Dan Hough

Festival Stewarding - More than just a free ticket

Published 1 August 2013 in London, UK

This weekend, I was recruited by Elli to volunteer to steward the WOMAD festival at Charlton Park, Wiltshire here in the UK, on behalf of Oxfam.

What is stewarding? According to OXFAM:

As one of our stewards, you represent Oxfam.

Each summer Oxfam provides a professional stewarding service to some of the UK’s biggest music festivals. In 2013, Oxfam will provide more than 5,000 stewards to 20 major festivals and we aim to raise over £1m.

The primary purpose of stewarding is to keep people safe and provide information and advice to festival-goers.

In exchange for a free ticket to the festival, and a reasonable food allowance, I was obliged to work three 8-hour shifts helping out festival-goers, putting out fires, looking out for lost children or worried parents and generally keeping an eye on things.

The Fire Tower

Anybody who is familiar with UK festivals (and probably festivals all over the world, for that matter) will probably also be familar with the small scaffold towers dotted around festival campsites where a person with a bright yellow tabard stands around with a walkie-talking looking useless.

The truth is, about 50% of the time we are just standing around doing nothing noticeably useful, but there’s more than meets the eye.

I was lucky enough to have this role for all three of my shifts, since I noted on my form that I was keen to give it a go. I like heights, and climbing things.

I was also lucky in that my particular fire tower was in Family Camping, and that my shift partner for two out of three of my shifts was indeed Elli.

Being in the Family Camping section is an advantage because you get polite folks who don’t want to make their lives any more difficult than it is what with all the kids they have to lug around all weekend, and people who generally won’t hit the substances too hard and cause trouble for you.

When they were all arriving during my first shift, a lot of people asked me to make use of my elevated position (literally) to find a patch of grass in the campsite. This wasn’t too hard at the beginning.

Also, since we were experiencing a particularly dry weekend at Charlton Park, WOMAD was banning open flames (including coal and wood BBQs) because the grass would just be far too easy to ignite. This meant that the worst part of my job was going over to the campfires of happy families trying to cook a BBQ meal, and asking them to stop before they’ve even put the sausages on the grill. Thankfully, they were very understanding. It still hurt to pour buckets of water over their fires, though.

The Night Shift

I’ve had late nights before, and I’ve pulled all-nighters at University to get projects done. I remember walking up the hill back home with my housemates after we spent 12 hours working on a group project, totally drained and envying all the bright, chirpy people getting up at 7am to start their day while we shambled past them.

But it’s not quite the same as standing atop a scaffold, with nought but the distant beat of a DJ’s setlist for a conversation partner. All around us, families slept in their tents, warm and cozy, while we stood around waiting for something to happen so that it’d keep us awake for a little longer. Naturally, we can’t really talk much for fear of waking up those campers.

As tough as it is, though, it can be very rewarding. One of the key memories I have of the night shift was being approached by a middle-aged mother of two who’d left her phone and children in her tent (with her friends) which should could not find. She’d been searching for hours so, climbing up the tower I looked for a campsite which matched her description and sent her in that direction. As she walked off in completely the wrong direction I knew that she wasn’t going to find this tent on her own.

So, I led her to the places that might be her campsite, but to no avail. After about half an hour searching with no results, she remembered that her phone was turned on in the tent - a possibility I’d failed to even explore - so we called the number. 12 times I called, whilst running around the campsite hoping to hear a ringtone. Eventually, somebody picked up. Five minutes later, our lost camper was tearily reunited with her friend. The three of us currently manning the firetower by this point (the search had caused a little buzz on the radio) were relieved. Figuratively, that is. I still had 5 hours of my shift left.

“Fire Tower Alpha to Oxbox, Message, Over.”

“Go ahead Fire Tower Alpha,” is one of my favourite phrases. There’s nothing quite like the radio to make you feel important and special. Like many kids I had walkie-talkies which I gave to a friend or sibling and then we’d sit at either end of the garden and report things like birds landing in the garden or how we’re going to sneak into the kitchen to nick a cookie.

The radio you’re given as a steward is an object of great responsibility. Everyone who has one now has a direct line to the Stewarding HQ at the festival, which, when Oxfam is involved, is called Oxbox. They will coordinate you, they will answer you queries, and they will be very, very patient.

Since Stewards are given only three hours of generic steward training (which is very good, by the way) followed by a very easy multiple-choice examination, we actually know very little about the procedures specific to each festival. That means asking a lot of questions over radio. When you’re one of the stewards listening in (a valuable source of entertainment when you’re on a long Fire Tower shift), it sounds like the people asking questions are hardened professionals, who know what they’re talking about and are asking advanced stewarding questions. That is merely the mistique of the radio filter. It has the ability to give any voice an air of authority, wisdom, and above all, urgency. Whoever spoke last will get answered first; don’t interrupt.

Hand in your tabard

At the end of my final shift, I was happy to finally be able to relax knowing I didn’t need to be sober, fully awake and properly kitted out with tabard, badge, radio and hours worth of snacks.

Nevertheless, I was sad that my stewarding experience was over. Many people volunteer in order to get a free ticket to the festival. To be honest, WOMAD wasn’t my favourite festival ever. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a family-friendly festival which makes it sort of relaxing, but music-wise I was a bit let-down since I guess I’m not as open-minded as some about my listening habits.

My favourite thing about the festival was stewarding. When I arrived at the station with my rucksack, a day before the general festival-goers, I immediately made some friends who were also stewards. We made our way to training together, and hung out quite a lot over the course of the weekend. Together we met loads of other people, made new friends there and had some great conversations. I hope I’ll see many of them again. Being stewards together gave us a sense of comradery. Eddie, Caris, Simone, Jess, Ben, Matt… the list goes on. I hope our pathes will cross again somewhere in the world.

As well as that, you get to interact with a lot of really friendly and awesome festival-goers. Since I was on the same Fire Tower for three shifts, I started to become recognised by some and built up a rapport. The was the “Look, it’s the guy who claims to be from Saudi Arabia!” guy, who didn’t believe my childhood. Another favourite “I’m actually a pretty frequent festival person, I don’t have my hope for these toilets,” 10-year-old girl. Then there were the folks opposite my tower at the tent labelled the “Mad Hatters Tea Party.” Thanks for the pink wafers, guys. :)

Finally, the only job I’ve had for the last three years has involved sitting at a desk and programming. As much as I love that job, it’s nice to try something different from time to time. Especially something which involves so much interaction with people, and so much outdoor time.

Not just a free ticket to a festival

I’ve never been that bothered about paying for festivals. They’re huge, complex, and risky things to put on and deserve the price we tend to pay (although, the food and drink prices can be a bit extortionate). I’d be a steward again, though, and I expect I will. Not for the free ticket or the meal vouchers, but for the rewarding roles it affords, the great people it puts you in front of and the sense that a change is as good as a holiday. Give it a go.

Heckle me on Twitter @basicallydan.