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Meet the Producer

Shaping the Festival Experience with Firefly Music Festival's Christiane Pheil

by Chris Carver
on November 1, 2016
FireFly Music Festival


It's nothing new to say that people are looking for unique experiences and that community is critical to this generation and their expectations are higher than ever when it comes to the events they attend. However... the special sauce is actually delivering on that. 

If that is at all part of your job description, then you have to meet Christiane Pheil: Head of programming at Red Frog Events (creators of the Firefly Music Festival). She's also a member of the US Women's Rugby Team. Yep... All Around Badass.

And with a resume like that, she doesn't do anything half-way. That means she's got a lot to share and we're in for a great interview.

Enjoy! I sure did.

Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil
Photo Cred: Red Frog Events team page

With Christiane's background, I was really psyched to understand a few key items, like:

- How they go about deciding on the experiences to create and cut each year.
- What marketing channels are the most effective in engaging with their fans.
- How she prioritizes engagement versus growth and sales.
- How she manages her team and time.
- With a few rugby references sprinkled in.

You ready to do this?

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina.

What was 15 year old Christiane like?
Oh man. 15-year old Christiane was playing tennis and running track. I’d wake up at 5:00 AM, play tennis, go to school and go to track right after and then play tennis at night. You could say I was very active. I was also a math and science kid, so landing in the music industry was far from my mind.

No sleep and constantly busy. You were groomed for the event world.
Hah! Right?!

Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil
Photo Cred: The Pheil Family Album

If your teammates were a little tipsy (which I am sure they nevvvver are), how would they describe you?
I bet they’d say that when I get frustrated, I will approach the team and say something assertive... and then follow it up with a "I'm sorry, but ..." We always do end of year of awards, so this past year I won the award: "Most Apologetically Sassy Teammate".

Well, every good team needs someone to tell it how it is. Sounds like you’re it.

Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil
Photo Cred: The Firefly Music Festival / Red Frog Events Team

If you were a headliner at Firefly, what would be on your rider?
Oh wow!

Really, really good cold brew coffee... I'd also probably say a nice bottle of champagne with some orange juice so there'd be Mimosas upon arrival. Yep... Mimosas and Coffee. I can't lie, I am not a morning person, so I need some help in that department.

What is one of the most unique items someone has asked for on their rider?
This is a funny question. We actually get bands that put stuff in the rider just to see if people even read it. But... Last year Steve Aoki had a cake rider that was about 10-pages long, solely dedicated to his cakes.

firefly-2015_Joe_Papeo_Steve_Aoki Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil

Photo Cred: Firefly Music Festival

We even built a pop-up bakery in our artist trailer, just for his cakes.

Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil

Just a few of Aoki's Cakes.

And if you weren't producing events, what do you think you'd be doing?
I think there are two things.

FIRST: I think part of me would be really interested in working in sports. I've learned to love the entertainment business so I think if it wasn't music, it'd be sports.

SECOND: I think I'd be working in music still but on the other end, so I think it'd be representing a band either working for a label as an A&R rep or working for a management company.

Not a professional Rugby player?
Hah! I wish. Although, I actually love the balance of a demanding career and a demanding sport. They complement each other well. I think if it was all work or all rugby, I think I would burn out. Having two passions helps to keep me engaged and energized day in and day out. 

What are the biggest lessons that crossover between playing rugby and producing events at such a high level?
I think a big thing that absolutely carries over in rugby and in the events world, is the ability to train yourself and be responsible for your own learning. To become a student of the game, or a student of the industry and move forward no matter what. I take a lot of pride and ownership over that.

So what would you say is your spirit animal?
I think a koala. I am like a huge, huge softy when it comes down to it.


Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil
There goes the koala. 

So what is that you and the Creative Team are responsible for?
Well, to put it quite literally, we determine and execute the experience of all of our events. If our operations team builds the infrastructure, we add the color. It's everything as small as furniture and artwork to our talent programming, stage design, art installations, signage, site lighting, the look and feel of the site, all of that. 

We also work on all of the Firefly social media initiatives, campaigns, contests and the tone of the brand, which then helps to guide a lot of the marketing decisions. We really focus on the global view of the brand direction, the goals, who our target audience is, and what initiatives we're doing year round. Working alongside the operations team to execute our concepts on site results in a cohesive year-round effort across departments. It's about making sure there's consistency from digital platforms to real-life experiences. It’s building up anticipation and then delivering beyond expectations.

What’s one of your favorite aspects of the event?
I love it when newer artists come to Firefly and they get out of their little 15-passenger van that they've been cramped in for eight hours, or God knows how long and they just look around... just taking it all in. They are just starting to hit their stride and starting to get all of the opportunities. They are not taking anything for granted. Everyday is better than the last day.

So it’s that time that I really appreciate.

I’m sure it’s a lot like stepping on the Rugby pitch during an international match.
Hah, exactly. Nothing like that feeling of your hard work paying off.

Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil
Mumford: Enjoying the moment. Photo Cred: Firefly Music Festival 

What were your two favorite experiences at Firefly this year?
My two favorites is pretty easy for me. Treehouse Sessions and the balloons in the pavilion.

The Treehouse Sessions date way back. I had just been hired on full time at Red Frog and I joined a talent team. Part of the job was being responsible for checking out smaller acts that were coming through Chicago. We had a treehouse in our office at the time, so I thought – hey, let’s invite these artists in the office and have them play in front of our treehouse – we can record two or three songs and put it on social media. It's a win-win, we’re introducing the fans to these new, up-and-coming bands and it'll help grow their show at the festival at the same time. We developed relationships with the bands, and it ended up being a really cool experience. We loved it so much that in 2015, we decided to build our own Treehouse Stage in The Woodlands.

Screenshot 2016-10-29 18.56.47.png

The second is “The Pavilion”.

It’s a huge, tented stage. It’s the one stage where we program electronic music all day, because it's such a high-production experience. One of my projects this year was to try to figure out how to add personality and character into this massive, white tent with practically zero rigging capabilities. We're talking about trying to figure out something that will add a lot of color and dimension to a tent, but something that has relatively no weight. There are very few things that fit the criteria. Balloons came to mind. We figured that it would be impactful to string a bunch of them together and hang them from the top. Then, hit them with lasers and boom – we’re in business. I’d say we feel pretty good about how it turned out.

Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil
Photo Cred: Firefly Music Festival

What are some of the things you focus on in post-production to help for next year?
Hours and hours of debriefs. We go through every little area of the festival. We all will sit in the room together, even if it's not our department, because you might have noticed something or have an idea. It’s a very collaborative process. We talk to vendors about their experience and conduct extensive surveys with people that attended. We'll criticize our experiential elements – from the least effective to the most effective ones. We’ll go from attraction to attraction and dictate what changes we want to make. We get into the nitty gritty.

What role do you think marketing and content has in the overall festival production?
I think marketing can be defined much more globally than a lot of people see it. Our experience team is essentially
a spin off of the marketing team. We work closely with them on everything. What art installations do we want to bring? What do we want the Beercade to look like? Or the main stage? That's all closely tied into our marketing initiatives. The decisions that marketing makes determine the direction we take our creative initiatives. The decisions that creative makes results in assets that marketing will utilize to grow the event in the future. There is a lot of crossover between the two.

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What is the strongest social channel for the festival right now?
Instagram is by far our strongest channel. For Instagram, the reason why I think it's so popular is first of all, the response that we get. We could post the same thing on all three channels and Instagram will be 10 times more successful as far as likes and comments. I think it's because our fans are very visual and that they are a little bit younger. Our core demo is early to mid-20s, and Facebook is a little bit older than that. To get the volume of impressions, Instagram is where we find the most success.

Snapchat is blowing up right now, but there is a challenge with Snapchat and live events. We have a live event for four days of the year, so it's a difficult channel for us to really pump out strong content year-round.  We are constantly thinking of ways to leverage new platforms.

Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil

Given the popularity of Firefly, what's more important from a marketing standpoint now: deeper engagement or more eyeballs?
I think it's a happy medium. Deeper engagement is really important because that's where you develop relationships with people.
Engagement plays a huge role in brand loyalty, and therefore, people returning to your event year after year. 

At the same time, at a 90,000-person festival, the people engaging are a very small percentage of
your overall audience. I think it's equally as important to have shareable content, because out of a group of 10 friends, maybe one of them is deeply engaged. That loyal fan is the one that will bring the other nine along. So you need a balance of content – half is to connect with that engaged fan, and the remainder is to help convince the friends that they can’t miss out.

Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil

Looking back over the last five years of Firefly, what do you think has been the biggest learning experience for you personally?
Biggest learning
experience for me has been to have a strong emphasis and dedication of time and energy to teaching and training my staff, and to make sure that I’m treating them well.

Empower your people to invest in the success of the event so that it makes them want to come back, and then, in turn, makes the entire process more successful. This year I had probably 80% of my staff that I had in 2013. I watched music this year. I walked the site. I actually saw what Firefly looks like. I've never done that. 

Which I imagine is critical in understanding what to innovate on and change in the future.

FireFly Music Festival Team.jpg
Christiane and her Artist Relations Team at Firefly. Photo Cred: Ross Harrison Hyatt

What's the best piece of career advice you've been given?
Embrace the opposing viewpoint and create an environment where you can challenge and be challenged.

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Parting Wisdom?
 Make your routine a lack of one. Creativity easily gets stunted when we're in a rut. Yes, of course it's important to have some habits and routines in life, but make sure to stretch yourself. Get out of your comfort zone. Meet new people. Work in strange settings. Inspiration is found where you least expect it.

SECOND: Build your super fan fanbase. They will be your best marketers and will push your brand forward with fresh perspective and pure passion.

THIRD: Give back. I believe that we all have a responsibility to leverage our influence for some type of good in this world. I am really proud of what we've done at Red Frog, with our decision to give 1% of our annual profits to support St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Red Frog Events Team
The Red Frog Events Team Announcing 1% of Profits going to St. Jude's Children's Hospital (Cool Press Release)

Oh and one more.

I’d say to bring in experts to help you execute at a high level. Early on when we were first doing events, we were pretty much a one-stop shop.
We would do all the graphic design, branding, logos, the website, the experience, the merchandise, all of it. While we still do most of that, we’ve work hard to expand our network and elevate our events by creating strong partnerships with key experts.
That was huge.

Red Frog Events and Fire Fly Music Festival Christiane Pheil with Vanilla Ice
Christian & her buddy Robert Mathew Van Winkle. Photo Cred: Vanilla Ice's Mom

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