How the Fyre Festival Went Up in Flames

By Polly Mosendz and Kim Bhasin | May 2, 2017

Soon after William N. Finley IV got off the bus to the festival grounds late Thursday afternoon, he realized something was very wrong. He’d flown into the Bahamas for the Fyre Festival, a luxury getaway filled with celebrities, yachts, and villas on a pristine beach in an island paradise. Little of that promise was in sight, but he did spot festival organizer Billy McFarland atop a platform surrounded by confused attendees. No one knew what to do, he said. The crowd was told to claim shelters, so they rushed nearby to what attendees have described as a city of disaster relief tents.

It was near dusk, so Finley went out in search of his luggage, which had arrived separately. As night fell, he stumbled into a gaggle of festival goers who were unloading bags from a big red shipping container. They searched for their suitcases with phone flashlights.

“At that point we were like, this is not what I signed up for,” Finley, a 32-year-old writer from North Carolina, said later as he reflected on his truncated festival vacation on Great Exuma island. That night, he grabbed food in a larger tent he said looked like a summer camp mess hall. There were sandwiches, pasta salad, chicken dinners, and some fruit. For all of this, he shelled out close to $4,000—a bargain compared with VIP tickets that ran to five-figures for the promise of absolute decadence.

What was supposed to be an idyllic music festival, one to surpass those California desert gatherings, turned into chaos as attendees struggled with substandard living conditions, lack of accommodation, and broken promises. But behind the scenes, there was a different kind of chaos. In interviews with Bloomberg, people with knowledge of how the festival was managed described an event doomed by gross mismanagement, logistical failures, and last-minute contingencies despite a year of planning—allegations echoed in a class action lawsuit filed Monday in Los Angeles, one which included Finley’s Twitter posts live from the calamity.

Fred Porro, an executive at creative agency Wasserman who has worked on brand events at concerts such as Live 8 and Live Earth, said holding a festival in a unique venue, one where it hasn’t been done before, requires extra time, planning, and an experienced team. Sustainability and compliance consultants are brought in to make sure all timelines are met.

“In anything that we’re planning, I would never have provided responsibilities to those who are not up for the job,” he said.

From the food to security, nothing went right.

Promotion for the festival started in December, when a close-up of bikini-clad models (from behind) first appeared on the Fyre Festival Instagram page. The logistical work of confirming vendors and issuing payments, however, was still incomplete a few weeks before the festival, according to a talent producer, who said the stage and transportation were only recently secured.

Fyre Media Inc., founded in 2015 by McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, began as a talent booking app. For some time, McFarland simultaneously ran Fyre and Magnises, a social club for millennials. By the end of 2016, both McFarland and his right hand man, Grant Margolin, had shifted their focus to Fyre, said a person who worked with McFarland at one of the companies. Money management was an issue at Magnises, as no formal payroll company was hired and invoices were paid with personal checks, wire transfers, and formal corporate checks, said the person, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the internal workings of the firm. They characterized McFarland, 25, as genuine, well-meaning, and interested in the happiness of his clients, but inexperienced. McFarland and Margolin didn’t return several requests for comment.

When it came to the Fyre Festival, hiring a public relations team was the priority. Long before catering and local vendors were signed, glossy ads featuring supermodels Bella Hadid, Elsa Hosk, and Alessandra Ambrosio began to appear. On Instagram, celebrities shared photos portraying a picturesque beach holiday to promote the festival. McFarland booked such artists as Tyga, Blink 182, and Major Lazer.

Ticket purchasers were promised an all-inclusive weekend—top notch food, luxurious lodging, and hot entertainment in a stunning tropical locale. “Fyre is tirelessly working with a variety of local and international chefs to create a one-of-a-kind culinary experience,” organizers promised in an April 15 Medium post. For an additional fee, attendees could purchase “exclusive culinary experiences.”

In March, about six weeks ahead of the festival, event organizers approached Starr Catering Group to execute a food plan. The catering firm’s staffers flew to the Bahamas for a site visit, according to a person familiar with the trip who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about it. Following the review, Starr presented organizers with a 100-plus page plan detailing the meals, who would work the event, and how food service for thousands of attendees across two weekends would be organized.

The catering cost was in the high six figures, the person said. Festival organizers balked. “They said they did not have anywhere close to that budget,” the person said. “They said they had other caterers that could do it for the budget they had.” Starr and Fyre went their separate ways, but some attendees said they were still under the impression when they arrived that the high-end company was catering the event. When they got to the food tent, they were quickly disabused of that idea.

Fyre Media didn’t reply to a request for comment about their catering budget. A spokeswoman for Starr said in a statement that the caterer terminated their contract with the festival in early April after it “realized that there were significant business issues that could not be resolved and would not allow them to deliver a premium food and beverage experience that met Starr’s exceedingly high demands.”

Explaining why the decision was made to “postpone” the event, Fyre Festival organizers didn’t mention the housing or food. Instead, they cited safety issues. In a statement, they said security couldn’t “keep up,” but didn’t elaborate. In a Medium post, Fyre Festival said it had been “working with local law enforcement, private contractors, and the Royal Bahamian Defense Force to provide a secure festival experience.”

Contacted by phone, a spokesman for the Royal Bahamian Defense Force said they hadn’t even heard of the festival.

“The organizers of the event … have readily admitted that they were in over their heads.”

In addition to paying for tickets, festival attendees were urged to load money onto their “Fyre Bands,” radio frequency identification wristbands that could be used to pay for various upgrades, like beach tours featuring indigenous pigs ($135) or boat rentals ($9,000). The wristbands were commissioned from Connect&Go, according to an April 23 Medium post from event organizers that suggested attendees add at least $300 per day for “incidental expenses and upgrades.”

Fyre Festival hired Connect&Go about six weeks prior to the event, a person with knowledge of the discussions said. The terms of their contract required the festival to pay the company up front, which they did. But the Fyre Band balances remain in limbo: Organizers didn’t address how, or whether, that money would be refunded. (Connect&Go isn’t accused of any wrongdoing.)

And it wasn’t just ticket-holders and vendors who were caught up in the event’s unraveling. Prior to the festival, organizers contacted the local chapter of the Red Cross and the Exuma Foundation, both charities on the island. In an April 19 post, organizers said they would “donate gently used items after the festival closes.” Organizers did, in fact, contact the Red Cross, according to a person involved in the discussions. They sought a duty waiver form from the charity, said the person, who requested anonymity because they aren’t authorized to comment on the matter.

The Red Cross provided the waiver form, but didn’t receive a donation, the person said. Fyre Media and local customs officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on the question of duties. The Exuma Foundation didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Red Cross in the Bahamas couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Given the litany of complaints, attendees were talking lawsuit before they even left the island. On Monday, the first one dropped. The complaint filed in Los Angeles was brought by a single ticket-holder who accused Fyre Festival organizers of fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and breach of contract. Daniel Jung seeks to represent the thousands of people who flew to the tropical festival, and his lawyers, led by Mark Geragos, hung an attention-grabbing $100 million pricetag on the litigation.

Jung accuses organizers of warning musicians and celebrities to refrain from coming to the festival without cautioning regular attendees. “Defendants only ‘cancelled’ the event on the morning of the first day—after thousands of attendees had already arrived and were stranded, without food, water, or shelter,” according to his complaint.

More ticket holders are planning to join the litigation, according to lawyers lining top to take their cases. Meanwhile, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism is scrambling to keep the fallout from damaging the local economy, assuring potential vacationers that Great Exuma is a fully developed island with no infrastructure issues.

“The organizers of the event, which was a private event, have readily admitted that they were in over their heads, and they have taken full responsibility for all that has transpired,” said Joy Jibrilu, the ministry’s director general.

“No, I’m not down for the adventure.”

McFarland has repeatedly promised full refunds, though on Monday the promise was of another ticket. “All guests from this year will have free VIP passes to next year’s festival,” the organizers said in a statement posted to their website on Monday. An email sent to festival goers, meanwhile, offers the ability to apply for a refund online.

“The festival was a no-refund ticketed event, however, event organizers are making efforts to refund approved requests from confirmed attendees and confirmed ticket holders,” according to the website, noting that those who dispute the charges through their credit card company won’t be refunded. Organizers didn’t return a request for comment on the refund application, which reminds attendees of their ability to exchange their tickets for “additional 2018 VIP passes.” The choice of replies are, “Yes, let it ride. I’d love to support you all in creating something amazing!” and “No, I’m not down for the adventure.”

Despite the festival’s failure, some attendees stayed and tried to make the most of it. Dylan Caccamesi, a 22-year-old from New Jersey, wasn’t able to get a flight out until late Friday night, so he and his friends spent the extra day partying on the beach and drinking margaritas. He stayed in a tent overnight, rather than the floor of the airport terminal.

Finley, the writer from North Carolina who paid almost $4,000 for his ticket, wasn’t quite so sanguine about how things turned out. He found himself stuck in the airport overnight, listening to McFarland apologize to the packed room over a speakerphone. The stranded attendees began writing down their names and contact information on sheets of printer paper to get on a list of refund requests. Finley said he saw people sobbing, just hoping to get off the island. He eventually made it on to a flight at about 9:30 a.m. the next morning.

Finley said that, as bad as the experience was, he’s also angry about how he and his fellow concert goers have been portrayed in the media schadenfreude festival that followed.

“It isn’t this rich white kid thing they keep taking about–there were people from all walks of life,” said Finley. “They were just trying to go to something they thought would be cool.”

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