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Olympics Competition Looms Large at Fringe AGM

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society's annual general meeting was held in Edinburgh today (20 August 2011) with the effects the 2012 London Olympics could have on the world's largest arts festival a key concern raised by Society members.

Pleasance founder Christopher Richardson implored the Society's board to "maximise the benefits of the opportunities" presented by the Games, but warned that the Fringe Society had been "talking and talking" about their plans. There was a danger, he said, that the body would still only be talking when athletes and spectators arrived in the UK next summer.

Answering questions from the floor, the Society's chief executive Kath Mainland recognised that the added competition could be a "potential threat" to the Fringe but stressed that the Society would be working alongside agencies such as Visit Scotland, Visit Britain and Festivals Edinburgh to promote Edinburgh as a destination for Olympic guests and to maintain audience numbers.

Speaking to Whatsonstage.com after the event, Richardson said he was concerned Fringe theatregoers, many of whom make the journey up from London, would stay at home next August "shutting down for the day to watch the Olympics." He went on to say he specifically feared for attendances in the first week of the Fringe, which will clash directly with Olympic events.

One partial solution, he suggested, would be for the Fringe to attract more local theatregoers from Edinburgh and the Lothians, which he said currently makes up 60% of the audience. He also suggested moving the Fringe's two-day two-for-one ticket promotion from the first week to the third as a means of attracting audiences, in effect "turning the way we think about the Fringe on its head."

Mainland acknowledged that the Olympics could present a challenge for the Fringe, however speaking to Whatsonstage.com she said that extra marketing and promotion put in place for next year should continue after 2012, and stressed that the opportunities presented by the Games far outweighed the threats.

James Seabright, whose company has been presenting work at the Fringe for a decade and this year is producing and general managing 12 shows, asked that the Society respond to the Olympics by making tickets and programming information available earlier than the traditional June launch so that there was a "firm offer in place in time for visitors planning their limited stays."

A London-based producer, Seabright told Whatsonstage.com he hoped the Fringe Society would follow in the footsteps of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), who last month announced more than half of the West End's productions would extend booking periods by up to 15 months in a bid to attract Olympic visitors.

Elections were also held today for the Society's trustees. In something of an upset to organisers of festival within in a festival, the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, Underbelly co-director Charlie Wood was not been returned to the Society's board. The venue seat, created under the Fringe's new constitution, was instead taken by Stand Comedy Club director Tommy Sheppard.

Wood had recently defended the Comedy Festival against accusations from Sheppard that the cross-promotion activities were damaging to the Fringe as a whole. The Comedy Festival, which jointly promotes shows at the Underbelly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Assembly as well as Just the Tonic and the Edge Festival through shared branding and a brochure and website, was defended by Wood as a "perfectly proper marketing partnership" in a letter to members of the Society ahead of votes being cast.

In response Sheppard was quoted in The Stage newspaper on Wednesday as saying: “To argue that all venues should compete on a level playing field rather than the biggest ones forming a cartel is in the interests of the Fringe as a whole.”

In a mostly un-acrimonious meeting, peppered with jokes referencing the poor weather participants and Fringe theatregoers have endured this August, the Society's chief executive Kath Mainland also outlined how the organisation continues to recover financially after the catastrophic failure of its box office system in 2008.

The registered charity's accounts for last year include an outgoing of nearly £100,000 towards debts incurred disposing of the failed Pivotal system.

Having fully adopted Red61's VIA ticketing system for use across the Fringe Society and many participating venues, and overhauled the Fringe's website last year, the Society will now move on to redeveloping its back office software, 'Fringeware'. It is hoped the redevelopment, which may take up to two years to complete, will help the Fringe better analyse and exploit the data it holds about participants and audiences across the festival which this year consists of over 2,500 shows.

Chair of the Society's board, Baroness Smith, praised Mainland - who was appointed as the Fringe's first chief executive in February 2009 - for providing "strong leadership in a time when things are changing so rapidly."

The first AGM since last November's extraordinary general meeting to establish a new constitution, the Society has now grown from the previous limit of just over 100 members to a membership of 742.

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log on to Whatsonstage.com/Edinburgh!

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