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Airbnb's Head of Global Hospitality Talks Fest300, a 'Forbes 500' for Festivals

Festival goers participate in a mass yoga session  at the 2015 Byron Bay Bluesfest on April 6, 2015 in Byron Bay, Australia.
Cassandra Hannagan/WireImage

Are You Experiential? Festival goers participate in a mass yoga session at the 2015 Byron Bay Bluesfest on April 6, 2015 in Byron Bay, Australia.

Phoenix Hotel founder and Burning Man board member Chip Conley breaks down this year's music festival season.

"Tomorrow I'm going kayaking with whales in the Sea of Cortez," is pretty much what you'd expect from a guy named Chip whose job title is "head of global hospitality." But Chip Conley is the real deal. He's been a hotelier for 30 years and in 1987 founded San Francisco's Phoenix Hotel (frequented by the likes of David Bowie and Kurt Cobain) which became a part of his Joie de Vivre chain with some 52 properties which he sold in 2012. The 52-year old is also on the board of Burning Man and has been "burning" off and on for the past 18 years. And most significantly he runs Fest300, a curated festival portal created in partnership with Airbnb that lists the top 300 festivals across the globe.

In 2012, after selling his hotel chain, Conley was looking for festivals to attend but found the process of online discovery impossible. "There was no curated list of the world's best," he says, "that's when I decided to create the Fest300 website and an annual list of the best festivals globally." Shortly after Airbnb's three founders reached out to Conley to ask him to develop a growth strategy for the home sharing portal. "They had strong design and tech backgrounds, but didn't have anyone with a hospitality/travel background," he says.

In addition to finding festivals, Fest300 allows users to find nearby housing which Conley notes tends to spike in demand and price when festivals are in town. The platform, he says, has 500,000 monthly users across 97 countries with unique monthly views spiking at 5 million last summer. The hospitality expert predicts the numbers will more than double during this year's festival season.

Billboard's 2017 Music Festivals

Billboard caught up with Conley to get his take on 2017's festival market, the offerings (including the Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival and the CHI WOW WAH TOWN) and trends which he says includes global travel, "conscious gathering” and an emphasis on the experiential.

Billboard: What makes a festival great?
Chip Conley: Great festivals have a way of creating "collective effervescence" for attendees such that the festival-goers get a sense of their ego evaporating and their connectedness with everyone there growing. It can help if there's a common ethos that defines the festival. For example, Wanderlust does yoga/lifecycle festivals all over the world and appeals to primarily younger women who feel empowered by the experience. Burning Man has the 10 Principles that define the experience that tends to attract a psychographic—not as much of a demographic -- of people who are creative, rebellious, adventurous, and spiritual.

What's the current state of the festival market?
Thirty-two million people attend at least one festival in the U.S. each year, as outlined in Nielsen’s Audience Insights Report on Music Festivals. They will travel an average of 900 miles to attend a festival. Music fans are also twice as likely to discover music via Facebook, thus outlining the importance of digital discovery platforms for the new generation of festival-goers.

How can people best prepare for attending a festival?  
First of all, who are you going with? That's an important question as many of the best memories of a festival relate to who you're experiencing it with. Do you have similar tastes in music and other activities? If not, make sure you find a festival with multiple stages. If one of you is an extrovert and the other is an introvert, make sure the festival has spacious, quieter places where the introvert can regenerate their batteries. And, more than anything else, make sure your basic hierarchy of needs (water, food, sleep, etc...) are being met as being hungry, tired, and grouchy is not the reason you went to a festival.

What's your criteria for inclusion on Fest300?
Fest300 looks beyond borders, mediums, and size and encompasses festivals from over 70 countries creating a quantitative snapshot of how festivals are driving the live event industry and becoming cultural touchstones across the world. In 2017 the list touches on events centered around music, film, visual art, yoga and includes new additions like CHI WOW WAH TOWN (Australia), Gratitude Migration (New Jersey), Electric Castle (Romania), Woodstock Festival Poland, Djakarta Warehouse Project (Indonesia), Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival (Nevada) and Genius Loci (Mexico) as well as returning faves.

What trends are you seeing in 2017?
This year, Everfest’s Fest300 list is 54 percent music-focused, with a 3 percent growth in electronic music. 37 percent of the 2017 list additions are based in Europe, while North America still retains 37 percent of the overall list.

And what about the ones that were crowd-sourced?
Per the site's tradition, 30 festivals were removed and the final 30 festivals were selected by festival-goers via a crowdsourcing campaign Fest300's Best Fest Quest held in November. The North American 2017 winners are primarily focused on the “Conscious Gathering” trend, offering more experiential programming than just music.

What other trends are you seeing?
Events with exotic locations proved to be trending in the 2017 list, further pointing to destination festivals with the rising tide across global festival-going.

Isn't the quality of a fest incredibly relative, with factors like age, wealth, taste playing a major role.
Part of our purpose is to help match you with the festival you might not have known about that you're going to love. So, if we know you like Coachella, it means we can make other recommendations for you. Our recommendation engine (which will get even better in the second half of 2017) will be like a Spotify or Netflix. The more you use us, the better we know and can serve you.

A common complaint heard in the music biz is festival fatigue with so many music festivals offering similar headliners and other artists. How can the public get jazzed about any festival with so many similar offerings?
This is why music festivals have become more experiential since the music is often the commodity but the uniqueness is in the other elements including the decor and design or other unique things offerings.

Do festivals change over time?
Absolutely. Some festivals that started as one music genre have changed over time. For example, the New Orleans Jazz Fest has probably more non-jazz musical groups than jazz groups. So, you could say that music festivals have been more about fusion.

What are your favorite festivals and why?
I love a diverse collection including religious pilgrimages and arts & cultural festivals. My top five list would include: Burning Man, Kumbh Mela (India), Telluride Film Festival, Il Palio (Italy), and Fez World Sacred Music Festival (Morocco).

What trends do you forecast?
Mostly it's the move toward more experiential programming so it's not just music, but there's food and wine, spoken word, film and other elements.

Because this is Airbnb, do you list festivals where accommodations are not needed?
Absolutely. There are no Airbnb accommodations near Burning Man, for example. The Airbnb connection doesn't influence which festivals we put on the list.

How much revenue has Fest300 generated for Airbnb?
That's private info so I can't disclose it.

300 festivals is a ton to process, how useful is this info?
Just like going to a museum can be a great way to have an art experience curated for you, the Fest300 list gives our fans the knowledge that our editorial team (and our community with respect to the 30 festivals they source) has scoured the world to review all these diverse festivals. We're very careful about making sure there's diversity geographically, time of year and type of festival so the list can feel authoritative. There's a Fortune 500 list, a Forbes 400 list and now a Fest300 list.