In 1987, when Leysin inaugurated its Rock Festival, organizing a musical event in the mountains was still a curiosity. Three decades later, it’s now quite the opposite. More and more ski resorts in the Swiss Alps are relying on the production of pop-rock, rap or electro shows in order to improve their image, to compensate for the lack of snow or to boost their "off-season" offer.
The double advantage of alpine festivals
The festivals are called Polaris (Verbier/VS), Zermatt Unplugged (VS), PALP (VS), Caprices (Crans-Montana/VS) and Rock The Pistes (Portes du Soleil/VS-F). Fifteen years ago, none of these alpine festivals existed. Today, they embody the vitality of these musical events concentrated in the mountains. Their numbers have steadily increased in recent years.
At this moment in time, the market for alpine festivals appears to be saturated. "From November to April, there’s a festival every weekend in the mountains", says Raphaël Nanchen, co-founder of Caprices and now the head of Polaris. According to him, there is an explanation for this phenomenon: "This is due to late snowfall and an increasingly fierce rivalry between resorts. By putting on such events, these destinations have the double advantage of attracting a new clientele and generating significant economic activity". This happens both in winter and during the offseason during which Verbier, Crans-Montana and Zermatt often experience a slowdown in their tourist attendance.
The tricky question is: how to succeed high up when things are already notoriously saturated for the festivals at ground level? The organization of musical events is already in itself a risky business because of the many random factors (weather, mobilization of the public, sale of food and drinks, etc.), and these difficulties quickly multiply up a mountain.
"30% to 40% additional costs"
"A festival organized in the mountains involves an additional cost of 30% to 40% compared to the budget of a ‘normal’ open air event", says Michel Girard, president of the Portes du Soleil Events Commission, an initiative of the festival Rock The Pistes. Setting up an alpine festival is invariably synonymous with additional costs and complex logistics (stage equipment transported by road, then (often) by helicopters, additional car parks, waste management and maximum public safety).
"Our event is at the top end of the additional costs for this type of event", explains Michel Girard. "Indeed, rather than having a fixed location, we decided to have five stages scattered around the Swiss and French mountains. The stages need to be delivered daily by air, then installed and dismounted. The incomputable human and technical costs incurred are very high". But there are also rewards! With 25,000 visitors at its 2019 edition, Rock The Pistes is counting on the arrival of 5,000 additional visitors for its tenth anniversary in March 2020. "Despite this success and the lack of big external partners, we are still forced to juggle our budget", concedes Michel Girard. Like the French-Swiss festival, many of the mountain musical events are facing the same obstacle: caution on behalf of most sponsors to get involved with events of low or medium capacity.
Forced to undertake and innovate
"Private partners traditionally show less enthusiasm in supporting small-audience festivals in favour of the grand musical masses where they are sure to reach a far bigger crowd", summarises Rolf Furrer, director of Zermatt Unplugged, to which 30,000 people travelled at the foot of the Matterhorn for the twelfth successful edition in April 2019. "What these sponsors want today is to participate directly in the content and to contribute to creating original, high-end formats that enhance their brand". This observation forces mountain festivals to urgently reinvent their format and their location.
This is why some are abandoning the live concert format for house-techno evenings with lower production costs (like Caprices, which redefined itself as an Electro festival in 2015), while others multiply their funding by opting for "personalised sponsoring solutions". Others choose to operate all year round as a "cultural brand" for specific events (Polaris programmed an evening for Montreux Jazz Festival in 2018).
"But what if all the hindrances that the mountain festivals are currently facing were ultimately a blessing?", wonders Mirko Loko, artistic director of Polaris. "Faced with the increase in the number of alpine events and the complexity of the logistics, as well as the decrease in partner marketing budgets, we are forced to be ever more enterprising and inventive. In the end, it’s precisely our capacity for invention and renewal that makes all the difference with the audiences!".
"Experiment in a beautiful setting"
Counting on original ideas that clearly stand out and inviting spectators to come not just to one location but a whole region. This is the ingenious policy that PALP Festival has been advocating since its launch in 2011. Organized between Sion, Martigny, Sierre, the Val de Bagnes and the St. Bernard region, and taking place from May to September, the festival is in fact ‘a festival of festivals’. "We appeared when the Valais canton was trying to revitalise its mountain tourism", says Sébastien Olesen, director of PALP. "We responded to this need by spotlighting our region in spring and summer and organizing human-sized events in emblematic places such as mountain huts or Roman amphitheatres".
Concerts, street performances and artistic exhibitions in the plains, the festival has developed a bunch of thrilling concepts at altitude: "Chairlift brunch", "Rocklette" and "Electroclette" - an original mix of Raclette cheese, Fendant wine and ‘good sounds’. In 2019, the ninth edition attracted 31,000 visitors, an enviable result that Sébastien Olesen explains by the lassitude that the public feels towards formatted events. "I think people are looking for events where it's easy to experiment in a beautiful setting", he says. "The attention we pay to our sites, our defence of the Valais region and its products, our encouragement of easy mobility and our unfussy concerts in the wilderness: all that makes a difference in audience sizes and makes people come back".
Currently a trend, are mountain festivals expected to continue to develop in the coming months? "I think that this phenomenon has not yet reached the saturation point and looks set to continue, the mountain resorts being very dependent on this kind of events to ensure their survival", says Michel Girard. But, like the events organized on the plains, "only the ones with a strong identity conceived in close accordance with their territory will remain standing till the end", Raphaël Nanchen sums up.