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Bloc Weekend shut down amidst over-crowding

By | Published on Monday 9 July 2012

Bloc Weekend

The first ever London edition of the popular dance music festival Bloc Weekend, a festival venture previously held at Pontins and Butlins holiday camps, was cut short amidst confusion on Friday night, with reports that the event’s site, the new London Pleasure Gardens complex by the River Thames in East London, was dangerously overcrowded.

While the festival’s official social media channels were still happily bigging up events happening on stage, reports started to emerge on Friday evening of large queues at the all-nighter event, not only to get into the festival, but also to get into any of the stage areas, all of which were enclosed.

This meant that those who arrived any later than late afternoon were faced with a two-hour queue to get into the event, and then another one-hour queue to get into any of the tents. And once inside a performance space, punters were nervous of leaving, because doing so would require joining another one-hour queue.

With ever more people arriving on site (gates were due to stay open until 2am), fears seemingly arose that over-crowding could result in a dangerous incident, and at about 12.30am a decision was made by organisers to shut down the festival, even though headliner Snoop Dogg was yet to go on stage, and the event was due to run to 6am. It was later announced that the second day of the event was also cancelled.

The Metropolitan Police, who had seemingly recommended the shut down, were soon very much in presence across the Pleasure Gardens site as the festival was cleared. Despite understandable anger amongst festival-goers, the shut down seems to have gone relatively smoothly, with most bystanders commending both police and crowd members for their actions.

Quite what caused the over-crowding is not yet clear. But, with the London Pleasure Gardens basically washing its hands of the incident, and Bloc Weekend yet to fully comment, except to say an investigation is ongoing, there has been much speculation by attendees as to what caused the problems.

Some reckon that there was a problem with the scanning of tickets, which firstly caused delays, and then – because stewards started letting anyone with a print-out of a ticket in, and because multiple copies of any one ticket can be printed out – may have led to more people being allowed on site than planned. Some have also said online that they bought Friday-only tickets, but on arrival, amidst confusion at the gate, they were given weekend wristbands.

Others reckon that there simply wasn’t room for the 15,000 people who had been sold tickets at the Pleasure Gardens complex. Possibly because, only open a week, the site wasn’t as large as expected (or possibly isn’t quite finished). Or possibly because the complex was badly used; a number of festival-goers said that there were too many bottlenecks, that poor signage meant some alternative routes around the site weren’t used, and that large chunks of the Gardens were empty, while other areas were crammed.

It may also be that organisers hoped that a sizable portion of its audience would be happy to sit outside the performance tents, allowing the crowds to be more widely distributed, a mistake given that the site arguably doesn’t lend itself to such milling around (certainly not in the way a holiday camp does). And according to Dummy, a police spokesman said that the weather had been a factor in recommending a shut down, which would link into that theory – ie if expected showers arrived, circumstances would worsen because the festival was unable to accommodate everyone undercover.

On Saturday morning, organisers of the Bloc Weekend posted on their website: “By now everyone will have heard that Bloc 2012 was closed due to crowd safety concerns. We are all absolutely devastated that this happened, but the safety of everyone on site was paramount. Given the situation on the ground, we feel that it was the right decision to end the show early. Bloc will not open on Saturday 7th July so please don’t come to the site”.

Yesterday a new statement was posted, that reads: “We are currently gathering information about Friday night’s events. We are also working to ensure that everyone will be refunded for their tickets. Please bear with us while we do this. Thanks to all of you, as well as the many artists and crew who travelled across the world to come to Bloc – we are so sorry that we couldn’t deliver the experience we had planned”.

It continued: “And thanks so much to the event control, security, stewards, police and public who worked together to ensure that no one came to harm during the peaceful evacuation. This is far and away the most important result of the night. For those of you who are frustrated and angry – we hear you. For those sending love and support – thank you”.

Whether the Bloc Weekend company will be able to afford to refund all ticket buyers, given all the costs it will have incurred by cancelling the event when already up and running, remains to seen, and may depend on when and how monies are paid over by ticketing provider CrowdSurge. As for the future of the event, that also hangs in the balance, which is possibly a shame for a boutique festival brand that, until this weekend, had a generally good reputation.

The shutdown is also embarrassing for the operators of the London Pleasure Gardens, the new open-air venue set up an industrial wasteland by the people behind Glastonbury’s Shangri-La area. Opening just in time for the Olympics, with support from both Newham Council and London mayor Boris Johnson, the new quirky site is set to host a wide range of cultural events both this summer and over the next three years.

The next big event due to take place there is the Africa Stage of the pre-Olympics River Of Music event, on 21 and 22 Jul. LPG managers insist this weekend’s overcrowding problems will not affect that show, because it will use a totally different set up at the complex.

While the specific details of what caused the problems at this weekend’s Bloc will presumably emerge in due course, one lesson for the wider festival sector may come from one of the most common complaints from those at the event: poor communication, about both the queuing situation and subsequently the shutdown, and how those evacuated festival-goers stranded in London’s Eastern docklands, after the last DLR had left for the night, might go about getting back into Central London.

When things go wrong these days, customers turn to official Twitter and Facebook feeds, and if they are just telling people how great Amon Tobin’s set is, then unhappy festival-goers are not going to be placated. Similar complaints were made about the Isle Of Wight Festival last month, when heavy rainfall caused problems with onsite car parking, resulting in hundreds of cars backing up onto local roads, and forcing some ticket-buyers to spend their first night at the event offsite in their vehicles.

Although the IOW Festival’s problems were different and more isolated than those that occurred at Bloc, many complained that the event’s official communication channels gave no information or advice for those caught in traffic jams. Said stranded festival-goers then took to social media to complain, which was picked up by local and then national media, meaning most coverage of the event centred on the traffic issues.

Many of those who went to the IOW event by public transport felt media coverage of the festival – “wash-out, disaster” etc – was vastly out of proportion, though such negative press could have been avoided had a decent communications plan been in place. Widespread criticism online of Bloc organisers may also have been more forgiving had there been better communications. Which is possibly food for thought for promoters everywhere – perhaps good use of social media is about more than just tweeting photos of the good times.