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The big business of music festival installations

April 1st, 2020 / By: / Feature

Music festivals have become big business, and temporary structures are integral to the festival-goer experience—from small ticketing and concession tents, to custom products for high-end activations and immersive experiences, to glamping tents, where music lovers can take a break or keep the party going all night long.  

by Sigrid Tornquist

Noise Pop. Crush. Pot of Gold. Could be names of the latest puzzle video games, right? More recognizable: Coachella. Outside Lands. Burning Man. Music festivals are nothing new, but they’ve continued to gain momentum since the turn of the century, morphing from counterculture conclaves to mainstream holidays. More than 32 million people attend music festivals each year in the U.S., according to Billboard magazine and—happily for the tenting industry—these musical gatherings rely heavily on tents to create the structure, experience and atmosphere that keep revelers coming back year after year. 

The Heineken House at Coachella 2019 was a 6,400-square-foot custom aluminum-framed structure that offered a fresh take on the brand’s 18th consecutive desert activation. Photo courtesy of Corso Agency and Heineken USA.

Keeping it fresh

For Select Event Group, the Firefly Music Festival is an opportunity to apply its creative expertise in building a temporary city. 

The mantra tent professionals hear from music festival clients is, “Keep it fresh. Keep it new,” says Nick Gerace, team director, mid-Atlantic region at Select Event Group, based near Washington, D.C. 

“The festivals are all competing with each other regionally, so they try to come up with the newest concept, newest design, newest layout,” he says.

Select Event Group has provided tenting and furniture for several music festivals, including the See.Hear.Now Festival that celebrates live music, art and surf culture in Asbury Park, N.J.; Philadelphia, Pa.-based hip-hop and R&B festival Roots Picnic; and the four-stage eclectic Moonrise Festival in Baltimore, Md. But it’s the work Select Event Group does each year with the Firefly Music Festival in Dover, Del., that Gerace says is the most memorable. “It’s the same company that owns Coachella and they have a great team that has a lot of imagination and vision,” he says. 

A drone soaring above the 2019 Firefly Music Festival provided a bird’s eye view of the event’s food court, with a 50-meter structure by Select Event Group in the background.

Gerace says the planning for Firefly, which takes place the third week of June, starts each year in November or December. Select Event Group provides the event with more than 200 tents, ranging from 10-by-10-foot to 50-meter structures, totaling more than 160,000 square feet. “The planning really starts revving up in January though,” he says. “At this point we talk three to four times a week and as you get closer to the event—March or April—it’s daily.”

The planning process starts with basic infrastructure, which includes back-of-house, dressing rooms and catering—and those don’t change much from year to year, Gerace says. The front-of-house experience includes food, catering and concession stands, many of which are 20-by-20-foot high-peak Century® tents from Anchor Industries Inc. “They’ll tweak those and move things around to accommodate stages once the lineup is announced,” Gerace says.

Indeed, tent rental companies pay close attention to when the artist lineup is announced, as it is crucial to the planning process. “The festival gauges presale tickets when the lineup is announced, which gives them some kind of indication of how the event will take off and whether we’ll need to extend the site,” Gerace says. “Select Event Group prepares a contingency plan as the event approaches. We put inventory on hold so that if ticket sales are going well, we can add infrastructure.” 

The tented decking by Select Event Group was divided into separate VIP suites that overlooked the main stage at the 2019 Firefly Music Festival in Dover, Del. Photos by Select Event Group.

Artistic center

Clients often ask for clear tops for the back-of-house artist tents, Gerace says. “The back of house is more of an experience for the artists,” he says. “The focus is to have the artists speak to how great their festival is.”

One solution Select Event Group offers music festival clients is an open-ended 50-meter tent for the artists, with a stage on one end and a lighted environment underneath. “One year we used balloons for decor and bounced lighting off of them,” Gerace says. “That installation got a lot of legs on social media. We still have clients who find pictures of it on the internet and ask us if we can do something like that.”

Very important people

The more high-profile the acts at the festival, the more VIP space is needed—so VIP tenting is another element that depends on the release of the lineup. “If the acts aren’t quite as much of a draw, there’s less square footage hitting my order sheet,” Gerace says. “Blake Shelton, for example—his VIP sections are huge.”

VIP tents are typically elevated, with close proximity to the main stage. “At Firefly there’s a permanent structure that we put tenting on,” Gerace says. “It’s a multilevel elevated deck that we cover with tenting and carve out with different hospitality spaces called cabanas. Each cabana has its own bar and is elevated above the heads of the crowd for the best sight lines to the stage.”

Trends to track

While tenting opportunities for festivals are strong, festivals themselves may have peaked. “I’m seeing more contraction,” Gerace says. “I think the market got saturated with festivals. Some are no longer functioning and others are taking a hiatus.” (See “Don’t get burned” sidebar.)

Still, opportunities are there for tent rental companies that understand the industry. Under the “super-hot commodity” category for music festivals—and more—are printed gable ends for branding. “For the cost and advertising dollar, printed gable ends are a huge advantage,” Gerace says. “From 3 meters to 50 meters, they are a great introduction to the festival.”

The best part of providing tenting for music festivals, though, may just be the opportunity for creativity. “When you first step on the site, it’s a blank slate,” Gerace says. “You’re basically building a temporary city for upwards of 50,000 people for some of the bigger festivals. And then in a matter of weeks, it’s all gone. Not a trace is left. The coolest part of what I do is the creativity of building a site out and then getting rid of it in the turnaround time.”

SIDEBAR: More luxury, more revenue

The Glamping Dome Series by Glitzcamp features five customizable designs, including the free-standing Starry Dome Igloo, designed without a column to provide unobstructed and expansive interior space. Photo courtesy of Gliztcamp USA, a division of Shelter Structures America.

The days of cheap camping tents and Woodstock-style, mud-covered festival-goers are gone. As festival promoters aim to increase revenue by offering luxury experiences, glamping at music festivals is a popular offering for guests with high budgets—and sometimes those celebrating on a shoestring. 

“Basically the festivals are creating a ‘glamping village,’ with tents that vary from a luxurious glamping tent to dome tents to sleeping pods to little homes in which people sleep for the entire concert weekend,” says Keith Krzeminski, executive vice president, Shelter Structures America, Palo Verdes Estates, Calif. “Growth at concerts is in the creation of a VIP experience for the concert attendees. The luxurious sleeping tents, full-size beds, HVAC and power allow the attendee to experience the concert in a new and refreshing way.” 

Shelter Structures’ glamping division, Glitzcamp USA, provides glamping and dome tents, as well as traditional clearspan structures. “The music festivals today are looking to grow their revenue by offering higher-end products and experiences to keep attendees coming back year after year,” Krzeminski says. “For example, last year we sent out a 20-meter and a 15-meter dome to Burning Man to create spaces for the ‘Burners.’ Domes, glamping tents and clearspan tents are used today to create venues and villages to promote the concert experience.”

The end game of all this festival glamping? “It creates a better experience for the concert attendee and more revenue for the client,” Krzeminski says. 

SIDEBAR: Dancing under a dome

The 120-foot Antarctic Dome by Pacific Domes offered a 360-degree immersive dance experience for Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival attendees. Photo courtesy of Pacific Domes.

Traditional frame tents are great for concessions, first aid and other run-of-the-mill requirements whenever large numbers of people gather in temporary spaces. But today’s festival-goers are looking for visual experiences to stream, post and tweet. Custom specialty structures can shape the spaces that create those experiences.

Ashland, Ore.-based Pacific Domes Inc. provides geodesic domes for many music festivals including Burning Man, Outside Lands and more—but the immersive 360-degree, air-conditioned concert hall venue it provided for the 2019 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was nothing short of iconic. The Dome Dance party invited attendees to “get their groove on under the Dance Dome” as an eclectic roundup of well-known musicians provided the music. 

Engineered for both internal and external weight loads and support lighting and sound equipment, the 120-foot dome was made of galvanized steel and was customized by an in-house manufacturing team. T-Mobile® sponsored YouTube livestreaming of the Dome Dance party for two weekends. And when the attendees tired of dancing, some took advantage of the company’s geodesic ZenDomes as a luxury outdoor lodging space to rest their feet.

High visibility

Eventstar Structures constructs a can’t-miss venue for Coachella attendees. 

With vinyl from Naizil® Coated Fabrics, Serge Ferrari North America Inc. and Keder Solutions, Eventstar Structures fabricated asymmetrical wall panels and graphics for the exterior face of the structure. Photo courtesy of Corso Agency and Heineken USA.

Eventstar Structures Corp., Medley, Fla., has created the Heineken House structure at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival every year since 2014. For the 2019 version, it provided a 6,400-square-foot custom aluminum-framed structure that refreshed the 2018 version. The number one requirement for the 2019 iteration? It needed to be an art installation in addition to its more practical functions. 

“The Corso Agency engaged us to do this work for Coachella,” says Kristian Lightbourne, project manager at Eventstar. “The primary thing we needed to think about was not only what was inside the structure but also what guests would see from a distance.”

Eventstar designed, manufactured and installed the futuristic aircraft-like winged structure that reached skyward and had a visible roofing footprint from within the main festival grounds. The client wanted the structure to be unique as well as elicit some sort of response from those viewing it from a distance and from within its footprint. 

“Heineken is always trying to incorporate more elements into the structure to encourage more people to come into it,” Lightbourne says. “Their goal is not singularly focused. They want guests to have a unique and memorable experience while simultaneously encouraging guests to try and purchase their core products.”

The unique shape of the exterior attracted guests from the outside, and the mirrored roof on the inside created a fully immersive experience. Eventstar created the experience by building the roof of the structure in a grid form. Individual grids were filled with roofing panels that were white on the exterior and faced with a metallic film on the interior. The reflective mirroring effect coupled with an audiovisual element provided a deeper visual experience.

Attendees weren’t the only ones impressed—the structure received a 2019 IFAI International Achievement Award of Excellence in the Tent Manufacturing and Design category.  

Sigrid Tornquist is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, and a former InTents editor.

SIDEBAR: Don’t get burned

The Corso Agency curated the lineup for the Heineken House, which included hip hop legacy trio De La Soul for the opening weekend of Coachella 2019. The structure and the artists coordinated to create an over-the-top experience for attendees. Photo courtesy of Corso Agency and Heineken USA.

In 2017, Coachella became the first recurring music festival franchise to earn more than $100 million. On the other end of the spectrum, the infamous Fyre Festival ended with lawsuits, criminal prosecution and not one but two documentaries analyzing the disaster.

“The big thing to know with music festivals is that when the gates open, they’re not selling any more tickets,” says George Smith, president of Mahaffey Tent and Event Rentals, Memphis, Tenn. “So it’s important to know that if you’re the last one scheduled to get paid—you may not.”

Mahaffey often provides tenting for music festivals, but unless it’s an established customer, the company asks for 100 percent of the payment up front. “The thing to keep in mind is that they don’t generate any money after the show is over,” Smith says. “And if it’s a new festival especially, get your money up front because it may go south if they don’t sell enough tickets.”

In the midst of the project, Smith advises creating a paper trail for change orders. “Typically, there are a lot of last-minute adds and moves, so be careful to capture your change orders,” he says. “Don’t take verbal change orders. Make them sign things. No matter how sincere they are, they all forget after the show is over.”

Despite the warnings, Smith says music festivals can be an opportunity for growth. “Music festivals in general are looking for the newest and latest things to attract crowds, so it’s a good place to get some long-term contracts for unique products,” he says. “Music festivals are better than weddings because they repeat and can give you a quicker ROI on custom products. It lets you expand your inventory because you can buy products for that festival and then use them year after year.”