Survival of the smartest: how Paradise City Festival adapted to the pandemic

Pictures by Annika Wallis

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After a year of adapting their festival to strict event guidelines, the Paradise City Festival team is finally back for a busy summer.

After a frustrating year for music fans, some festivals are slowly picking up where they left off 18 months ago. Paradise City Festival has announced new dates for their main festival (August 13-15) while continuing their laid-back floating festival concept, Paradise Down by the Lake, with over 18 events throughout July. Last year, promoters Gilles De Decker and Antoine De Brabandere creatively countered the lockdown challenges with private bubble boats of eight for the visitors. As opposed to the regular Paradise City Festival, Paradise Down by the Lake uses ambient DJ-sets and idyllic locations as key ingredients. With an incredibly busy summer coming up, we sat down with both promoters to talk about the challenges and lessons learned during the strangest year in their careers so far.

This will be our best Paradise City Festival edition yet.

How do you feel now that Paradise City Festival is coming back on August 13-15? What will the festival look like?

De Decker: “We had lost hope for a long time - especially because we usually host the festival at the end of June - but we’re beyond excited with this new date in August. For us, it was unthinkable that Paradise City would not be part of the post-COVID celebration. But what’s more, this edition will be our best one yet. After all, we’ve been working on this event for such a long time now. There will be four stages, each with new adventurous designs, a reworked terrain layout, a packed line-up combining international stars and local talent, but above all, we will double down on our high sustainability ambitions. Expect maximum dancefloor energy and even more goosebumps moments than any edition we’ve ever hosted before”.

We’ve lost count how many times you guys have cancelled and postponed your events this year. We can imagine you guys felt frustrated.

De Brabandere: “Although we finally have new dates, postponing Paradise City Festival twice in a row was very stressful. Luckily, we still have Paradise Down by the Lake, which we also had to move from May/June to July/August. That project actually contains 20 different events. As long as we stay focused on the next thing, we’re always motivated”.

De Decker: “On a personal level, a proper party is definitely long overdue. In the event business, you rely on real life contact with other promoters. You also rely on discovering new DJs and artists on other events to keep your line-ups up to date. Taking all that out of the equation makes our current job feel a little shallow or empty. Although I’m sure that feeling will evaporate once we go back to the dancefloor. We’re confident that everything will return to the familiar – it might just take longer than we expected”.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned after an alternative, floating edition of Paradise City Festival in the summer of 2020 - and the first series of Paradise Down by the Lake events that follow the same concept in September and October 2020?

De Brabandere: “I learned that even though you have a small team and time is extremely limited, you should never underestimate what you can do. It’s precisely the small size of our organization that allowed us to adapt to the ever-changing situations so fast. Without sounding cocky, there’s not much I can learn about promoting a festival anymore, but I’ve learned so much about promoting safe events in a pandemic”. (laughs)

De Decker: “Don’t underestimate the knaldrang of your visitors (laughs). At first, you’re just happy you’re allowed to host events, but successfully applying the necessary safety measures is very challenging, especially when the authorities are following your every move closely. You only need one misbehaving fool to mess everything up. That brings a lot of stress. At the very first floating Paradise City Festival event back at the start of July 2020, people just went crazy. Masks weren’t obligatory at the time, so I feel iffy about sharing these pictures again now”.

Even if you have a small team and time is extremely limited, you should never underestimate yourself.

“Anyways, my point is that you have to sit your visitors down, look them in the eyes and tell them they have to follow the rules respectfully – figuratively speaking of course. We are taking a lot of risks, and we count on our visitors to return that respect. This kind of communication was new for us, but we have learned a lot about this in the past year”.

I assume it’s no coincidence Paradise Down by the Lake is marketed and organized as an ambient and relaxing experience, rather than a party?

De Decker: “No it’s not. We want to contain the knaldrang as much as possible. But we don’t mind turning the BPM down a notch. Listening to certain electronic music in a beautiful environment can be transcending experience, and that’s something we’ve always wanted to pursue with our events but never had the chance to”.

Which one of you came up with the idea to use boats for your events?

De Decker: “In the first lockdown, there was a lot of fuzz about drive-in festivals. That idea was never on the table for us – we are a green festival after all – but it got us thinking about the bubble concept. Usually, boats don’t allow for a comfortable concert experience, especially if you want to dance and have a drink. But what if we made our own rafts, designed especially for the occasion? We contacted our stage designers, Kozo, who didn’t have a lot going on either, and together we made rafts that can hold up to eight people, with seats, space to move, a table for drinks, etc. To be honest, we had no idea how things would eventually end up. This type of floating events was new to us too”.

Paradise Down by the Lake is a long-term project that will continue after the pandemic.

For both Paradise City Festival and Paradise Down by the Lake, the beautiful location plays an important role. How do you scout these picture-perfect spots?

De Decker: “We take pride in organizing events in remarkable locations. Most of the times, these are in private hands, inaccessible to the public, so it’s a matter of clear communication with the owners”.

De Brabandere: “Because we were bound to waterside locations, we simply opened Google Maps and started scouting. That’s how we found the Beervelde location. Once you have proven that you can run a large-scale event on a fragile estate, you build a strong reputation amongst owners of these kind of estates which opens doors for us”.

How are things financially? Is Paradise Down by the Lake financially sustainable? Or is it a project that will stop after the upcoming regular Paradise City Festival?

De Decker: “Paradise Down by the Lake is not financially sustainable at the moment – after all, we invested in 60 rafts. It was born as a COVID-project, but we want to continue to host new editions, even after Paradise City Festival returns. Hopefully we can raise the capacity and do more with the rest of the domain too”.