In the last week, two television streaming platforms have released documentaries claiming to detail the real true (crime) story behind the failed Fyre Festival.
In case you are unfamiliar, Fyre Festival was the brainchild of millennial entrepreneur Billy McFarland in partnership with well-known rapper JaRule. The 2017 festival was originally supposed to be held on Norman’s Cay in the Exumas but was later moved to Great Exuma.
While the marketing for the festival was a case study in leveraging social media influencers to promote an event, the planning effort did not have the same success.
Because of the limited infrastructure of Great Exuma, along with the inexperience of the festival’s planners and fraudulent means McFarland employed to raise funding, the festival did not live up to expectations.
That may be an understatement.
Festival-goers were left without the housing they paid for, food and water. A rainstorm the morning before ticket holders were supposed to arrive drenched the festival grounds, flooding the tents which were to replace the villas for which festival-goers paid thousands of dollars. After arriving, those who wanted to leave were left stranded in the airport—the were locked in without food and water waiting for planes that were never booked.
It was a disaster. And while The Bahamas was only the venue, the social media backlash that followed the festival’s failure threatened The Bahamas’ brand.
That may not mean much for other places in the world, but as a country that relies on tourism as its number one industry the value of our brand is directly related to the attractiveness of our tourism product. If our that value falters so too could our economy.
What these documentaries highlight more that any other telling of the Fyre Festival story has before is the human toll for Bahamians.
We knew, for example, that festival goers were owed millions in ticket sales and that some of the festival’s talent lineup pulled out just before the event was slated to begin because they had never been paid. We also knew that the Bahamian government was left holding the bag on unpaid taxes and fees.
In one extraordinary scene, one of the festival’s organizers admitted that he visited the head of Bahamian customs in Exuma to perform oral sex in exchange for the release of containers full of bottled water worth $175,000 in unpaid customs duties.
However, what has only recently come into focus was the loss suffered by everyday Bahamians in Exuma.
From day labourers who helped to build the festival site with the promise of future payment to Maryann Rolle, the caterer that fed those labourers and the festival’s production staff approximately 1000 meals every day in the lead up to the festival.
Ms. Rolle’s story has gone viral. She was left without any payment by the festival’s organizers. As a result of the leftover debt, she paid out more than $50,000 from her personal savings to suppliers and staff.
Unlike festival goers who found recourse in American courts—in one case to the tune of $5 million—Rolle was not so lucky. She has been left to rely on the generosity of strangers donating to a GoFundMe account that went live after the documentaries were released.
We may want to think about the events surrounding the failed Fyre Festival as a cleansing fire—a crisis that has laid bare some of the deficiencies in the way we allow business to be done here in The Bahamas.
The festival’s nascent popularity was built by a few Instagram models posting promotion photos and video. And the viral calamity that followed was triggered by a single photo of a cheese sandwich on Twitter.
In this excessively mediated world, one social media influencer or a single picture could undo more than 50 years of tourism branding.
What this means that we must become serious about protecting that brand at all costs—implementing systems and leveraging the human resources so that we can tell the difference between a real project that can benefit Bahamians and fraudulent façade propped up by slick marketing.
And it’s not just the marketing—it’s one man forging another’s signature on a Heads of Agreement while sitting next to the Prime Minister. But for news cameras, who knows where we would be?
All that glitters is not gold, or in this case, where there was smoke there was no fyre.
More than just needing to change the way we vet projects that could tarnish our image is our failure to advocate for Bahamians.
Why did it take an American documentary to reveal the loss suffered by Bahamians? What advocacy could the government of The Bahamas employ to return to hardworking Bahamians what it is they are rightfully owed?
How many other Maryann Rolle’s, from Fyre Festival to CLICO, are out there doing what they’re supposed to do—save, work hard, play fair—but are left to sort through a mess not of their own making?
Fyre Festival was not the first of muck up of its kind. If we are truly anchored in the 21st century and if we fully understand the power of social media and the connectedness it fuels, we must do a better job of protecting our brand. If Bahamians are to trust their government they need to be protected, and where that fails, they need to know that they will be defended.