• Culture

Vantastival’s Louise Tangney / ‘We should survive it. It’s like going back to square one’

Vantastival celebrated it's 10th anniversary in 2019 but the 2020 edition has been cancelled and the future of smaller festivals called into doubt. Founder Louise Tangney spoke to LouthNow.ie.

Vantastival
A crowd enjoy the show during the 2019 Vantastival festival. Photo Credit: Vantastival.com.

After last year’s landmark 10th anniversary, 2020 was set to be the start of a new era for Vantastival, the small, organic, family run festival which celebrates the campervan lifestyle – soundtracked with music from across the abundant and varied domestic Irish music scene. Then, you know what, happened.

Vantastival were quick off the mark to postpone their festival – on March 11 – pre-lockdown. But as things progressed, and it escalated quickly, the rescheduled date in September date seemed just as untenable too. To the organisers, it became more obvious as the days went by and the recorded cases of Covid-19 grew that the festival wasn’t going to happen. In practical terms, it simply wasn’t viable anymore.

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Louise Tangney and Benny Taaffe are the husband and wife team behind the festival, as has been the case since they just floated the idea in 2009 and held the first event in May of the following year. Their summer turned on a sixpence, through no fault of their own, with the lockdown imposed in March. They went from a May date to a mayday, opting to shift everything they had in place back by four months. That could work. Surely, it would all have blown over by then.

Beaulieu House was free for the rearranged dates, as were the headliners. “They were all happy to do it,” Louise explains. “I think a lot of artists had everything cancelled at that point.” Hermitage Green, Lyra and Kormac were among those booked to top the bill.

“I have three kids and I work from home. One of the reasons we have Vantastival at the start of the summer, is because then it’s done and dusted before the kids get their school holidays. Then I have the summer off. At the time I obviously didn’t know that the kids would be at home for the foreseeable future so I was just thinking, ‘God, now I’m going to be working all through August which is normally when we get away on holidays.'”

But Louise says, “It seemed like the favourable option.” All the worries of postponement would, in the end, be rendered moot. The raging storm of Covid-19 showed no remorse, an uncertainty that clearly set challenges on Louise and her family.

“The biggest challenge really was making the decision [to cancel] in the first place. Then there were all the people that needed to be contacted. I also normally have an Erasmus student help me out on the run into the festival, but obviously that was no longer an option. The admin side of it is pretty much all me. The thought of having all kids at home and having no help – oh God.”

Nothing beats the feeling on first arrival at a festival. The steady beat of distant drums match your heartrate. The thousands of people in crowds gets the adrenaline racing. But now, are we going into a future where temperature checks will be as common place as security checks? If this is the case, are we losing out on the festival experience?

“Vantastival is a very intimate event. Most people going, go every year. There are lifelong friends that they have made at the festival, adults and kids. We couldn’t see it working in the same way, in the same atmosphere. We would have had to brought in more stewards, more security to implement the social distancing. It would have been a big financial investment.

“You can’t make people do it either. Once people have a few drinks, start dancing, even the bands on stage – there is a choir of up to forty people on stage at once. This is something that needs to be well planned in advance,” Louise says. “I was cursing Leo Varadkar last week because he made some throw away comment about the possibility of events of up to five thousand people happening in September. The public see it differently to the organisers. A lot of people started to buy tickets then. People were saying ‘Oh you’ll definitely be able to go ahead then in September.’ That’s not how it works.”

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The decision to cancel the festival for 2020 was inevitable, a long time coming. “We knew for a long time. It’s funny; at the beginning I was constantly looking at the news, on the hour every hour. Now I avoid it at all costs. We were hopeful at first. I don’t think there was a specific moment we knew it was over. I probably had a good idea that we would have to cancel for a good few months.”

Working with a family in mind is always a challenge. But when you’re job is running a festival for thousands of people, there are some extra stress points. The decision to cancel has inevitable consequences that can be catastrophic to smaller festivals. Louise said she was “terrified” to pull the plug.

“I had been building up to it for some time. When I did it there was a massive sense of relief. Even though I knew for ages that I was going to have to do it, when it came to the announcement, it took some deep breaths. If it wasn’t to do with coronavirus, if it was to do with something else, you would have gotten angry people, whereas with this, everyone knew it was 100% out of our control. It’s been actually quite easy. We’re going on hoping for next year.”

With support coming from the likes of Epic Working Group providing help to thousands of skilled event industry workers, Vantastival has been able to keep its head above water. “It all started with a woman called Sophie Ridley, she is a very highly experienced event person. It actually started from an email thread about what’s happening now with Coronavirus. Then it turned into trying to organise help for event staff and between that there was actually a selection of people within the email thread who are all highly trained in this sector. It’s a bit like the national campaign for the arts, except it’s for the event industry. The government announced another €25 million for the arts but that’s actually no good to us. 20 million of that will go to the Arts Council, meaning we’ll never see any of it. We needed to be represented separately. They have their own website where people can reach out and look for help.”

There are a loyal crowd who, year after year, have come back to Vantastival. Some people travel from all over Europe and Ireland in customised campervans. Fans were, as expected, heartbroken at the news. “Nobody was surprised but everyone was hopeful. People wanted to keep their tickets for next year but we didn’t want to keep holding onto peoples’ money when we didn’t know what was going to happen in the next year. Even if there is no second wave, all the sponsors, everyone involved, has been badly effected financially by this so we don’t know what the budget will be next year. We wanted it all to blow over, refund everybody and be a little clearer for next year.

The debut event took place in May 2010 at Dunany Estate near Annagassan and over the years Vantastival has earned itself a place among the most eagerly awaited and beloved music festivals locally and nationally. In 2018, the campervan themed festival was nominated for a European Festival Award in the Best Small Festival category.

Over the years, artists to perform there have included Jack L, Mick Flannery, Just Mustard, Badly Drawn Boy, Kern, Duke Special, Wallis Bird, The Riptide Movement, Ham Sandwich, Le Galaxie, Damien Dempsey, Hothouse Flowers, Fight Like Apes and The Stunning, among many more.

Although the future is foggy at best, optimism is the name of the game for Louise, Benny and family. “We’ll survive it, hopefully. We should survive it. I suppose we were lucky. We made the announcements just before our outgoing costs were due. So we cut our loses before they were paid out too much. There was still a lot of money gone out. Vantastival is not our only event, but all our other incomes are from events.

“It’s very hard. In a way it’s like going back to square one. It feels the same as ten years ago.”
  • Louise Tangney
  • Founder, Vantastival

“It’s very hard. In a way it’s like going back to square one. It feels the same as ten years ago. The only difference is we know there is a crowd who will want to come back. We will survive it but it will be difficult. It could be downsized next year. We will have to wait and see.”

Vantastival is a festival like no other. “It’s basically a really scaled down version of Electric Picnic. Much smaller, but with a focus on a campervans. The campervan is part of the décor of the festival. There is also a really large focus on families. I usually describe it as a festival for people like me, so that people who used to go to festivals in their 20s but are now a bit older and looking for something a bit more relaxed.”

The future for festivals will change. This doesn’t have to be a negative thing but with the times changing nonetheless, what is Louise’s opinion on the future for festivals like her own?

“The majority of festivals that I have seen cancelled this year, have asked people to hold their tickets if they want to. People might have to take the focus on Irish acts, which would be a great thing, to cut down on the flights abroad. There are so many variables. I know it wont be this extreme but I feel like you will have to walk through a shower of disinfectant before you walk into the festival.”

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