We sit down with Martin Dickson, Director of Leeds International Festival of Ideas, to discuss planning a major festival event for the city.
Since 2017, Leeds International Festival of Ideas (LIFI) has brought visitors from all over the country and beyond together to consider the big topics of the year. Highlights this year included a sold-out talk by Steven Bartlett, discussing outdated work practices, Ruby Wax chatting all things mindfulness and her personal journey, and Christopher Eccleston talking working class access to the arts industry.
With 5,000 attendees and 39 speakers coming together in September, the event was truly empowering and left a lasting legacy in the city. Martin Dickson, Director of LIFI, told us what it’s like to put on such an event: “We start the planning really early, just a week or two after the previous event has happened. It pretty much is 12 months of work, for what is an amazing four days. Always be realistic about how long it will take and hit the ground hard at the beginning.”
Planning which parts of the event need to be organised first is key: “We start to identify speakers because for the big- name speakers we need to get in touch with the agents many months in advance because they have big diaries and big commitments. You have to start quickly on the big items.”
Finding the perfect venue is another aspect which is vital to the success of your event: “Logistically, a massive boost has been moving to the West Yorkshire Playhouse for the first time this year. We started the conversation with the venue before last year’s festival, which we delivered at the Howard Assembly Rooms, had happened. If you know what you need in terms of production, you can work that out with the venue early on, and have it sat on the shelf until you get nearer the event, as you focus on other things.”
As with most endeavours, having confidence in your ideas and working with the right people is how you’re going to succeed in making a showstopping event: “Have the confidence and boldness to back yourselves. No one else is coming up with what you’re coming up with and everything else to put that idea in place is just logistics. Putting the right talent around you is so important as well. We have a brilliant team which is really hardworking, and it’s not as many people as you’d think. Get the right people, and put the right dream in place, and they’ll make it happen.”
When putting on a large event, however organised you are there are always challenges as Martin has expereinced: “Anything that you can’t completely control is difficult, the challenge mainly is around people. We lost two speakers from our line-up schedule this year. You set out and organise the talent you want, and contractually you have a level of agreement with them, but there’s often a clause that you have to thrash out with the agent, which means that once you get within a certain number of weeks, they can’t pull out without paying the full speaker fee which they usually don’t want to do. This year we lost Jay Blades, from The Repair Shop, because he had a bigger commitment. Also, Krishnan Guru-Murthy from Channel 4 News. That’s a challenge when organising an event like this, it’s happened each year. It’s the unpredictable nature of the business.”
Look out for news about 2024 at Leedsinternationalfestival.com