How Sharon Canavar aims to ensure Harrogate International Festivals bounces back

Sharon Canavar is a key figure in a sector which has been devastated by the pandemic. But she is determined to bounce back, writes Business Reporter John Grainger.

Sharon Canavar

Sharon Canavar’s body-clock has gone haywire. As chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals, she is a key figure in a sector devastated by the ban on public gatherings – a crunching gear-change for such a normally dynamic organisation.

“The hours at this time of year are usually pretty bonkers and everybody’s usually on the gin and slightly mad at this time, because it’s that tipping point before everything suddenly falls into place in July,” she told The Yorkshire Post.

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“At this point, all our volunteers are in, our freelance staff are in, the phones don’t stop ringing, the box-office is downstairs… but I’m currently sat in my quite cold, miserable office on my own, with none of that buzz going on.

“I’ve worked in festivals and events my whole career, and this is going to be the first summer since I graduated when I haven’t had a summer season, so my circadian rhythms are all wrong."

Harrogate International Festivals (HIF), which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016, is the charitable organisation behind a year-round programme of events which includes Harrogate Music Festival, Berwins Salon North (a a cabaret-style evening of talks on diverse ideas in art, science and psychology), Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival, Children’s Festival, Harrogate International Sunday Series (coffee concerts by chamber musicians), and – perhaps most famously – the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which has become one of the genre’s biggest annual events worldwide.

The roll-call of luminaries to have graced its various stages in past years is head-spinning, and includes BB King and Amy Winehouse; Jacqueline du Pré and Montserrat Caballe; Michael Palin CBE and Nicola Sturgeon; and, from the crime-writing world, every big name there is, including Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling).

Over a normal year, HIF holds 300 events, attracts over 90,000 people, and is worth £8.2m to the local economy.

At the Crime Writing Festival alone, the Old Swan Hotel takes more over the bar in one hour than it usually does for a whole wedding.

But 2020 is no normal year and the prospect of all that revenue coming Harrogate’s way evaporated on April 5 when Ms Canavar announced that the summer season was cancelled.

“It was horrendous. We were just getting to the end of our year with a fairly dark season, about to launch everything, and then all we could see was the other dark season,” she said.

“Pulling the Theakstons Crimewriting Festival was really hard, because people come from all over the world and stay for the full three nights, they make Harrogate their base, and it’s such a landmark date in the publishing calendar as well.

“And the Music Festival too – we’ve got a lot of people who have been coming for 50 years, so to pull that for the first time in our history was pretty hard.

“But you’ve got to make the right decision with the information you have at the time, and I think we called it right.”

Of HIF’s seven staff, three-and-a-half are furloughed and the others are battling on, devising and delivering as much as they can under ever-changing circumstances.

“I’m working the sort of hours I’d normally be working in a normal festival year, but with a totally different kind of stress and worry,” said Ms Canavar.

“In events there’s always something that’s going to go pear-shaped, so you’ve got to be on the ball and ready to move or change your mind.

“A big consideration for us is, by mid-July how close are we going to be able to get to each other, how much travel are we going to be allowed?

“We’re having to move with the national picture, which means that you can’t just put a plan in place two months ahead and think, ‘well, this is what we’re going to do’. We’re having to make a plan A, B and C for every single thing that we’re doing.”

Filling the vacuum created by the scratched season, HIF has created HIF Player, a free and regularly updated online hub of archive event recordings and videos from previous years.

It has also commissioned a new piece of music by York composer David Lancaster which will be played by brass musicians around the world and then unveiled online next month.

“For people to be part of a world première during lockdown is pretty amazing,” said Ms Canavar.

The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award is still going ahead; the shortlist was announced last week and the winner will be revealed in a virtual awards ceremony on July 23, the date the Festival would have opened.

“We’ve got a few plans for other things, but we don’t want to release them quite yet because things could all change yet again every time someone gets in front of that [Government coronavirus update] podium.”

Given the devastating financial impact of cancelling the summer season – it would usually be worth £850,000 to HIF, which, said Ms Canavar “has been totally wiped from our books” – it seems little short of miraculous that the organisation is able to mount any kind of rear-guard action.

But sponsors, who stump up 35 per cent of HIF’s budget, have remained loyal, as have key donors, such as the Liz & Terry Bramall Foundation. There’s been a successful bid for Arts Council funding, and a hefty dip into reserves accrued following the launch four years ago of a 50th anniversary million-pound fundraising drive.

It’s all helping HIF to survive the global pandemic, but Ms Canavar is still bracing for setbacks.

“It may be two steps forward and one step back coming out of this pandemic – I don’t think it’s going to be an easy transition,” she said.

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