Don’t get Burnt: 3 Lessons from the Fyre Festival

Karl R. LaPan, President & CEO, The NIIC

Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

The Internet is aflutter about the “dueling documentaries” that chronicles the Fyre Festival disaster in 2017.

The festival (positioned as an “immersive music festival”) was the brainchild of entrepreneur-turned-fraudster Billy McFarland. He assembled a team of the best and brightest in their respective fields and sold them a false bill of goods in the process. Hundreds of festival-goers, models, musicians, etc. were promised an experience that seemed too good to be true. His real motivation was to promote The Frye media app.

The documentary follows all the drama and tension between the players and leaves you scratching your head. How did one man manage to fraud hundreds of people while not seeming to flinch? As the film seems to suggest, McFarland is either insane or a genius. While the festival was a colossal failure by all accounts and a major fraud, there may be a few lessons you can glean from this ruse:

1. Status sells. 

One thing the Fyre Festival tapped into was the power of influencer marketing. They engaged such personalities like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Nick Brateman, in the beginning, to spread the word and set the tone that this event was exclusive. (It was, by definition, with tickets ranging in price from about $1,000 to $12,000.)

These celebrities weren’t paid, but many received perks like complimentary airfare, festival tickets, and accommodations in exchange for taking to social media to promote what was billed as the event of the year. So did this strategy work? The proof was in the conversion. Jenner’s post alone produced a crazy amount of impressions on Instagram, immediately surging ticket sales.

However, in the end, this growth was not sustainable. Why? The event team was scrambling to organize an event that should never have taken place in the first place at that location. (The island lacked essential resources and amenities.)

The same goes for bands, who knew the island ( The island of Great Exuma, in the Bahamas, site of the failed Fyre Festival) was not set up for such infrastructure. Many would-be concertgoers, unhappy with the lack of response from customer service, canceled their tickets. (They all got wind that something was too good to be true.) Still, business builders can learn a lesson here in that aligning with the right people can build trust and credibility for your brand. (This is assuming your brand is built on ethical and core values in the first place.)

2. Social media campaigns can net real results. 

The hundreds of people who did show up for the would-be festival were met with miserable living conditions. (Think disaster relief tents.) The fare, which was sold as gourmet and top-shelf, was a cold cheese sandwich dinner served in a Styrofoam box. Medical care and security were non-existent. The list of deceptions goes on and on.

As you might imagine, these influencers (400+ of them) did what they do best: take to social media. They shared the bad and the ugly of the hours on the island. Their fans followed along as the situation went from bad to worse. If there was any hope for a Fyre Festival 2.0, the negative publicity and the fraud likely destroyed it.

So, it is imperative to strive and deliver an exceptional customer experience. In the event, something does go awry, get in front of it to avoid something from spinning out of control.

3. Own your mistakes. 

McFarland, confident beyond measure, never apologized for the travesty that was Fyre Festival. He burned many bridges and could not deliver what he promised. There were several moments in the documentary which seemed to suggest he could have dismantled the whole plan and come clean with the people he took advantage of in the festival. However, being seduced by power and fame as he was, he pressed on—at the expense of so many.

If you watched either documentary, what was your biggest warning sign that the festival was too good to be true?


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