A blog by Simon Singh & Richard Wiseman
We have been discussing the finances of science festivals for several months, between ourselves and with others, and recently we met the CEO of Cheltenham Festivals to raise our concerns. Given Philip Pullman’s recent statement on the finances of literary festivals, we thought now was a good time to publish a blog about science festivals in general and the Cheltenham Science Festival in particular. While Philip Pullman has highlighted the lack of payment for authors, our main concern is high ticket prices, but the two problems are both clearly related.
In the past we have been very supportive of The Cheltenham Science Festival, and we have spoken at the festival several times. However, we are now increasingly concerned about the financial model underpinning the Festival.
Tickets for many talks and events now cost in the region of £8-£10 (plus the £3 online booking fee). A quick look at last year’s weekend lectures show that only a small fraction of events were less than £8 per ticket.
Given that the biggest Festival venue has 650 seats and three others have about 300 seats, many events generate large sums of money. In addition, there is revenue from festival and event sponsorship, and some percentage from book sales (always sold at full price). Moreover, the festival benefits from a large team of unpaid volunteers, and speakers who are paid just a nominal fee of £100.
We appreciate that there are costs associated with running a festival, but none of these justify such high ticket prices. A festival that was started to promote science seems to have re-invented itself as big business, taking advantage of both speakers and audiences. By comparison, the Cambridge Festival offers dozens of high quality events, and the overwhelming majority are entirely free.
With 40 years’ experience between us of giving public science talks, it strikes us that the Cheltenham Science Festival is being run in a hugely inefficient manner. Our feeling is that something needs to change. With a new director in place, there is a real opportunity for a new way forward. Our proposal is that no event should that cost more than £7 (£5 concession), and that the majority of events should be £5 (£4 concession) or less.
It would also help if the Festival bookshop stopped exploiting people and offered discounts of at least 10% discount to ticket holders.
This would mean that events are more accessible and audiences are not over-charged. We met with the CEO of Cheltenham Festivals, Louise Emerson, in December, in order to raise our concerns and discuss our proposals. Her view seems to be that it is necessary to charge such high ticket prices in order to break even, but we are hoping that she will review the situation.
If the Cheltenham Science Festival retains its current model, then audiences might think twice about supporting expensive events and sponsors should consider backing out from events that take advantage of the goodwill of speakers and audiences.
If we are approached to speak next year, and if prices remain high and books are not discounted, then our approach will be as follows:
(1) we will negotiate our ticket prices down to £7, or we will not participate. One of us succeeded in 2014 in reducing our ticket price from £12 down to £7, and we know that in 2015 at least one speaker persuaded the Festival to reduce tickets from £10 to £7. There is absolutely no reason why the public should be charged more than £7 to watch a talk that they could attend elsewhere at half the price or for free.
(2) we will encourage the audience to buy books in advance and sign them at the end of the lecture. In 2014, one of us offered to sign event tickets that could be pasted into books bought later at a discount online shop, such as www.hive.co.uk (which supports local independent book shops).
If you speak at science festivals for free or for a nominal fee, then we would encourage you to follow our perfectly reasonable approach. If you allow the Cheltenham Science Festival (or, indeed, other festivals) to charge £8 or more for your event, then the public will be losing out, and so will you, as there will be more empty seats. On the other hand, if you stand your ground and ask for reduced ticket prices, then it is very likely that expensive science festivals will very rapidly realise that they have a responsibility to make their events more accessible. Our goal is that Cheltenham can evolve and lead by example, creating a new model that other science festivals will follow.
The message is simple. If speakers are being a paid a nominal fee of £100 and sponsors are subsidising events, then there is no reason why the public should be paying excessive prices for tickets.
(Update – the original article stated that only 4 out of 32 weekend events cost less than £8 per ticket. This figure has been hard to pin down, but it is clear that only a small fraction of lectures cost less than £8 per ticket.)