Creating a festival for freelancers – how it all comes together

by Rachel Smith
15 July 2022

Sue Bell, founder of the Launceston Freelance Festival

This year, I felt very lucky to get on a plane and not only go to the much-talked-about Launceston Freelance Festival, but to be a speaker as well. It was a jam-packed three days of information, education, fun and networking – and my head was spinning at the end of it!

I got to know the Festival’s founder, Sue Bell, a bit better over the course of the event and I wanted to know – what goes into creating a festival? How do you even plan one? What about funding, or marketing it? What gives you the most sleepless nights?

She kindly answered all my probing questions in the Q&A below! You can also listen to our podcast episode with Sue here, which goes into more behind-the-scenes details about the festival.

What do you do for a day job? Did you always have a dream of running a festival and if so, why?

I create eLearning materials for a variety of clients including education startups, higher education institutions and Government departments. This includes filming, editing and directing talent for course materials, design and layout of learning material, maintaining learning management systems and repurposing modules and units for digital distribution.

I’ve run numerous small events over the years, mostly in education, but had never run a festival before. It just kind of happened.

What made you want to run one specifically for freelancers? Why did you think there was a need?

I’ve freelanced off and on since my early 20s including as a journalist, personal assistant, teacher, course developer, graphic designer, video editor and even a cook! Over the course of my career, there were few opportunities to network and upskill. Hence, after a conversation with Jenny Farrar, who at the time was the freelance contact at the Media and Arts Alliance, I proposed a festival that would bring together Australia’s most successful freelancers and entrepreneurs to share their secrets, network and build a thriving community.

How did it come about – and did you always want it to be a destination festival in Launceston? Why?

I wanted the festival to be a professional development opportunity as well as a retreat. I live in Launceston and most people who come to Tasmania go to Hobart. Launceston is a beautiful historic city with great food and wineries. I wanted to incorporate all that Launceston has to offer, including reasonably priced accommodation to keep attendee costs down whilst they enjoyed the Northern part of this island. 

How difficult was it to secure sponsorship and funding? What does it cost, creating a festival?

Securing funding is always a challenge. I was lucky with the first festival. State Growth, a government department in Tasmania, had a one-off grant available in 2018. I also received a small amount of sponsorship from the Launceston City Council as well as an education startup I was working for at the time. MediaSuper and MEAA also contributed to the festival. The Walkley Foundation for Journalism provided some plane flights for several keynote speakers. So, I was very lucky because the first festival cost around $30,000.

Since then it has been a bit more challenging but MediaSuper, MEAA, The Walkleys and Launceston City Council have been consistent with sponsorship. This year it cost around $15,000. I don’t receive any income for the festival so that helps to keep costs down. 

How long did it take to put the first festival together and how did you plan it out?

The first festival took around eight months. I think I ran on nervous energy to get it up and running.

I had the skills to build a website and set up all the socials. I used WordPress to create the site and then Instragram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to create and distribute content including videos, graphics and written content. 

Clare Fletcher from The Walkley Foundation was a great help with planning. She showed me how to put together a schedule and also provided the contact details for keynote speakers including Tracey Spicer and Ginger Gorman. 

I know you mentioned on the podcast that you’ve often had a very organic way of finding and choosing speakers in the past. Talk us through your process…

It’s always a bit of a mystery how it all comes together. Some of the speakers are people who were well received in the past and I invite them back again. Sometimes it is people I’ve heard of or met at events who I think are interesting or doing great things in the freelance space, like you with your wonderful List. Other times it is through contacts who recommend a speaker.

One time, when I was planning the first festival, I stopped off in the Midlands in Tasmania for a cup of tea. I went into a bookstore and chatted to the woman serving me. It turned out she was a writer of fictional stories about werewolves in the Midlands. I thought she was so interesting I invited her to run a workshop at the festival. We have been friends ever since. 

What’s important during the planning stage? When do you need to think about a digital presence?

You’ve got to have a vision when you start planning. I’m passionate about upskilling and networking so I ensure that there are always useful workshops, like video editing, podcasting, writing, marketing, social media etc….that build upon freelancers’ skills so they can pitch for more work. 

A digital presence from the start is essential. People need to be able to find you online. I recommend having a website, even if it is just one page because you can add to it as the planning progresses. If you can’t have a website then at the very least have a social media account, anything to help people find you. 

You’ve run 3 festivals now – what mistakes have you made and what have you learned?

Working out how to cost the event is the biggest challenge. The first festival broke even because I received enough sponsorship. The second festival was online so costs were pretty low. This third festival was harder because people are a bit more reluctant to travel given the challenges of Covid. So I made a mistake underestimating the cost of the third festival.

Another common mistake is catering. I over-catered at this festival. People say they want lunch and morning tea but then don’t show up or go and eat somewhere else. The problem is if you under-cater then that would be the one time everybody shows up wanting to eat. So, it is better to cater for the numbers but it is a waste of food and money a lot of the time.

Apart from the catering and festival costs, I don’t think there has been any major problems.

What are the biggest challenges when creating a festival?

Selling tickets gives me sleepless nights. It was difficult selling tickets for the recent festival given the problems over the past couple of years with Covid. 

Another challenge is that people keep thinking that the festival is for writers. They hear the word freelance and associate it with fiction and non-fiction writers. It’s been difficult to get the message across that freelancing can be anything from IT to landscape gardening. Anyone who works for themselves is a freelancer. 

Another challenge is that a lot of people think the festival is just for people who live in Launceston. I don’t get that. You don’t assume that Dark MOFO is for people who live in Hobart or that the Melbourne Comedy Festival is only for people in Melbourne. Just because it’s called the Launceston Freelance Festival doesn’t mean it is only for locals. Maybe I need to change the name. 

What are the best bits and the worst bits of the actual festival, when all your hard work comes to fruition?

I haven’t had too many issues with speakers. Most of them have been really good. We did have a problem with a couple of speakers pulling out at the last minute with Covid, but luckily we were able to work around that. 

The best bits are the networking dinners. I always get a local comedian to do a routine at the dinner and generally that goes down well and people have a lot of fun networking. 

I also enjoy seeing people make friendships and work opportunities from the festival. 

Why do you put it on every two years instead of every year?

I don’t have the funding to put it on every year. If I could get more funding I would do it every year and also work full-time on it. At the moment I have to juggle my day jobs. Planning the festival takes up a lot of time and energy and isn’t financially feasible to run every year.

What did you love about this year’s festival?

I love the people. So many interesting freelancers in all sorts of fields. I also think it brings out the best in people because Launceston is such a relaxing, gorgeous city that everybody who comes to the festival leaves with a big smile.  

What are your plans for the next Launceston Freelance Festival?

Actually, people want me to run one in Hobart next time. Or at least run one in Hobart one year and then Launceston the following year. Like I said, if I get more money, I’d happily run them more frequently. 

I’m making a short film to take to potential sponsors that focuses on the benefits of the freelance festival for both Tasmania and self-employed people all over Australia. 

Fingers crossed that I will continue to receive enough sponsorship to keep it all running.

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Rachel Smith

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