'I'm sorry' - Woman behind cancelled festival offers customers £100,000

Samira Williams is one of the organisers of Wide Skies and Butterflies. 

Samira Williams worked for 10 years to launch the Wide Skies festival and says she is devastated by what has happened - Credit: Supplied

The organiser of a cancelled festival has issued a tearful apology to ticketholders and promised she and her business partner will relinquish claims to more than £100,000 of their own money so customers can be refunded.

Acts including The Vaccines, Hot Chip, James and the Editors were due to entertain thousands at the new Wide Skies And Butterflies festival at Raynham Estate this weekend.

But organisers pulled the plug on the event a month ago citing slow ticket sales and high costs, and their company has gone into administration with estimated debts of more than £600,000.

They have remained tight-lipped since, leaving ticketholders scrambling to contact the ticketing agency, banks and the insolvency practitioner to try to recoup tickets costs of up to £200 per person.

We sat down with Wide Skies CEO Samira Williams, who was visibly upset as she told her customers: “I’m sorry. I’m absolutely devastated.

“None of this was intentional. I don’t know how to convey how awful I feel about it. It is a lot of money, I know. That kind of money was a lot in my house growing up.

“I would rather they got their money back, I don’t want any of mine. I can’t speak for him but I know Sam [business partner Sam Booker] would say the same. 

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“There’s a hundred thousand [pounds] of ours sitting there and we don’t want it, we want it to go to the ticketholders who’ve lost out.”

More than 3,000 tickets were sold for the event and while some customers have received money back from the ticketing agency - where applicable - or from their banks, others will have to wait to see how many pennies in the pound the administrators can find to return to them.

Gary and Ami Reynolds, from Thorpe Marriott

Gary and Ami Reynolds, from Thorpe Marriott, paid £154 for a one day pass to see the Editors at Wide Skies. Their credit card company has warned them their refund is not yet confirmed. - Credit: supplied

Ami Reynolds, an NHS worker from Thorpe Marriott, said: “My husband and I were going purely to see The Editors because they haven’t done any UK tours in so long. 

“We’ve been key workers throughout the pandemic and this was the first treat we’d been looking forward to.

“We’ve had a refund from our credit card company but only on the proviso no-one disputes it for 45 days so we still can’t touch the money and we’re worried someone will ask us to pay it back.

The 37-year-old went on: “We’re cross. We didn’t actually know it had been cancelled until we read it in the EDP. There was no communication from anybody at their end at all.

“Our tickets cost £154 for the weekend. That’s two weeks' food shopping for our family of five. So that may not seem a lot to certain people but when it’s tight, it is a lot of money. 

“It’s really disappointing and annoying. We don’t do a lot for ourselves and people don’t have that kind of money to never see it again.”

What was supposed to happen?

Samira Williams, 42, fell in love with festivals 20 years ago when she moved to Norfolk from London and took a job at the Norfolk Show. She has been planning this event for more than 10 years.

“It was about making something exciting we could all be proud of, something with big names that would bring people to Norfolk, something where we could collaborate with [music college] Access To Music and the UEA," she said.

“I’ve put blood, sweat, tears and a lot of my own money into this, and I’m devastated it’s not going ahead."

Wide Skies agreed a five-year partnership with Raynham Estate, home to the Townshend family, which would have paid the estate a share of the festival’s turnover plus rent of £15,000 this year, rising to £35,000 in 2026. 

Through their company SMS Event Productions they booked acts, arranged for stages, portaloos and traffic surveys, and planned a budget based on pre-Covid costs for festivals of this size or larger.

They hoped to get 10,000 people a day in this, the festival’s first year, and to grow their business to three times that headcount over the coming half decade.

Family-friendly festival Wide Skies and Butterflies takes place in 2022 at the Raynham Estate.

Pictured (L-R) in this Wide Skies publicity shot are Tom Branston (event director), Abbie Panks (marketing for Raynham estate), Samira Williams and Sam Booker (event organisers) and Lord Tom Raynham (from Raynham estate). - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Where did the money come from?

The event was projected to cost £1.5m, with about £500,000 going to the acts and bands, and the remaining million spent on preparation, production, operational and staffing costs.

Ms Williams invested £100,000 and her business partner Mr Booker put in another £110,000.

Tickets were sold through Festickets, who invested £60,000 but quickly recouped their money by keeping a share of the ticket sales.

Raynham Estate was the host venue but had nothing to do with ticket sales and is not affiliated with SMS.

The current Viscount Raynham, Lord Tom Townshend, used the deposit from SMS to prepare the site, including adding two Anglian Water connections, improving access and adding extra internet connections.

He said: “We have in fact spent well over the deposit amount to date. Also of course we will receive none of the projected income from the festival itself.”

Ms Williams explained: “Raynham did not invest any money, Raynham were paid a deposit of £15,000, and then they would have had more based on turnover, they would have had a percentage of that.”

Ms Williams and Mr Booker had an additional investor lined up who was due to put in £250,000 but that individual - a personal acquaintance of Ms Williams’ who was not involved in the festival in any other way - pulled out in late May.

Wide Skies performers

Wide Skies was set to host some big-name acts as well as artists from local colleges - Credit: Wide Skies

What went wrong?

The withdrawal of that third investor, along with higher than expected costs and poor ticket sales, sunk the business.

Ms Williams said: “When they pulled out we were frantically trying to find other investments. 

“We spoke to loads of other festival companies at this point - asking them to bail us out, buy us out, take all of it if they needed to - but sadly it just wasn’t enough time.”

At this point the writing was on the wall.

She said: “When you get into May, June, July, usually you see a spike in ticket sales. Ours didn’t do that - in fact they dipped.

“You can only go on how many days left you have and how many tickets you need to sell per day, and we were just not getting there. So as we got closer to the date we decided to call it.

"You can’t keep selling tickets to something you know is not going to happen.”

Ticket sales were depressed by the number of potential customers who had “rollover” tickets for festivals which had originally been scheduled for 2020 or 2021, and by the unusual glut of festivals in the market this year.

Meanwhile costs were double their normal levels due to increased demand for the skills and equipment of production teams and suppliers who had spent two years laid off due to Covid.

Wide Skies and Butterflies will take place at the Raynham Estate.

Raynham Estate (pictured) was paid £15,000 to host the festival - Credit: Sonya Duncan

So where has the money gone?

SMS had £210,000 from its two founders and received more than £300,000 in ticket sales, but has collapsed with only £113,000 in the bank.

It paid salary to its two directors and up to 10 staff, but most of the outgoings were deposits for bands and production equipment, which were as high as 50pc because Wide Skies was new and untested.

The main stage alone cost £30,000, the Raynham venue cost £15,000 and sizeable five-figure sums have gone to many musical acts who are currently enjoying a weekend off.

Asked why the company went under, rather than going ahead with the festival and taking a loss on the venture, Ms Williams said: “Production costs were a million. Some of that had been paid but most was due July and August. 

“And while there is some money left in the bank, without our other investor and without better ticket sales, we just didn’t have the money.”

Who has had their money back?

All the tickets were sold through Festicket. They have refunded the ticket price - but not the 10pc booking fee - of anyone who used their payment plan service and had not yet paid the full amount, because Festicket held onto those funds until the transaction was complete.

But anyone who paid outright sent their money via Festicket to now-insolvent SMS Event Productions Ltd. 

Many customers report having had provisional refunds from their credit card company, or even their bank in the case of debit card transactions, but it is not yet clear whether those refunds will stick.

One Fakenham-based ticketholder, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I paid in instalments on my debit card but I’d paid the full amount. 

“I’ve got my money back from the bank, after speaking to them for an hour and a half, but they’re also sent me five letters stressing it’s temporary pending investigation. I don’t know whether I’ll be allowed to keep it.”

Will other people get their money back?

The company’s Summary of Liabilities makes for grim reading, with £299,830 owed to ticketholders, £310,000 to artists’ contingent contractual claims and around £127,000 to Ms Williams and Mr Booker. Meanwhile there is only £113,000 in the business to go around.

So even in the best case scenario - that the founders and, somehow, even the artists give up their claims - it still looks like ticket holders may only get back about 30p to 40p  in the pound. More likely it will be closer to between 15p and 20p.

Anyone awaiting a refund is encouraged to contact their bank or credit card company and explain the situation, and to email julie.jackson@carterclark.co.uk to ensure the insolvency practitioner has a record of their claim.

Investigations unit

Do you have a story for our investigations team? Email newsdesk@archant.co.uk - Credit: Archant