Fyre Fest was one of the biggest business flops in recent history. What were the leadership mistakes that led to it and what can other leaders learn from this unmitigated disaster?
If you missed out on the buzz around Fyre Festival when it made the headlines back in 2017, you’ve almost certainly been brought up to speed by the new Netflix documentary and the publicity around it. Although, here’s a little refresher for anyone who’s not caught up on the latest hot topics from around the water cooler.
Fyre Festival was sold as a luxury music festival on a private island in the Bahamas which would be attended by models, celebrities and major influencers. The up-to-$12,000 tickets promised luxury villa accommodation, 5-star food and private jets - in short, it was to be the most exclusive experience money could buy.
What started as an idea to promote new artist-booking software from Fyre Media soon turned into one of the most anticipated events in the calendars of affluent millennials, but after a series of disasters it became the most famous party that didn’t actually happen.
Early attendees arrived to find a campsite that was as far away from luxury as you could possibly imagine, and after the now infamous cheese sandwich tweet went viral and Blink-182 pulled out, the festival was called off before a single act had performed.
What went wrong? A huge portion of the blame can be attributed to the abysmal leadership of Fyre Media founder and event organiser Billy McFarland who is now serving six years in federal prison on fraud charges.
So, aside from never, ever defraud your investors and customers, what lessons can leaders learn from the Fyre Fest debacle?
Greed really isn’t good
One of the many, many problems with Fyre was that they oversold. They oversold the level of luxury that would be delivered with the 2016 promotional video featuring models such as Bella Hadid. They also massively oversold the ticket packages which promised an abundance of lavish accommodation that simply wasn’t available on the island.
When you watch Netflix’s documentary, it’s clear that McFarland is making a lot of his decisions fuelled by sheer greed. Fyre Media had to be a massive money-making concern overnight and so Fyre Festival was born to promote it.
Then, Fyre Festival had to rapidly become the biggest festival in history to appease McFarland’s desire to get rich quick and achieve the fame and status he so obviously craves. If you look back at his previous endeavours, you’ll see similar patterns emerge.
Now we’re not saying that having big dreams for your business is bad - far from it - but to try to make them happen at rocket speed just doesn't show good business acumen.
If McFarland had chosen to focus on the software alone and slowly build it into a worldwide brand, then things might be very different for all the staff who worked quietly and diligently on software that never saw the light of day. Likewise, if he’d put on Fyre Fest as a small and exclusive event that could be upscaled each year, it might have worked out.
Instead, he set unrealistic and impossible goals which is just bad leadership. As we said, ambition is fantastic, but the key to turning your dreams into reality is to set realistic targets and work towards sustainable growth.
Have a Plan A, B & C (and know what they are)
The initial planning of Fyre doesn’t seem to have gone beyond 'make an awesome promo and aggressively sell as many tickets as possible'. As each hurdle appears, McFarland seems to maintain an ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ attitude that makes it clear there was no Plan A to start with never mind a Plan B if things went wrong.
It’s clear that McFarland had no understanding of how to organise an event of that scale, yet he foolishly believed that he could coast along with no concrete plan as long as he kept pulling in more and more cash.
A good leader will take control of the planning of a big project or event and make timescales, goals and objectives clear to their team. You should plan as far in advance as possible and know the plan inside and out. You should also plan for when things go astray by conducting risk assessments and coming up with contingencies in case the worst happens.
It’s true that you could just hire a very capable Project Manager to do this for you, but as a leader, the buck will still stop with you if mistakes are made, so you need to make sure you know what’s going on and check in on the progress of the project regularly.
Leadership is often about knowing when to delegate, but there’s a big difference between delegating and burying your head in the sand whilst others struggle on.
Listen to your team and value their expertise
A common theme of the interviews with the team behind Fyre Festival was that they felt they were not listened to and any concerns they raised were dismissed as negativity.
Many employees were working 12-hour (or longer) shifts with no breaks in the run-up to the festival; they were ignored; they were asked to lie and potentially do some unspeakable things (if you've watched the Netflix documentary, you know of what we speak...) and at the end of it all, they didn’t even get paid.
It goes without saying that is a disgraceful way to treat people who are working for you and no one should have to work in conditions like these.
Watching the film, you can clearly see that there is still so much frustration over the fact that McFarland refused to listen to anyone’s concerns. He ignored the advice of his construction team, his marketing team, the local people working for him on the island and his financial advisor.
This is yet another example of terrible leadership. As the person in charge, you cannot possibly know everything - even the strongest of leaders have gaps in their knowledge and need to hire experts to advise them.
It’s understandable that if things go wrong you want to focus on solutions rather than problems, but ignoring the problems won’t make them go away. There’s absolutely no point in hiring a team of talented people if you’re not going to at least consider their advice - or even worse, dismiss them as naysayers.
Instead, you should listen to what they have to say and weigh it up. You might not always agree with them, but rather than reject their ideas bluntly you should thank them for their input and explain why you’re going to go another way.
In doing this, you’ll establish trust and mutual respect between you and your team, which goes a long way to ensuring that they give you their absolute best.
Be willing to take responsibility
There are many points where it would have made sense to postpone or completely cancel Fyre Festival in the run-up to the guests arriving.
They could have cancelled when they realised that the island didn’t have anywhere near enough accommodation; when they had to use hurricane shelters in place of luxury tents; when they had a shortage of food and water; or when a huge rainstorm soaked every available mattress. Instead, staff were told to keep going and festival goers arrived to find a chaotic nightmare.
Knowing when to call time on a failing enterprise is a quality that every leader needs to have - and perhaps even more important is the ability to take responsibility for failures.
McFarland was very slow to accept any responsibility for the failure which, as a heavily involved co-founder, was ultimately his to bear. The apology released on April 29th 2017 has one line which comes close to taking the blame: “This is an unacceptable guest experience and the Fyre team takes full responsibility for the issues that occurred”. Even then it lays blame at the feet of his team members too, many of whom had been raising issues and concerns for weeks.
What makes the ‘apology’ even worse is that it ends with more false promises about VIP passes for a fictional 2018 festival and an outright lie about a donation to the Bahamas Red Cross showing that absolutely nothing has been learned from the mistakes that led to the disaster.
If your business has caused damage or upset then as a leader you need to step up, take responsibility and make a sincere apology. Even if you privately feel like you’re not to blame, this is the right thing to do and will limit the amount of further damage.
If you chose not to acknowledge responsibility or give a sincere and timely apology, then you can end up doing much more lasting damage than the original incident. Shirking responsibility and passing the buck onto others (your own team in particular) are not the actions of a great leader, and it’s likely that this will be what’s remembered long after the problem has been rectified - causing last damage to the business’s reputation as well as your own.
In summary: 4 key ways to avoid Fyre Fest-esque leadership disasters
- Set realistic goals and work towards sustainable growth for long-term success
- Do a risk assessment as part of your planning and be prepared for things to go wrong
- Listen to your team and consider their advice even if you don't immediately agree
- Take responsibility for mistakes and apologise to minimise lasting damage
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