After entrepreneur Chip Conley sold Joie de Vivre Hospitality, which he founded in 1987 and represents such businesses as San Francisco’s Kabuki Hotel and Chicago’s Hotel Lincoln, he started spending more time at festivals around the world — and thinking about them from a business perspective. “Any gathering of people that creates this collective effervescence, whether it’s cultural, film, food, music, or just about anything, it’s infectious,” he tells Billboard. “So I decided to create a website and build a team that documents the world’s best festivals.”
Last year, Conley launched Fest300 in the vein of lists like the Fortune 500 and Forbes 400. Of what he estimates to be 100,000 total festivals in the world, the Fest300 staff — a team of about six, including Conley, working out of a San Francisco office, with freelancers contributing editorial content — aggregates the best (you guessed it) 300 festivals. “We felt like that was a big enough number so we could go global and focus on all countries and all festivals, but it’s a little more prestigious than choosing 1,000 festivals,” says Conley, who’s been to 60 and thinks the site will appeal to people like him who think, “In the course of my lifetime I could go to every one of these!”
Conley, sporting a close-cropped greying goatee, comes across as a man with a plan, albeit a somewhat New Age-y one at odds with the high stakes of festival operations. He gave a TED Talk about how he got over the dotcom bubble burst with the Wisdom of a Buddhist King, wrote some books about it, and heads Airbnb’s global hospitality and strategy division (and had a near-death experience on top of it all). “LOSE YOURSELF, FIND YOURSELF, BE YOURSELF,” he wrote on his blog in May. Would that we were all so wide-eyed.
Now Conley wants to involve everyone in his vision. Starting Nov. 1, Fest300 changed its curatorial approach, inviting its user base to weigh in. Fest300 will select 270 festivals and let its users curate the final 30 themselves. During the month of November, visitors to the site can vote on which festivals they’d like to see make the final 30. “It’s a great way for our audience to feel like they have some of their fingerprints on the list,” says Conley.
But what of all the other festival listings sites, like Consequence of Sound‘s Festival Outlook or JamBase’s Festival Guide? In an email to Billboard, Fest300 co-founder Art Gimbel wrote: “While most other sites are mere lists, the Fest300 is a loving, curated tribute by both experts and fans to the very best experiences around the world, from huge musical festivals to intimate cultural rituals. The Fest300 is not only defined by experience but global impact.” Though JamBase arguably has a much larger fanbase than Fest300, which has only been around for about a year, getting visitors to the site more involved is part of Conley’s long-term goal — to make his project a “one-stop shop for festivals from all over the world.”
In 2015, Conley plans to cultivate the community element with profiles and forums where users can share and tell others about their favorite festivals. Right now, when users register, they fill out a quiz with five or six questions to determine their “festival type” (“the Sage,” “the VIP”). He also hopes the new strategy will augment festivals already on the list (Governors Ball, Tomorrowland) with ones that, surprisingly, are not (Electric Zoo, TomorrowWorld).
At only a year old, Fest300 is clocking some steady pageviews: the site had 525,000 unique visitors in September, a number Conley hopes will grow as the company pursues sponsors and advertising — and yes, a possible partnership with Airbnb, though Conley stresses he can’t comment on that yet. “I’m lucky enough that I sold my hotel company and am head of global hospitality and strategy at Airbnb that I can financially underwrite the site,” he says.
And two people will be lucky enough to win tickets to their favorite festival when they go to Fest300 to vote on the world’s best festival!