What businesses can learn about planning from Melbourne’s Fashion Festival

Melbourne Fashion Festival chief executive Graeme Lewsey reveals all the planning that goes into making sure it’s alright on the night – the models and fashion houses, set builders, sound and lighting, caterers, makeup artists and drivers.

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When glitter dropped from the ceiling at the opening of the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival, the audience gasped with surprise.

Models strutted the runway as the strips of glitter shimmered between them and reflected shards of light around the audience. It was a fitting way to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Melbourne Fashion Festival and a memorable start to the week.

What the audience wouldn’t have realised was how much planning went into that one single moment.

Graeme Lewsey, chief executive of Melbourne Fashion Week, says they had to hire the glitter cannons and load them into the overhead lighting rig a week before the event.

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But even before that there was lots of planning required.

“Is the glitter going to be approved by our health and safety manager? Is he going to think the glitter will be a slipping hazard for the models? Is there a slip hazard on the runway with all the glitter when everyone’s leaving the venue? But there’s another show starting soon afterwards, so how quickly can we clean the glitter from the venue so the next show starts off clean?”

It’s the sort of planning exercise that was repeated hundreds of times over as the fashion festival organisers worked to ensure every detail was right and every element fell into place – the models and fashion houses, as well as set builders, sound and lighting contractors, caterers, makeup artists and drivers, to name a few.

“I’ve probably never worked on an event that has so many moving parts,” says Lewsey, who has been involved in several fashion festivals in Australia and Asia.

Melbourne Fashion Festival has a core year round staff of 14 people, and Lewsey estimates that when the festival is in full swing somewhere between 1500 and 1800 are working to make it a success.

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“It takes an enormous amount of planning. As a major event you have to be not just strategic, but you have to be well-organised from a planning perspective, every output leads onto the next output and you have to have a very clear path and project plan.”

The figures aren’t in for this year’s festival, but the numbers from last year give an idea of its scale.

Some 400,000 people physically attended the festival and about 380 million people around the world were reached through digital and social media platforms.

Melbourne Fashion Festival is a not for profit company. It aims to promote and amplify the fashion industry as well as drive economic activity in tourism and retail. At last year’s festival, consumers spent an average of $600 each on clothes, accessories and make up, much of it in the lead up to the festival so they could look their best when they attended.

There is also the economic boost for the designers who take part, who get a sales lift thanks to the publicity.

The company earns its revenue from ticket sales and corporate hospitality. Lewsey says the fashion festival offers corporate Australia an opportunity to wine and dine female clients in the way that sport doesn’t.

It also earns money from donations from patrons in the same way an arts company does.

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Finally there are corporate sponsors, such as NAB, which Lewsey says brings in the most revenue.

“We bring in that revenue to survive every year,” he says. “It is a funny term saying not for profit, but the reality is everyone’s still chasing a buck to survive and to have a stable financial environment in which to continue to plan next year.”

The Melbourne Fashion Festival runs for only a week a year in March, but Lewsey says it is busy year round.

Once one year’s festival has ended, the company goes into what Lewsey calls “acquittal mode”, which is reporting back to stakeholders such as government and sponsors on how the festival has performed. “They all require very sound, robust and auditable results. It’s a big, big process and we take it very seriously,” he says.

Once that is finished, the end of the financial year is approaching and this leads to developing the budget for the next year’s festival. Different parts of the organisation bid for their budget allocation and this in turn leads on to strategic planning for the festival.

“By the time you’ve finished all that, you’re in October. Think about October to March with Christmas in between – you’re already in delivery mode,” he says. “It is actually quite intense.”

“We’ve done a bit of work on 2017 already.”

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