Director of International Development, University Lecturer and entrepreneur
Bestival, Camp Bestival, Common People, Blissfields – Matt Sanger has worked for some of the world’s most successful events and music festivals. A gathering of expertise in enhancing event experiences, and a subject for which he now lectures at Southampton Solent University.
With a Californian can-do spirit resonating from his time at the University of San Francisco, Matt is passionate about creating inspiring experiences and environments where people can thrive.
Introducing College Street Yard, the eventreprenuer is creating a new ecosystem for events, music and creative industries in a container village aligned with Southampton’s merchant heritage.Connect on LinkedIn
Can you tell us about the genesis of College Street Yard?
Festivals are brilliant places for people to have fun, but they’re also places for people to be introduced to different concepts. There's an ecosystem that exists around festivals, they add colour to society and provide a good platform particularly for non-mainstream businesses. I wanted to create a festival type space in Southampton that was year-round.
I worked on the London Electronic Arts Festival; we had a DJ play a gig in BOXPARK in Shoreditch. It allowed quick turnaround, it was flexible, not too expensive, and it was a place where people could try new things without having the lease of a massive building. It’s about providing space for start-up entrepreneurs, driving new creative ideas, and providing a place for people to do their best work.
How is reinventing areas of the city through concepts like College Street Yard changing the dynamics of Southampton’s city centre?
Increasingly consumers want experiences. We’re creating somewhere people can experience different brands in an interactive way and have collaborative conversations.
I think city centres are going to become more about creating experiences around human need. People will always want to come together and have those moments of celebration or collaboration.
College Street Yard is about creating that space where people feel together, have an amazing experience, get to try new things, and help change the city.
Does your experience and time studying in California influence your work today?
In San Francisco, you see all these amazing things going on; there’s a can-do attitude. Living there was a life-changing experience for me; I found it so eye-opening. People here often focus on failures, but actually, you learn more about yourself and your potential from your failures.
Americans are also much more open to people from different backgrounds doing well, no one's written off because of where they've come from. That is a real driver for me - how can I create situations where people can succeed, because ultimately, it's all about good ideas, it doesn't matter where they come from.
How can events strategically position cities for growth?
Cities have almost got to brand themselves as attractions, and events are an ideal tool for this. Events can transform things very quickly, they can be up and running quickly, they can showcase what a city is capable of, not only to the world, but also to itself. I think that confidence we have as a city is important, certainly for Southampton. Events can give people something to be proud of as well as something that is attractive to visitors.
You can see the transformation that Brighton has had through events. It’s really reinvented itself, in a lot of ways through events like Brighton Fringe, Brighton Festival and Brighton Pride. They give a sense of the community coming together and doing something amazing. Then new businesses start up, adding colour and texture to the city and helping transform it.
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What makes a great event experience?
You want to entertain people but you also want to educate and elevate people. Events can expand the mind, inspire people and enable them to see the world a little bit differently.
There’s a term called collective effervescence. Every event I put on, I want that feeling that people are together, they are celebrating, and it is a positive experience. That can take multiple forms, but that sense of belonging and community is something that events really can achieve.
As we see the gradual return of large gatherings, how will they differ from in the pre-COVID world?
I went to Camp Bestival earlier in the summer; it felt like that human need to be together is going to override people’s fear. Of course, there are going to be people who are still fearful, and you have to manage that as event organisers and make sure that people understand and respect those that aren’t as comfortable.
We will have to put more measures in place as organisers, putting in plans a lot earlier and they will have to be more stringent. It’s the smaller community events that are going to struggle. Not just COVID, but also increased litigation over the years, has possibly dampened that spirit of running small events. I’m always happy to talk to people organising community events and make it less daunting because they’re so important.
"There's an ecosystem that exists around festivals, they add colour to society and provide a good platform. I wanted to create a festival type space in Southampton that was year-round."
If you could invite anyone to headline an event, who would they be?
That’s a hard question to ask someone who likes music because I like loads of different genres. Prince would be up there – I’ve seen him live and he’s absolutely amazing. But also, Stevie Wonder or Frankie Knuckles.
If you could re-visit any event, which one would it be?
Probably Burning Man 2004 before it became Instagrammable. I loved pre-smartphone events where everybody was living in the moment and just enjoying themselves, not thinking about how good they look, or if they’re at the VIP bar.
"Cities have almost got to brand themselves as attractions, and events are an ideal tool for this. Events can really showcase what a city is capable of, not only to the world but also to itself."
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