Franschhoek Literary Festival wins as book event, fails as tourism event!

Franschhoek Wine Valley tourism is much smarter than Cape Town Tourism, in that it understands that its members suffer greatly due to Seasonality in winter, and has therefore encouraged events to be held in the low season, a monthly event being organised to attract visitors to the wine valley.

In seven years the Franschhoek Literary Festival has become the second most popular event hosted in Franschhoek, with an estimated 11000 tickets having been sold.  Only the Bastille Festival attracts more visitors. The Franschhoek Literary Festival attracts mainly women, many from Johannesburg and Durban, reasonably well-off, and somewhat older. Because the Franschhoek Wine Valley has no hand in organising the event, we were surprised how many first-time visitors the village received this past weekend, and how few of them knew anything about the wine estates and wine farms in Franschhoek, and therefore how few visited them by car.  Particularly surprising was that the tourism bureau’s marketing office did not Tweet for most of the weekend, either to inform the thousands of visitors in the village about things to do, and where to eat and taste wine, or about fringe events like classic music concerts and art exhibitions.  The organisers see the Literary Festival purely as a book and resultant charity event, and have no tourism interest to allow the Festival to be of benefit to all Franschhoek businesses.  The newish Franschhoek Wine Tram and Bus would have been a great tourist service to delegates, driving them to their session venues, and so create awareness for this unique tourism product.

The highlights of the Festival were the calibre of the authors that are drawn to the Festival to speak (although there were many repeat speakers and not enough new blood this year, it seemed), the vibe and energy in the centre of the village, where delegates would meet in-between session for a coffee and chat, meeting up with old friends and making new ones, and the general non-alcohol induced well-being of all in the village, even amongst its residents. The Voices for Africa concert organised by Christopher Duigan was an outstanding event, and almost filled the Dutch Reformed Church, yet the Festival attendees did not seem to know about it, despite it being included in the Festival program.  The guest houses were sold out, and the coffee shops and restaurants on the main road were very busy too.

There was much to criticise, the non-awarding of the Wine Writers Award overshadowing the event from the wine industry perspective, and very poor PR skills were demonstrated from the Festival organisers in dealing with the matter.  Clearly Jenny Hobbs is a good book writer, but has no clue of PR, and how to deal with negativity other than just suppressing it, which we have experienced from her too.   Boekenhoutskloof as sponsor and the Franschhoek Literary Festival will be mocked by wine whiner Neil Pendock for months to come, ironically in the Festival’s sponser newspaper that he uses to spew forth his wine missives, judging by how much airtime he has already given to the fiasco, which is the worst insult ever paid to our local wine writers! The sudden withdrawal of one of the key speakers Anthony Horowitz without explaining that it was due to illness, and the interdict against the screening of the documentary ‘Truth be Told’ in a side session organised by Noseweek‘s Martin Welz, attracted the wrong type of publicity to the Festival.  Other problems were:

*   Too many good session overlapped in the same time slots, forcing one to choose one above the other

*   The good sessions were sold out early, a problem for late bookers.  No attempt was made to plan for ‘repeats’ of the most popular sessions, to allow a larger number of attendees to experience the top speakers (e.g. Tony Leon and Melanie Verwoerd in ‘The Ambassadors’ session) .  The largest venue in Franschhoek is the high school hall, but cannot accommodate all the interested delegates.

*   Many speakers had been used in the past.  One is looking for new blood.  There was no innovation in the hosting of the Festival, the same formula of venue and a panel of three speakers and a chairman used.

*   Not all sessions started punctually, which meant they ended later, and that affected one’s plans to take a break or to run to the next session in a different venue.  The late start was due to the busing in of school learners, to fill empty spaces, in the Twitter session, for example.

*   The chairmen were not all equally good at executing their role in guiding the discussion and in ensuring enough question time, and in preventing the over-domination of one speaker at the expense of the rest of the panel, as happened in the Twitter session, Fiona Snyckers not even attempting to control Woolworths’ Social Media Manager Sam Wilson, who interrupted her panel colleagues repeatedly, to the irritation of the audience.  One wonders why a non-Tweeter like journalist Ann Crotty sat on the Twitter panel, which resulted in Wilson having to teach her about Twitter in the session.

*   The exclusionary venues used for what sounded like wonderful sessions on poetry, such as Le Quartier Français’ The Screening Room, given that the owner Susan Huxter bans visitors from her venue!

*   Speakers should not punt their books from the platform, a criticism about Tony Leon’s hard-sell during his Ambassador session, according to a letter to the editor in the Cape Times.

*   There was no Tweeting by the Franschhoek Literary Festival during the Festival period.  The sponsor Boekenhoutskloof and the Festival disagreed about the Twitter hashtag for the Festival, with #flf13 winning the day, to the annoyance of the wine sponsor, which had printed all its marketing material with #flf2013!

*   One of the biggest criticisms is the commercialisation of Franschhoek, with massive Sunday Times banners outside the town hall with a massive Porcupine Ridge bottle there too and at the entrance to the village.  Each session venue had a table cloth with the branding of the two sponsors, so that one could not miss their branding!  Normally the village is very strict about local businesses’ excessive branding in Franschhoek, yet this is allowed.  Wine and newspaper sales will hardly have been stimulated by this crass commercial display, which made Franschhoek look cheap.

Last, but not least: the Franschhoek Wine Valley marketing department sent all delegates a questionnaire this morning, requesting feedback, breaching privacy regulations regarding passing on client details to another party.  All delegates who had booked via Webtickets were sent the questionnaire: ‘You are receiving this email because you bought a ticket for the Franschhoek Literary Festival this past weekend’!  The covering e-mail also promised that all answers were ‘completely confidential and will not be linked to your name in any way’.  Yet question 15 requested name and e-mail details should one wish to receive future updates about the Franschhoek Literary Festival or other Franschhoek Festivals, the oldest marketing trick in the book, and an unethical market research practice! The questionnaire design was poor, especially when one had to rate the overall quality of the sessions (some were excellent, some were mediocre, other poor), and the quality of the authors (ambiguous as a question, the evaluation as speakers or as writers unknown).  One wonders whether any attention will be paid to the open ended question calling for suggestions and comments, given how arrogant the organising committee and its Director Hobbs have become.

The organisation of such a vast Franschhoek Literary Festival with a small organising committee of volunteers is commendable, and we salute Hobbs and her team for this.  It is a shame that as the Festival gets bigger, so does the arrogance, the nepotism we saw this year, the small-village politics rearing its ugly head, and the need to repeat speakers.  For the eighth Franschhoek Literary Festival we hope that the organisers can inject some fresh thinking into the 2014 Franschhoek Literary Festival!

POSTSCRIPT 17/7: A critical evaluation of the Franschhoek Literary Festival has been written by Konstantin Sofianos, asking for the festival organisers to ‘turn over a new leaf’!

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: Twitter: @Whale Cottage

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