FEST Team founder and CEO Stefan Elenkov has spoken to IQ about how the company came out of the pandemic stronger than ever and why artists should include Bulgaria in their touring plans.
Founded in 2012, the Sofia-based full-service promoter organises festivals such as Hills of Rock, ARTE Feastival and SPICE Music Festival, and has worked with artists including Lenny Kravitz, Five Finger Death Punch, Sting, Papa Roach, Hollywood Undead, Bryan Adams and Tom Jones.
With a core team of around 100 employees, FEST Team is the largest live music company in Bulgaria and works with Live Nation, Charmenko and Cobra Agency.
During the pandemic, the company managed to launch a new festival, draw a sensational amount of sponsorship and find common ground with the competition. Now, Fest Team is on a mission to make Bulgaria an unmissable stop for tours…
Was it possible to hold events in Bulgaria during the pandemic?
I think we were the only company to pull off a festival in 2020 – Spice Music Festival. It was a very positive thing that happened that summer in Bulgaria and people were so enthusiastic and so happy that they could be together again, even though there were some restrictions. We managed to gather something like 8,000 people, which was amazing for that summer. Unfortunately, not enough people decided to come to the festivals. It was a very difficult year for us. In 2021, we did three festivals and including a new one called Arte Feastival, which was the first family festival in Bulgaria.
What kind of challenges did you have to overcome?
There were huge problems with the logistics and I believe all artists felt it. We almost lost two of our biggest concerts – Slipknot and Arctic Monkeys – due to logistic problems and transportation. Luckily, we solved it a couple of hours before the concerts and actually, the bands couldn’t believe it because the problems were out of our hands but we pushed really hard.
Those two cases were not isolated – flight delays and cancellations were happening across Europe. And because of the war, inflation increased a lot which pushed the bands to increase their prices. At the end of the day, we spent much more than we earned from ticket sales. We didn’t try to squeeze fans and push them to pay much higher prices.
We managed to get around BGN 2.5 million (€1.2m) from sponsorship which had never been done before in this country
How were you able to keep afloat financially?
From a sponsorship point of view, it was a hugely successful year. We managed to get around BGN 2.5 million (€1.2m) from sponsorship which had never been done before in this country and probably in most parts of the world. Because of our reputation, we collected all the money on the market for live events; all the budgets came to us. We’re the trusted partners for our sponsors and have been working with some beer companies and banks for more than 15 years. We just need to say when and what are we going to do.
And your loyalty programme has been hugely successful, right?
In the past few years, we managed to collect more than 60,000 music fans in the country. For us, it’s very easy to reach the target audience for a particular event – whether it’s a hard rock festival or an EDM event or music from the 90s. We have all the targeted audiences and it’s much easier to secure ticket sales and sponsorship.
Has the Bulgarian live music industry changed much since the pandemic?
During the pandemic, we started working with the other promoters in the country and decided that instead of competing, it’s much better to work together and benefit all together from the small market that we have instead of increasing and fighting for the price of the artist. It’s much easier to work together and coordinate between us and eventually benefit more from the events that we’re working on. I’ve been in the business for 20 years and have been working with most of these people in these companies since the very beginning.
Which of your 2023 events are selling well?
We have three big events at the beginning of this year: Eros Ramazzotti, Pantera and the family show Hot Wheels. All three of them are selling extremely well. People are definitely coming back to shows. The war is no longer on their radar and they’re not worrying about what will happen. Inflation has calmed down. So I believe people will have fun this summer.
Do you have any plans for expansion this year?
I don’t think that this is the year for expansion. We are still facing problems with booking artists for some of the events so our focus now for the next two or three months will be really to build the strongest lineups we can to satisfy the expectations of fans.
During the pandemic, we started working with the other promoters in the country…instead of competing
Tell us about the problems with booking artists in 2023.
We’re trying to be reasonable with artist fees. There are some that are three or four times higher than our offer. We simply don’t book them of course because we cannot afford it. And from the other side, we are increasing ticket prices by no more than 20% from the previous year which is still not enough for bands who are increasing the fee three or four times. We are always aiming for international artists because domestic artists are not that interesting – most of them are performing every week somewhere. Our lineups are 80–85% international acts. I prefer to cancel the festival if I cannot book international artists because fans have high expectations for our events and they want quality without compromise.
Where are you making cuts at the moment?
Right now the biggest cuts we’re making are in the marketing. We’re not spending that much on marketing from the production side of view. That very much depends on the artist requirements but in most cases, we’re trying to find the best possible solution in order to satisfy their needs and then at the same time to keep the production at reasonable levels.
With hotels and accommodation, we have really good deals all over the country and they understand the situation and give us good prices for four and five-star hotels. Human resources and security cost us a lot of money but at the same time, we cannot cut this expense because we see the higher cost of living right now. Inflation is reasonable. We are trying to keep the people who work for us happy.
FEST Team is attempting to expand into stadium shows, how’s that going?
We’re trying to resend a couple of offers this summer. Unfortunately, Live Nation couldn’t provide the artists, or the artists rejected the region for their tours. Right now, we’re negotiating for some stadium shows for 2024. I believe that we will manage to have a couple of them and it will be really nice for Bulgaria fans.
Why should international artists visit Bulgaria on tour?
This region is full of new opportunities and has the potential to deliver something strong for the artists and for the fans.
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