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Festival week headline act: interview with Juliet Russell

Serial entrepreneur Juliet Russell has few strings to her bow. As a vocal coach, she has worked with the likes of Damon Albarn and Paloma Faith. As co-founder of the hugely successful Salon London events, she has brought together some of the world’s leading thinkers and innovators for audiences to explore ‘new ideas in those areas that make a difference to people’s lives’. A typical night, not that there is any such thing, will explore themes from the perspective of art, psychology and science, with keynote speakers from each field.

Always on the hunt for a new idea, the next logical step for Juliet Russell and her partner Helen Bagnall was to set up an independent festival. It might seem like an ambitious feat, but Juliet says that once she has an idea she always just goes for it. ‘We set it up on sheer pragmatism, the will to do it, and it worked! We’re now in our second year and it’s much easier.’

Setting up

In terms of building the event from scratch, Juliet says that the ‘process was huge, but we didn’t think about it, we just did it!’

The ‘act now, work it out later’ approach extended to funding the festival too. Last year’s debut festival was supported wholly by tickets sales of the event. This year they have doubled ticket sales. Fortunately too, one of the biggest expenses – renting land – wasn’t a concern, as someone kindly allowed the Also team to use their grounds.

The festival still maintains the intimacy and accessibility of the monthly Salon nights, ‘it’s a lovely way to immerse yourself in ideas in a sociable way’, Juliet reflects. Essentially, the festival spreads the discussions and performances ‘over a long weekend, and hopefully in the sun!’

As such, finding people to speak or perform at the events hasn’t been difficult. Juliet says she has built up strong relationships and a great deal of goodwill over the past few years, with people willing to get involved, and more crucially, wanting to come back.

Collaboration and networking

Relationships were crucial to getting all the details in place – from the performances right through to health and safety.

In terms of organising the festival as a whole, it’s a credit to Juliet’s positive outlook that she didn’t so much encounter ‘challenges’ as she did more opportunities to collaborate with others. ‘You should never, ever be too scared to ask for help and advice. You’d be surprised at how generous people will be with their time and expertise if you have a good idea’.

For Juliet, that meant seeking out expertise for everything and gaining new knowledge along the way. ‘We [even] had brilliant advice from fire officers. I took on all the health and safety as I’m really paranoid about anything happening to anyone!’

‘If you haven’t got capital, time is a really good way to invest’ Juliet also offers, as she had to work on a voluntary basis – as most entrepreneurs do at some stage – to get the festival off the ground.

Finding the right festival for you

Even if setting up a new festival isn’t high on your world domination to-do list, small businesses stand to benefit a lot from trading at festivals, which have become lucrative businesses in and of themselves. But how can you work out which festivals will work best for your business?

‘It’s looking at the best fit for you. You know as a business owner what appeals to you and what you’re drawn to, so you should trust that’. In terms of applying to trade at festivals, Juliet advises, ‘we often have people submitting ideas to us – it’s much easier to get into a smaller festival, as they’ll be more open’.

In addition to looking at what works for you, it’s important to think about what you can add to a space too. ‘Get a feel for the festivals [you have in mind], as each one is quite individual. Look at what the themes are and how you can complement or enhance that’.

The benefits

The benefit of attending a festival, beyond profit, is the marketing opportunity it presents. ‘You’ve got an audience of people who really want to be there, people who have bought into a concept that you’re part of’, says Juliet. Most importantly though, it’s about the opportunity to connect with other businesses and customers face to face; the weekend or few days you spend with people is an opportunity to build a community that you’ll be able to build a relationship with for a much longer time period. ‘Even with a client base, it’s about building relationships, longevity and affiliation. Festivals really draw out the humanity of the relationships that we have’.


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