Lessons We Can All Learn from the Fyre Festival Failure

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  • by Courtney PeGan-Stevens

I have been fascinated with all things Fyre Festival since early 2017.  I remember following along on social media from the safety and comfort of my own home, wondering, “HOW on Earth did this happen?” Thankfully, both Hulu and Netflix were keen to satisfy this curiosity with their Fyre Festival documentaries released January 14th and 18th, respectively.  

(if you are not familiar with the Fyre Festival phenomenon or its founder, Billy McFarland, this article is a great resource to get caught up quickly)

This coverage is a treasure trove of cautionary tales and lessons we can all learn. For the sake of this post, I am not going to go into depth on the intentional and illegal fraudulent activities (there are 2 documentaries for that!) but instead, focus on the series of bad leadership decisions that contributed to such a spectacular failure.

A few key missteps that led to this Fyre failure:

The first critical error occurred when Billy McFarland didn’t heed the warnings of local experts and experienced festival planners. There were many warnings from day one that the idea was not feasible to deliver. (e.g. building infrastructure on an uninhabited island in less than 4 months)  Billy McFarland willfully ignored the warnings and continued to sell this idea to consumers, collecting ever-increasing sums of money for a VIP event that experts knew and communicated would not be possible to create.

The second core mistake was selling an IDEA without any proof of concept. Billy McFarland may be the King of “oversell and underdeliver.” When it came to marketing this event, he spared no expense. When it came to executing the event, that was a different story.  He created a commercial promising white sand beaches of a private island (once owned by Pablo Escobar, no less), parties with models and celebrities, luxury accommodations, and a gourmet food experience. None of these ideas were built or tested prior to releasing the 90-second advertisement or collecting money from his consumers.

There is so much more to talk about, but the final mistake to highlight is that the Fyre Festival organizers treated consumers as an ATM. Billy McFarland used his consumers as a quick way to raise funds through shady tactics. He communicated the festival to be a cashless event and required all event attendees to load SOME money to their event wristbands (he recommended $300/day) that wasn’t used for anything other than paying back an aggressive lender.  He also fabricated new perks and events to “sell” in order to raise money to pay debt. His objective was to raise cash, not to meet consumer needs or provide them more benefits.

Here are some things we can learn and do differently:

We should test our ideas and get proof of concept before we sell anything. Testing our ideas with consumers enables us to understand the drivers of appeal and prioritization of benefits. This insight can help narrow the scope to the most important consumer benefit, so we can focus on executing with excellence. This “testing” can be done via qualitative testing (like SEEK Auction), quantitative testing, or test market/small scale pilot. Most corporate clients would never dream of collecting money for products that were not tested for feasibility (thank you, legal departments everywhere). However, it is not uncommon to build a volume forecast based on concept test results. Ensuring that the concept submitted for testing is feasible for “go to market.”   If the concept is overloaded with unrealistic benefits, our volume forecast is likely to overpromise and underdeliver.

Hire experts we can trust and then actually TRUST THEM.  Billy McFarland stated that he planned the Fyre Festival event entirely in-house, attempting to build the impossible with a ragtag team of amateurs. Much of the disaster could have been averted if he had seriously consulted an experienced festival coordinator at the onset.  Billy McFarland admitted to the NY Times that he had never “developed an island or a festival before.”

The growing DIY trend can be a tempting way to save money at any level, but when we are working on a large scale project or a highly visible initiative, it is particularly risky to circumvent expert guidance. There is tremendous value in experience when it comes to recruiting the right consumers, moderating sensitive subjects, and strategically addressing difficult business challenges.  For example, we have had clients decide to handle consumer recruiting themselves only to require last minute help when the groups were still not filled. Half of the battle in qualitative research is getting the right people in the room so that you don’t make decisions based on bad information.  

Last, but certainly not least, we should see our consumers as humans and not as dollar signs.  Billy McFarland showed zero respect for the people he should have been trying to serve. While I cannot think of an equally dramatic analog for corporate marketers, charging premium ticket prices for basic amenities could be compared to covertly making your “pint” of ice cream only 14oz.

The most successful brands seek to build long term relationships with their consumer. Long term relationships are most successful when built on trust and transparency. When we focus on getting to know our consumers and seeing them as humans first, it enables us to solve for real problems in their lives and offer them a truly attractive benefit that no one has to trick them into buying.  

My final piece of advice is a riff on something I heard very early in my career:  “If you would be embarrassed to have any decision you make splashed across the front page of the New York Times, then you should not make that decision.”