What went wrong for St Albans Meraki Christmas Festival? Report dissects event

PUBLISHED: 12:01 30 January 2019

The Meraki Christmas Festival took place in Verulamium Park last year. Picture: DANNY LOO

The Meraki Christmas Festival took place in Verulamium Park last year. Picture: DANNY LOO

©2018 Archant

St Albans’ ambitious new Christmas Festival faced a series of setbacks from the start, a report has found.

Visitors to the Meraki Christmas festival in Verulamium Park. Picture: DANNY LOOVisitors to the Meraki Christmas festival in Verulamium Park. Picture: DANNY LOO

When it was announced last June that Meraki Festival would be taking over the annual Christmas Market event, people welcomed the news - especially since the former festive offering had racked up a bill of more than £300,000 over five years.

There were to be fun fair rides, children’s ice skating, a three tier tipi bar and firepit, theatre, an ice bar, a high tech Santa’s Grotto, a greater number of chalets, live music, and socialising spaces.

Despite this offering, the St Albans district council (SADC) Community, Environment and Sport Scrutiny Committee heard in a report that the event battled setbacks from the start.

It started when a small group of disgruntled residents opposed its location on the Water Meadow opposite Westminster Lodge, slowing the planning application process so much that permission had not been obtained before scheduled opening.

Maggie Robinson, nine, at the Meraki Christmas festival in Verulamium Park. Picture: DANNY LOOMaggie Robinson, nine, at the Meraki Christmas festival in Verulamium Park. Picture: DANNY LOO

The event was hastily moved and split between the Vintry Garden and Herts County Showground - but bad weather, low visitor numbers and other issues forced it to close after two days at the latter location.

Meraki opened opposite Westminster Lodge on December 8. However, the event was plagued by complaints on social media about high prices and a lack of atmosphere.

The SADC report said marketing was not delivered as intended and there was “little signage to guide visitors to/from the city centre was in evidence”.

It said: “Responsibility for devising and deploying marketing and promotional collateral designed to encourage and facilitate links between the event and the city centre rested entirely with Meraki.”

Visitors to the Meraki Christmas festival in Verulamium Park. Picture: DANNY LOOVisitors to the Meraki Christmas festival in Verulamium Park. Picture: DANNY LOO

However, Meraki founder Kerry Marks said she did not finalise a contract with SADC until June, very close to the annual summer festival. She also said the licence application was SADC’s responsibility.

She explained: “Meraki took all of the financial responsibility for all elements of these three events and received no funding from the local council to run this, so there had to be charges for activities at the event, it would be impossible to offer free activities and a free event with no funding.

“We would agree that splitting the event into three was not ideal and certainly not a recipe for success but a short term solution.”

Kerry said dividing the event forced her to also spilt the budget, which had a “huge effect” on overall ambience, delivery, and visitor numbers. She noted that although the marketing plan was not carried out in full, there were investments in publicity.

Vendor Waffle Wands serving customers at the Meraki Christmas festival in Verulamium Park. Picture: DANNY LOOVendor Waffle Wands serving customers at the Meraki Christmas festival in Verulamium Park. Picture: DANNY LOO

She thanked SADC head of community services Joe Tavernier, Christmas market manager Liz Marcy, and leisure company 1Life for their support.

St Albans Business Improvement District (BID) business liaison manager, Vanessa Sharp, said they had collected feedback from their members: “The response we have received is that they would like to see the St Albans Christmas offering focussed on the city centre.

“They are not fixed on the idea of a Christmas market as such but perhaps an entertainment programme to drive footfall and dwell time to the city.”

The SADC committee will hold a review of the Christmas Festival on March 7, after they have conducted engagement events.

Vendor The Street Diner serving customers at the Meraki Christmas festival in Verulamium Park. Picture: DANNY LOOVendor The Street Diner serving customers at the Meraki Christmas festival in Verulamium Park. Picture: DANNY LOO

Committee chair, Cllr Anthony Rowlands, said: “In the end the various delays contributed to a lot of avoidable contention, inadequate marketing, and a failure to live up to many residents’ and traders’ expectations.”

At the meeting, he said it is a “big issue”: “Yes there are really serious issues that need to be looked at about how we managed to foul up what was proposed and not get the timetable right and not get the planning right, et cetera.

“We have got to look at that because it must not happen again.”

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