BusinessJune 17, 2019

The life and death of Wellington’s SXSW


The $800 per ticket, council-funded festival of ‘creative collisions’ has been cancelled and the company behind it has gone bust. Alex Casey reports.

The first problem was that nobody knew how to say it. Without any discernible vowels, pronouncing WLG-X, the name of a five day festival of “creative collisions” planned for September of this year, quickly became a creative collision of its own. “We started off calling it ‘Wellington X’,” explained organiser Terri van Schooten. “Then it evolved to ‘Welly X’ and now some people are just calling it ‘Well X’.

“We wanted it to find its own name.”

However you say it, the festival – which received significant council funding – will never happen. The company created to run it has gone into liquidation, owing at least $186,000. The announcement came after a postponement in 2018 and has disappointed many in the broader events community, raising questions over the council’s investment strategy in future big ticket events in the capital city.

Billed as encompassing tech, film, music and design, WLG-X was self-described as the first of its kind in New Zealand. Organised by Terri Van Schooten and business partner Ray Salter, the festival was charging $799 for a five day ticket. “We’re not just expecting people to show up, watch a film or go to a gig and then go home,” a press release read at the time. “They’re going to meet with new people, make amazing connections and have a complete experience.

“It’s why we’re saying that WLG-X will be filled with creative collisions.”

With over 20 years in events and experience running the Wellington Sevens in its infancy, Van Schooten said she was inspired by the convergent media festival South by Southwest (SXSW) in Texas. “Around the world there are festivals that span multiple topics, different areas, play host to leaders in a range of fields and bring people together, South by Southwest is the pinnacle of these. New Zealand will be getting its own version in November this year,” she said in the 2018 release.

An “extensive” feasibility study was run in 2016 to test the market against the idea. It was paid for in part by WellingtonNZ, the economic development agency 80% owned by the Wellington City Council and 20% by the Regional Council, tasked with “advancing the prosperity, vibrancy and liveability” of the region. Van Schooten was encouraged by the initial response to the study. “It was a very positive outcome… the study came back saying that everyone was excited and saw it as a great opportunity.”

Wellington City Council has refused to say how much it has invested in the failed “signature event” of a festival, citing confidentiality, but did confirm it had made two of the five allocated payments.

“WLG-X would have showcased Wellington’s innovative creative sectors of tech, design, film and music,” said a Wreda spokesperson, explaining that a “successful, cutting-edge event” would have added greatly to Wellington’s reputation for creativity.

Ian Jorgensen, who lectures in event management at Massey University and has run over 600 events in New Zealand, was initially intrigued by the WLG-X concept. “I thought it was going to be a hundred or so people from different industries connecting over a weekend,” he recalls. “I was quite keen to get involved.” It was only at the launch event at a local bar that he became wary. “I heard they were expecting thousands of people and had these crazy-priced tickets. I just thought ‘wait, what?’

“It felt to me like they were pitching it at about the fifth year of an established event – even South by Southwest started expecting about 100 people over 30 years ago.”

Consistently cited as the key inspiration for WLG-X, SXSW launched in Austin, Texas as a small local music showcase in 1987. The organisers, who had been expecting 150 attendees, were shocked when over 700 showed up. SXSW has since evolved to be one of the largest and most important festivals in the world, bringing together interactive, film and music industries and providing agenda-setting keynote speeches from the likes of Elon Musk and Barack Obama.

“I always say that SXSW is one of those things that you can’t really explain until you go,” says van Schooten, who has attended the festival multiple times. “We wanted those serendipitous moments where you are standing in the queue with somebody and you can’t get into an event so you go and get a coffee, the kind where you get exposed to content and people you wouldn’t normally engage with.”

In the initial press release, WLG-X’s headline speakers were Mark Moore, ex-NASA engineer and the director of Uber’s flying car division and Aly Ehlinger, talent buyer for C3 presents who produces music festivals including Lollapalooza. “We’ve got big names from Sundance and Amazon to announce soon,” the 2018 press release teased. “More and more names will be announced closer to start-date. We can’t wait.”

A month after The Spinoff received the first WLG-X press release, it was reported that the festival would be postponed for a year, until 2019. “It’s an ambitious concept and one that is important we get right for WLG-X’s first year,” van Schooten told Stuff at the time. “Shifting the event back to 2019 will allow us to deliver an event that will attract top speakers and commercial partners to deliver an amazing event experience for ticket buyers.”

Over the next six months, van Schooten says that they worked on “considerably” building up WLG-X. An open call for talent to speak or perform had over 70 responses, and she says met with over 50 potential commercial partners – including The Spinoff. “We were really excited on the content side, but the sponsorship just wasn’t there,” says van Schooten, before noting that Wellington’s 2019 Round the Bays doesn’t have a headline sponsor for the first time in 40 years.

“We get pretty close with a number of sponsors, and then the same week that we made the decision to cancel the event it was because we had three of them decide not to sponsor us. At that point it was too hard – as responsible business people if we had continued it could have ended up being a far worse situation.”

Ticket holders were notified on June 4 via Eventbrite that the event was cancelled and they would be fully refunded. Van Schooten wouldn’t comment on how many tickets sold, but said the majority were purchased during their 2 for 1 launch offer. Massey’s Ian Jorgensen says that the lofty ticket price was undermined by their open call for talent. “To me, that clearly states that you don’t know who you want,” he says. “You simply can’t do that for such a highly-priced event.”

Van Schooten rejects the criticism, saying the ticket price was “inexpensive” and “very reasonable” given their target market, and the fact that the festival was planned to span five days. “When compared with a tech event of two days, or a headline music event, the ticket price is very reasonable,” she says. Anyone who performed in the festival or provided an installation was going to receive a free ticket as payment.

Much of the WLG-X social media presence has since been removed, but the official website remains. A large animated graphic depicts a glitchy X through a flickering television screen, exploding into binary-like code before reiterating the nebulous mission statement: a festival of creative collisions. “We really wanted the name to make it clear that it was a New Zealand festival that was based in Wellington with a global focus,” says van Schooten.” As for the X?

“The X is all about creative collisions, the unexpected, the serendipitous.” Van Schooten paused. “Of course now everyone is using X, which pisses me off – they used to all be using I.”

While van Schooten chalks up the lack of commercial interest in WLG-X to changes in the sponsorship environment, people outside of the event have other theories. “It didn’t seem like it knew who it was or what it’s target market was, it was just projecting this ideal of an event,” says Massey’s Jorgenson, who pulled out of organising several events for the festival. “There was no brand, all it was was a dream – and a dream takes years to achieve.”

“Any brand develops over time,” says van Schooten. “The brand essence is set out on the website. It was about the creative collisions between a number of different but related creative genres… I imagine Xero’s brand was unclear to start with too.”

WellingtonNZ said that it was “disappointed” the event was no longer going ahead, but understood the call. “We support the organisers’ decision to cancel the event early enough to minimise the impact on ticket holders and participants,” its statement read. “That was the right thing to do, given the circumstances.”

Robert Appierdo, a video producer who left the WLG-X advisory board after six months due to work commitments, said that there are “several levers” that were pulled either too late, or not at all. “It had the potential to be really cool, but their processes should have been different because everything was happening too late.” His perspective, echoed by several others who spoke anonymously to The Spinoff, was that WLG-X was trying to run before it could walk.

Simon Velvin, who has run the design festival Semi-Permanent for over 15 years, was also disappointed to hear that WLG-X was no longer going ahead. “It’s really sad when these things collapse because it erodes the trust in the industry. There are so many people doing such good stuff but these things live and die on partnerships. The more they collapse, the more nervous sponsors get.” He says WLG-X would have benefitted from starting at a smaller scale.

“That’s the legacy of this,” says Jorgensen. “Someone might be wowed with a big presentation but you really just have to start an event in a community hall with five people and trestle tables. I’m just frustrated because, had this been a successful event, it would have helped everybody here. Instead all that happened is it that took up two years of oxygen with people talking about an event that didn’t happen.”

Of course, the cancellation has taken a significant toll on van Schooten. “It felt like I had lost a baby. It was gut-wrenching – not just for me but for all the people who had been involved.” With her and co-director Avery having invested a “significant” amount of money in the project – “far more than WREDA [WellingtonNZ]” – she admits they perhaps may have been too ambitious. “If you want to be big and bold and brassy then you’ve got to be prepared to take some risks, which we did.”

She remained optimistic about the future of events in Wellington, however. “Look, I’m a new bright shiny thing type of person, so I’m sure there’ll be something else in the pipeline – just not at that scale. Watch this space.”

Meanwhile the first report from liquidators Grant Thornton says WLG-X Ltd owes at least $186,000 to mostly unsecured creditors. Also on the list of creditors are government innovation agency Callaghan Innovation and national museum Te Papa.

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