Case Study #2 “The KISS Arts Festival”

The KISS Arts Festival is a free, multi-generational, mixed arts & comedy/circus/variety festival that takes place in beautiful Kiama NSW at the end of April each year.
The festival is run by Dave and Tamara (Laughter House Directors)  and is now in it’s 9thyear.
When Tamara and Dave came up with the idea of KISS, they had just moved – kind of – to Australia, they were really only living here for 3 months of the year whilst they spent the rest of the year touring Europe! They had spent the last 20 or so years performing on the European festival circuit playing to huge audiences almost every weekend of the long summer and now they wanted to bring a bit of that joy back to Australia.
Kiama seemed like the perfect location – close to Sydney, thriving tourist season and a beautiful natural backdrop.
The first year really was a “throw it all against the wall and see what sticks” kind of affair and Tamara and Dave bank-rolled almost all of it. There was a 500 seater Big Top, there were two specially commissioned shows, there was a street theatre program, there was a talent quest, there was a massive community art project and a lavish opening night gala with a 4 piece band from Orange! It ran over 10 days and everybody loved it, all 300 of them! Having learned lots of lessons and spent a lot of money, they scurried back to their drawing boards to plan the next year.

Several things had happened. The beginnings of something great for sure, but more importantly the differences between the European Arts Festival market and the Australian Arts Festival market had been painfully highlighted. Namely that there isn’t one in Australia, or not a comparable one to Europe. Even down to things as simple as calling it an Arts festival. They thought that this would neatly encompass all genres of the arts whereas audiences complained that there was no paintings! Several other problems emerged from this discovery, the audience had nothing to compare it to. Which sounds great as far as marketing a unique event goes but just makes things really hard! Another perhaps naive mistake was to commission shows for a festival in it’s first year – that’s a 10 year old festival kind of thing. First year thing to do would have been to invite all the amazing shows that are killing it all over the world to your festival and bask in their glory without all the work of producing one yourselves!

Anyhow, year two looked very different. No 500 seater Big Top! The festival had a Street Theatre focus above all else and actually went very well. We managed to accrue new sponsors and the beautiful Jamberoo Pub came on board where we did our closing shows on Sunday afternoon in their beer garden – still a festival highlight for me. It was not that we had struck on a winning formula, more that it was a hell of a lot closer to what we had envisaged in the first place.

Years three and four followed (what we now recognize to have been) a predictable trajectory. Basically in an effort to try and secure more sponsorship, we ended up spreading ourselves thinly across the Illawarra performing in Caravan Parks, Pubs, Gerringong. Nothing wrong with that really, just that our audience were spread far continued to elude us.

It was crunch time. Tamara and Dave decided to give it a crack their own way and that if that didn’t work, they would call it a day.

The festival could certainly be called a success. We had people from all over the world contacting us asking to be involved. But Tamara and Dave wanted it to be so much more. It was then that – with the benefit of 4 years of experience under their belts and some direction provided through running their own business – they decided to “bet it all on black”. The festival was never going to achieve the “festival vibe” without having a hub, or home if you like. The other problem that they had identified was that the time of year that the festival took place in was actually a huge problem It had been considered that the first weekends in January were perfect as that was the height of the tourism season in Kiama. However, the people that came to Kiama did so from all corners of Australia, Nay the world and as such were almost impossible to market to. They also came here mostly to caravan parks where they stayed. Literally coming to the same plot that they and their families had been coming to for the last 30 years, parked up next to Bob and Jean who they have been parked up next to for the last 30 years and bringing with them all the supplies they could ever eat or drink so they never had to leave the site once in their 2 week holiday. Even if you could find the perfect way to market to them, there weren’t interested! We literally put on free shows in the caravan parks where all they had to do was get up from their sun loungers and waddle over to the hall and most of them didn’t even manage that! Not that there is anything wrong with a relaxing holiday, just that they weren’t our people!

The decision was taken to move the time of the festival to the last week in April and the location from, well all over Kiama, to The Harbour  or Black Beach as it is more commonly known. The focus of the festival was still all genres of the arts but with a definite focus on comedy and circus. It was acknowledged that while we ultimately wanted the festival to be a world renowned festival that attracted people from all over the world, we had to start at home. The previous time of January meant that any Kiama local with a brain had fled their town to go on their holiday and avoid the tourists that replaced them. So, we marketed to the locals. Community arts projects with long lead in times were implemented around the regions. Local groups were invited to play alongside International professionals. The infamous raft race enjoyed it’s first tentative year and the new look format – KISS 2.0 was born! There was a joyous moment just after the raft race where the harbour was full of a multi-generational audience, all laughing and participating in activities when Tamara and Dave’s busy paths crossed and they paused. “We’ve done it!” was all that was said and they went their separate busy ways. It was at that moment that they realized that the gamble had paid off and they have never looked back!

The following year was not only eagerly anticipated by the public but they were approached for the first time by a major unsolicited sponsor. In fact since that moment, they have been approached by more sponsors wanting to come onboard than they had begged and pleaded with in the first year! Council’s sponsorship and pride in the event continues to grow each year. They were the recipients of Destination NSW’s Regional Flagship funding specifically for marketing and the audience numbers just exploded. From their first year at the Black Beach site they went from 4000 people over two days to approx. 11,000 in 2019. 2019 saw Destination NSW’s funding again alongside Festivals Australia funding the AIR KISS Project (Artist In Residence) a legacy of local artist Paula Gowan. The Raft Race enjoyed 12 entrants and was a major draw card.

The lessons leaned were:

  • While we needed to attract people from all over Australia, we needed to be at a point were the local community “owned” the festival. After all, what we were actually selling the public wasn’t art, it was art in our unique community. Giving them a chance/platform to come out and create, play and show off their unique quirky artistic passions. That is what tourists see now when they come to KISS, a festival of Kiama not the Arts.
  • The festival was free and had to remain so, even in the face of pressure to make it self-sustaining. It is so important to give absolutely everyone -regardless of age, sex, race or demographic – the opportunity to experience this joyous coming together of likeminded people. People who would never necessarily consider a night out at the theatre or any other perceived elitist establishment, to experience world class comedy, circus and fun for free.
  • Everything for everyone. Every aspect of the festival (with the exception of the opening night cabaret) had to be multigenerational. It is so rare to attend an event that is genuinely so. More-often, there will be a “kids” show that Mummy and Daddy will sit through on their phones or something that Mummy and Daddy want to watch that the kids can have their Ipads for. It is so important that we have the space to sit and watch something as a family, sometimes of 4 generations, and laugh, together at the same thing. A shared experience that touches us all.
  • Give your community a safe and fun environment in which to create and play and they will own it and protect it like one of their own! The Raft Race and AIR KISS projects have seen all corners of our community come out of their shells, push themselves just a little bit out of their comfort zones and find themselves in a tribe of likeminded people. People who would never had hung out together before, different social castes, different backgrounds, beliefs and social circles all united by a shared passion in having fun!

KISS 2020 will happen over the Anzac Weekend (25th& 26thApril) and is already shaping up to be bigger and better than ever before. Get your accommodation booked early and come to Kiama for a big KISS!

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