Heather McMillan: Life as an event and festival freelancer

Freelancers are essential to events and festivals. In fact, many events and festivals just wouldn’t happen without freelance resource. But in these unprecedented times, freelancers are finding themselves with empty calendars. Heather McMillan, freelance site manager, is no stranger to a festival site. Read on, as she gives an honest account of life right now…


So far 2020 has been a busy year for me. I’m based in Cardiff but have spent a lot of time on site at meetings and in London at client offices. At times I’ve been at my desk at 7am, and working weekends is not unusual.

I love being freelance; I’ve never known anything different. I’ve not spent two consecutive weeks at home since early October and I thrive on being out and about. I work on Snowboxx in the French Alps in March, so I spend a lot of time in January and February trying to get my summer projects to a point where they can be put on hold for a few weeks. This is tough as clients aren’t always on the same timelines.

I’m writing this in early April, a time of year where normally I’m flying back from a busy few weeks working on Snowboxx and coming back to catch up on all my summer projects. In the past, I’ve come back to more than 500 emails in my inbox to wade through, a sight I’m sure we are all used to at times. I’m lucky enough to work with some great clients who understand the juggle of freelance life, working on multiple events and when one is live that my focus has to be on that project, which may mean their project being put on hold for a few weeks.

April is normally a month of site visits, meetings with contractors, redoing plans and specs based on current forecasts and trying to have a bit of work/life balance before the crazy summer season begins.

However, 2020 is not a normal year. I flew home from the Alps just over two weeks ago after Snowboxx got cancelled due to France going into lockdown. This was quickly followed by the UK and the events industry being put on a hiatus… for how long nobody knows.   What would normally be a hectic few weeks turned into sitting at home trying to tie off some loose ends and keeping myself busy. For shows that are not cancelled yet planning has been put on hold until we know what position we will be in after an initial 12-week period.

As freelancers we’re used to the ups and downs in work and personally, I’ve got pretty good at managing the quiet that comes at the end of a busy summer season. However, to be unexpectedly quiet in April has been an adjustment. The thing that has kept a lot of us going is knowing that we are all in the same situation, wonderful communities have been created via Facebook groups and after a wobble the day I flew home so many people reached out in support. In the festival industry you work with people for an intense time for a few weeks a year but one thing I have realised in this crisis is that we are a community who in times like this really do look out for each other.

As a site manager I’m lucky to work on the advance of a lot of shows that form the key part of my summer. This for me has been the saving grace financially in that I’m still being paid for advance days completed. For those that rely on income solely from days completed on site I really feel for you ­– it’s certainly not an easy time.

For the key companies that I work for there has been a lot of compassion and support available, from advance payments offered on contracts for 2021, access to advice from company accountants to weekly Zoom catch ups to make sure we are all still sane. This period has made me incredibly grateful to work for companies who care about the people working for them and are looking to support core freelancers as best they can.

Life on hiatus is strange, I’ve got over a fear of video calls, done more exercise in the last two weeks then I’ve done in the last six months and now got to the stage of lockdown where I’ve made a sourdough starter.

Like many other freelancers I’ve been looking at how I can help out and keep busy in these times, looking at jobs in hospitals and supermarkets. There are ups and downs when I think of the future and what will be left of the industry when this is over but there are positive stories of plans being made for the autumn and beyond.

Whilst the government support has gaps in it for me as a sole trader, it will help bridge some gaps and I hope by the time you read this they will have found a way to support those who trade as small limited companies. I hope the sense of community continues throughout this period of uncertainty and that everyone manages to get through ok.

I’ve never looked forward to standing in a wet muddy field with soaked feet after an 18-hour day trying to get doors open so much!