The Big Chill: Katrina Larkin

Katrina Larkin is not your typical businesswoman. Aside from her relaxed and easygoing manner, the co-founder of The Big Chill festival has worked hard to create an event where guests' needs really do come first, despite this making the production significantly more expensive.

But, while this has eaten into the margins, she has demonstrated that putting your customers first can work wonders for brand extension. A woman who has created a brand encompassing worldwide events, a record label, a radio station and two London bars must know a thing or two about growing a business.

While money has been thrown at catering for festivalgoers' every need, this has generated an unrivalled brand loyalty that has no doubt saved on marketing costs. “Word of mouth has been the biggest growth driver,” reveals Larkin. “The success of every event led to more and more people telling their friends, so it was very much an organic growth.” In other words, by running an event where attendees are truly taken care of, she has created a brand that effectively markets itself.

So, forget the festival clichés of not showering for five days and being shoulder to shoulder with thousands of sweaty fans while straining just to catch a glimpse of your favourite artist. The Big Chill has hot showers, enough space, enough toilets, short queues at the bars and cold beer when you get there. With its competitive £129 weekend ticket price, the three-day event held in the luscious grounds of Eastnor Castle is the penthouse of festivals.

But it started small. Beginning life as a monthly, one-day event which ran on a Sunday at the Union Chapel in Islington in 1994, The Big Chill was the brainchild of Larkin and co-founder Pete Lawrence. The first event made just £45, but the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and Larkin, a graduate of the Chartered Institute of Marketing diploma programme, collected the names and addresses of everyone who attended to create a mailing list. It now caters for 35,000 a year.

Part of the lure of the brand is the fact that the founding principles of building a creative, family-friendly and fun atmosphere while being eco-friendly, have remained intact as the festival has grown. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that the people who own the festival run the festival. This also sets it apart in an extremely crowded UK festival market with very few independent players left. So while others, including Glastonbury, have sold some or all of their businesses to large corporations, not The Big Chill.

“Everybody who's involved is at the event and has a role, and we plan it all year round,” says Larkin. “We visit the site and we ask people what they think, we have a huge response back from people who attend the event every year with ideas, there's a live fourm all year round where people can contribute and join in. That's very unique.”

Involving “big chillers” in the brand identity in this way has helped create a loyal community around The Big Chill and helped keep the brand alive throughout the rest of the year. It has also meant that diversification has been “natural”. Eight years ago, the business partnered with the Cantaloupe Group, which has since led to the opening of two bars in London. Already there were hundreds of potential customers keen to re-live the festival experience. “We really wanted something that was there every day, where we could try out new music and to give a space for chillers to go to,” she says.

These venues have been so successful that once again, big chillers have spread the gospel. The emergence of social networking sites such as Facebook has further propelled this by waxing lyrical about the events that are held there. For example, a monthly BBQ at Big Chill House in King's Cross is listed as an event on Facebook, and invitations (which run into the thousands as people, so enamoured with the Big Chill brand and ethos, forward them onto their entire friend lists) grow virally. Consequently, at last month's Reggae Roast BBQ, “there was a queue down the road”.

While she doesn't rule out a sale of The Big Chill at some point, she vows to always do what's best for the brand. “At the moment I'm full of energy, my teammates are full of energy and we hope we're going to deliver a really good festival this year. As long as we feel that, it's responsible that we carry on managing it and owning it.”

Of course it's easy to say that you would never be tempted to risk your brand for a massive pay cheque, and we can all think of examples of others that have been swayed by the corporate pound, but in Larkin's case this seems unlikely. She has already proved the festival's integrity and customer experience is the top priority when it comes to sponsorship deals. Rather than accepting thousands of pounds to let a blue-chip company plaster banners across the site, Big Chill sponsors, or partners, as they're called, have to do a bit better than that.

“We always look at their green ethics and what they're going to help deliver to the festival that makes it a stronger event,” she says. This year, a big art project is being planned with California-based Fetzer Wines and there will be a bar serving rum cocktails and playing Latin music sponsored by a tequila brand.

The Big Chill has also expanded internationally, with events now run all over the globe, and once again the brand values have been maintained by “keeping really ‘hands on' in what we do and being involved in the artistic control and the delivery of the events,” says Larkin. “We're continuously keeping it alive,” she adds. “It's really important for us as well, it keeps us excited in what we do.”

She doesn't rule out further brand extension, either. “We're always looking at new ideas. Never say never to anything.”




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