Dumpster Fyre; Lessons from a Pop-up Fail
They promised a “once-in-a-lifetime musical experience.” And they delivered. Especially if you replace “musical” with “refugee,” “survival,” “endurance” or “demeaning.” The Fyre Festival was a pop-up fail of epic and delicious proportion.
Hyped as an exclusive, multi-day, Coachella-like event featuring top acts, super models, gourmet grub and glamping, the Fyre Festival suffered a sudden and ugly death on its first day. Instead of an opportunity for rich kids to “let loose and unplug with the likeminded” on the private Bahamian island of Exuma, guests found themselves wrestling the likeminded for scraps of processed cheese.
Guests who had dropped up to $12,000 per person spent day one scrounging for food, running from wild pigs, stealing tents, hoarding water and trying in vain to organize flights out of the Bahamas. Many sought assistance from the U.S. Embassy. Festival-goers described the event as “pure chaos,” “Hunger Games” and “Lord of the Flies.”
Advertisements touted what was perhaps the event’s most accurate descriptor. Online marketing positioned the Fyre Festival as an anti-festival. Makes sense. Festivals are fun, joyous occasions. Yet this one resembled a Lost nightmare.
The festival’s rise and fall transpired in real time on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, where would-be partiers displayed their anger. (My favorite Tweet, from a parody account: “Sorry we accidentally created a Hell Island where teens learn to kill.”). People posted pictures of white tents that looked like “Stormtrooper helmets,” blue port-a-potties near half-constructed plywood structures and limp, lifeless cheese sandwiches.
After a couple of odd and insincere apologies, Fyre Festival organizers were hit with two class-action lawsuits, alleging that the pop-up “luxury” event was “nothing more than a get-rich-quick scam” and that its promoters defrauded ticket buyers.
I know that it’s cruel of me to take some delight in this pop-up fail. But as a person who regularly creates major events and knows how truly difficult it is, the flameout of the Fyre Festival makes me smile. These guys thought all they had to do was pay a few models and make a couple of phone calls, and boom, they’d have a huge show. Don’t deny me my moment of schadenfreude.
There are some lessons here for retail marketers who want to do pop-up right. These guys did about a million things wrong. So let’s just look at (and learn from) some of the biggest.
What We Can Learn from the Most Infamous Pop-up Fail Ever
Don’t put promotion before product. News about and ads for the Fyre Festival appeared long before any program had been developed and any logistics had been explored. There was no due-diligence. It was style over substance; all sizzle and no steak. (Literally. Remember, there was only cheese.) Hype isn’t inherently awful; however, hyping a vapor event is.
Don’t negatively exploit relationships. Social media powered the Fyre Festival buzz machine. Instagram models and bona fide “influencers” Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner (who is clearly not very good at choosing who can use her name and likeness) promoted the luxury getaway for weeks. They say they were duped, and that they believed what they were posting was legitimate. The Festival organizers clearly misrepresented sponsored content.
Know what you don’t know, and involve experts. The hubris displayed by Festival organizers Ja Rule and Billy McFarland is mind-boggling. The event showcased their misplaced self-confidence and unfettered audacity. Our boys didn’t let the fact that they had no idea what they were doing stop them.
First of all, they created and circulated a sponsor deck that was laughable. They wildly overpromised, and had no contingency plan (or any plan, it seems). The guys did not understand infrastructure or regulations or advance teams. They misled bands and vendors. Also the general public. Ja and McFarland underestimated the scope of what they were proposing, and overestimated their skills and connections.
But my guess is that these cheeseballs didn’t learn a thing.