EXCLUSIVE: Henley Festival’s Nick Mattingley opens up on festival plans and COVID

In October 2019, Nick Mattingley was appointed CEO of Henley Festival. Here, in this Q&A, he talks candidly about not organising his first Henley Festival, COVID-19 and future plans

In October 2019 you were appointed CEO of Henley Festival. What’s working life been like so far?

My appointment in October last year coincided with the finalisation of the 2020 festival so it was straight into budgets, contracts and lots of artistic considerations. With any event that has a long history, (2020 would have been the festival’s 38th year), there’s a great deal of inertia and plenty of holy cows. Joining a well-oiled operation at any time can be challenging so its been a mix of learning on the job and reserving judgement on some of the nuances and inserting where possible. But it is all familiar territory and feels like a homecoming. That said, my time at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) prepared me for having to look multi-dimensionally and when making changes seek out the dependencies of dependencies.

Lockdown has meant that your first “live” Henley Festival will be in 2021. What impact will this have on your planning and event management plans? 

Joining a well-oiled operation at a critical time meant I initially had to stand back and observe but I was able to quickly take a pulse and see where there were opportunities to either streamline or make tweaks or bigger changes. I made sure I was working closely with the core team so I could get into the detail and weigh up whether we could make adjustments – some we did and some we have parked until either existing contracts expire or I’ve seen the festival in action.

On the policy side of things we’ve been able to make some changes more quickly and which were beginning to bear fruit – sales were going extremely well until we had to postpone. Earlier this year the whole team held a brand strategy day with the terrific Grant Leboff. Out of this team session came several major but quickly adoptable initiatives, including how we maximise our status as a Charitable Trust – something not many people were aware of. Key also for me has been relationship building with our many stakeholders, particularly Henley Royal Regatta, which is our landlord, plus our patrons and friends. I am lucky to have a board of trustees who are knowledgeable, instructive and supportive.

The Henley Festival site played host to Coalition’s first Car Park Party – what did you learn on this event? 

The festival had already worked with the Coalition team on Jo Whiley’s amazing night last year and have the much anticipated Sara Cox‘s “Just Can’t Get Enough 80’s” show booked for the next festival. We were already exploring ideas for future innovative shows, so when they called to say they had an idea about a drive-in show we were all ears. We were already looking to run some alternate festival events over what would have been our normal week. The production values were terrific and our audience had an absolute ball. What we learned though is that Henley can be a bit of a microcosm – we sold out pretty quickly and also released extra tickets. Being the first meant navigating the compliance side of things from a pretty blank sheet, a delicate balance of taking the initiative at the same time as being very cautious: small steps and being 100 per cent consultative with the local authority and licencing officers. Had our event been a week earlier I’m not so sure we could have done what we did. Interestingly also, having put a couple of films on sale, we had to quickly take it off because the film distributors and licensors were unable to been seen doing anything prior to the July 4 date. In the end, we sold out of all of the shows including two family-friendly “Horrible Britain” shows with the superb Horrible Histories team.

As events have now been given the green light, what plans do you have for the rest of the year?

We ran a very successful online auction, which we intend to present again this year – art by top artists, music and show memorabilia as well as some unique pieces that have never been seen before. We’re also talking to Coalition plus others about other shows later in the year and early next year. But we are also mindful that things may take a turn for the worse. We’re also taking a balanced approach so as not to over populate what could be a very busy final half of the year.

You have a long career of organising high-profile and large-scale events. What has COVID-19 taught you? 

As many others are finding, we have had to reappraise everything. But also not pre-judge people’s reaction to adversity. Right at the beginning, when we saw the dominos falling in our direction, we had to take a view on what to do with a much-loved festival that was already 80 per cent sold. In the space of four hours we called all our headline artists who, without fail, said they would move to 2021. That rubber stamped our decision to postpone. What we had booked for 2020 across all our genres is moving to 2021. Our audience has followed and they have also kindly donated to keep us going in a year where we have no income. Amazing. Much effort is going into further fundraisers but we don’t want to over do it.

Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, what plans do you have for the festival and the Henley Festival brand?

Selling out in 2021 is a priority – getting back onto a firm financial footing is key. 2022 is our 40th year – for that we are planning something rather unique and will be bringing back some of the festival’s favourites. I’d like to take credit for the new structures but we’ll be inheriting all new marquees from Henley Royal Regatta in 2021, but watch out for innovation with how we stage and dress the event as well as how we engage and sustain our unique audience – all of which is on my radar. And the collaborations we have made in 2020 will certainly endure. Hopefully we’ll see all our industry friends back when we’re through this.