Sziget: An Unlikely Hungarian Success Story

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Far from the fumes and heat of Budapest, deep in the southwest countryside of Zala, a group of artists, musicians and other such folk got together in the summer of 1992 for a cool week of musical jamming, poetry reading, discussion and general bonhomie.

The vibe was so good that host Péter Müller, a teacher, rock lyricist and former anti-communist dissident, decided to expand on the idea. Müller shared his vision with another former dissident, Gábor Demszky, who had meanwhile become Mayor of Budapest. A year later, 43,000 attended what was then called “Student Island” on Hajógyári-sziget in the Hungarian capital.

This, in a nutshell, is the genesis of the highly acclaimed annual Sziget Festival, a week-long shindig that this year is expected to attract in excess of 500,000 visitors to see global stars such as Ed Sheeran and Foo Fighters among more than 1,000 performers. (See also Sziget Continues to Push for Island Freedom on page seven.)

Under the slogan of “Love Revolution”, some 120,000 foreign individuals attended Sziget last year. That made it by far the single biggest event in Hungary, with more than twice the pulling power of the Formula 1 Grand Prix, says Dániel Indra, senior manager specializing in leisure and tourism with business consultancy KPMG in Budapest.

Tamás Kádár, chief executive of Sziget Cultural Management, which runs the festival, attributes its continuing success to the broad nature of the event.

“At the origins, Sziget wasn’t a rock festival. It wasn’t meant to be only a musical festival. From the [very beginning] it was a cultural festival, with theaters, very alternative music, even classical music. It was meant to be a 360 degree cultural festival. And it still is: that’s what makes it special,” he told foreign journalists in July.

Kádár admits Sziget has been in the wars, both with the local council and the city of Budapest. It is also a risky business in terms of financials. It nearly went bust in the 1990s. This year, the seven headline acts come at a cost of between EUR 300,000 and EUR 2 million each,

Headliner Inflation

“EUR 2 million. That’s a huge risk,” the CEO said. Another threat is what he terms “headliner inflation”, i.e. the cost of booking the big acts, which is “rising faster than we can raise ticket prices.”

There is also evidence that some Hungarians are put off by the sheer size – and perhaps internationalism – of Sziget. Hungarian media in July cited research that showed Magyars under 30 preferred smaller festivals, with only 11% wanting to attend Sziget.

And while Kádár stresses the peaceful mood on the island (“There are no fights on Sziget. If there is something, then we did something wrong. We have 1,200 security staff,” he said) there is, inevitably, some risk to attendees.

“My ambassador goes away, but I can’t go on holiday in August, because of Sziget,” one foreign diplomat confided to your correspondent at a recent reception. Sensing bewilderment, he continued: “We always have some trouble, Young people, away from home, drunk out of their minds. When they wake up, their money or passports, or both, are gone.”

Enquiries to other embassies revealed that, while such “losses” are not endemic, they are of concern.

“We issued only eight emergency travel documents related to the festival last year, and there were no other Sziget-related consular cases,” another European diplomat noted, adding: “We did put a lot of effort into a prevention campaign.”

For both organizers and attendees, Sziget, like life, has its risks. Especially if you get blotto.

The Bottom Line is a monthly column written by Kester Eddy, a long-standing and well respected Budapest-based business and economic journalist, who has written for the Financial Times and many regional publications. The opinions expressed in the column are not necessarily those of the Budapest Business Journal. To comment on this column, or on anything else in the BBJ, email the editor at robin.marshall@bbj.hu

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