Sue Gyford: Firms on the fringe can cure cash woes
WHEN the new chief executive of the Fringe, Kath Mainland, opens the door to her office for the first time next month, she will surely not be expecting an easy ride. After last year's box office computer fiasco, the festival is desperately in need of a good year and yet, in recent weeks, news of sponsors withdrawing from Fringe events has come thick and fast.
Intelligent Finance has withdrawn its backing from the if.comedy awards, which it has sponsored since taking over from Perrier in 2006. The brewer Belhaven has confirmed that it won't continue its sponsorship of one of the biggest venues, The Assembly Rooms, believed to be worth around 60,000 a year.
And it is understood that the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, which includes the Assembly Rooms, Pleasance, Underbelly and Gilded Balloon, has also failed to attract a big-name sponsor this year.
Despite the doom and gloom, however, there appears to be a quiet optimism among many venues and promoters. Those who work year-round for the sake of those four weeks in August say they are having to employ a little ingenuity in the hunt for new sponsors, and hope the recession and weak pound will bring higher numbers of stay-at-home holidaymakers and visitors from the eurozone.
William Burdett-Coutts, the Assembly Rooms' director, said Belhaven's decision to drop its sponsorship was "a great shame", but he was already talking to other potential backers. "We've had a great relationship for a number of years and they have been a great sponsor. We are talking to a number of other sponsors. Sponsorship is a key part of what we do so finding a sponsor is important. I've not had an easy time, but we'll still be there. We're almost fully programmed, so hopefully it will settle down in the next week or two," he said.
A spokesman for the Fringe said he expected to see the same mixture of big-name comedians and amateur thespians filling venues this year. In fact, the event will have a more cosmopolitan flavour than previous years as the weak pound lures not only international audiences, but international performers as well.
He added: "In terms of acts, the final deadline is April 27 so we won't get an accurate indication of numbers until after that. There was an early, discounted deadline and, from that, the numbers are up from last year, but I can't say whether more people have decided to go for it until after the final deadline.
"Our main sponsor for the Fringe High Street is Royal Bank of Scotland and they will be on board again this year."
Nica Burns, director of the awards formerly known as the Perrier and the if, said she was determined the awards would continue, and had a new plan which she will reveal in May. She said: "The arts are very good at improvisation. There's not one industry that's not going to be affected by a crisis of this size, so there's got to be cutting back this year but that doesn't mean that we can't have a great, fun festival."
Another of the "big four", The Gilded Balloon, was thought to have lost money when it backed the Leicester Comedy Festival earlier this year, but founder and director Karen Koren said there would be no knock-on effect on the Fringe. She said: "That was Gilded Balloon going out and expanding its brand and I personally put money into it, so personally it's affected me but not the Gilded Balloon as a company. I've taken care of it."
She said she was "inundated" with acts wanting to take part and added: "We've still got the sponsorship we've had in the past. Sony Pictures sponsor our So You Think You're Funny competition and they're back this year. There are sponsors out there, even though a lot of them are not spending so much money.
"The Assembly Rooms, like myself, will have some wonderful performers. Belhaven was a drinks sponsor for the bars, it wasn't for the acts, and there will be other beer sponsors, I'm sure of that."
She is not the only one to think that setting up Fringe sponsorship in a recession is just a matter of ingenuity.
Dr Joe Goldblatt is executive director of the International Centre for the Study of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. He said: "Sponsorship is a commercial decision, it's not a philanthropic decision. No company sponsors an event because they want to support the Fringe – they do it for the quid pro quo.
"That said, what I've heard is that many of the traditional sponsors continue to support local events but the money is now being shifted from sales and marketing, which is where sponsorship deals usually come from, to community relations.
"Often it's easier to justify to a cynical public and press that the corporate sponsor is not doing this purely for marketing and promotion, they're doing it for improved community relations."
He suggests DIY stores, supermarkets, pharmaceutical companies and leisure providers could prove fruitful as sponsors. "The Fringe should be looking for the winners right now. That's where the pockets are deepest and unzipped. The zipped pockets are the banks and the luxury goods makers.
"I believe if the Fringe is clever this year, it can develop long-term sponsorship relationships that never existed before."
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