheer size of the Christmas tree in Jenners department store; and, for two weeks each Easter, the sights, sounds and smells of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Over the course of a fortnight, the festival extends its arms and legs throughout Auld Reekie, from its traditional home at the City Arts Centre through to newer venues likes the refitted National Museum of Scotland and the Summerhall arts venue in the former Royal Dick Vet School on the Meadows.

Now, the festival is poised to spread its wings even further afield. During the 2015 festival, more than 105,000 people attended in excess of 270 events at almost 40 venues – but soon those numbers could be eclipsed as the festival looks to expand its international business.

“When most people think of the festival, they will think of what takes place in Edinburgh each spring,” says Simon Gage, the festival director, who has been with the organisation since it was launched in 1989.

“But we also carry out a range of activities overseas too, from running whole festivals like the one in Abu Dhabi through to planning and consultancy work and devising events for government agencies and corporate customers.”

As well as running the Abu Dhabi science festival, the team from Edinburgh has also worked in China, Germany, India and Qatar, where United States First Lady Michelle Obama visited its Code Crackers workshop in November. During 2016-17, the festival is due to work on projects in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

In a typical year, revenues from the UK – which come through ticket sales, sponsorship and running shows in schools – sit at around £2 million, but international revenues have exceeded domestic income during four of the past five years, peaking at £2.75m.

The festival aims to grow its overseas sales to £5m by 2018 and estimates that the international market for its shows stands at £25m. The festival’s international expansion has been made possible by the recruitment of chief operations officer Darrell Williams – a veteran of the Edinburgh Festival Theatre and the MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling – who will now run its UK operations.

Hiring a COO has freed up Gage so that he can concentrate on growing the overseas business.

“I think that our brand is popular abroad because we are recognised for the quality of our shows and also because we have incredible physical assets in our warehouse, including an operating theatre with six cubicles, which is the only one of its kind in the world,” explains Gage.

“Our creative team develops its own shows and then we spend a lot of time and effort training people to deliver them.”

The festival now has 35 staff – more than double the number it had five years ago – and its headcount peaks at about 165 workers during its main two-week run at Easter.

When the team from Edinburgh runs the Abu Dhabi science festival, it can have 150 people on the ground and deliver training to around 1,000 workers who staff the shows.

“A lot of festivals use volunteers, but our staff are paid and trained and I think that shows in the quality of the experience that we deliver,” Gage adds.

“I think that’s really attractive for customers, especially those in the Middle East, who want the highest quality in all areas.

“The ‘Stem’ subjects that we work with – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are often taught in English and so there are not the same language barriers as in other areas.

“The demand for Stem education is rising and so I’m confident that we’ll hit our international expansion target over the next three years.”

The 2016 Edinburgh International Science Festival runs from 26 March to 10 April. www.sciencefestival.co.uk

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.