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the 24th FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival

Update on postponment of Oxford Literary Festival

Dear friend

Thank you for your understanding, patience and support as we adapt to the impact of coronavirus and the postponement of our March and April events.
I have seen all your messages since I made my statement on postponement last week. I would like to set out very openly the difficult financial context in which we are now operating. With your kind support, we can survive and bring you a programme later this year or next year.
Most festival costs are incurred in the year running up to the festival. In common with many small arts and culture organisations we have never been able to afford cancellation insurance. Pandemic cover was hardly available.
The festival has sometimes made a surplus, but this has been offset by many years when we just broke even or made a loss.
We have been sustained by a small number of generous supporters, who have made long-term interest-free loans. We have no endowment and we are the only one of the big four UK literary festivals (the others are Hay, Edinburgh and Cheltenham) to receive no public funding.
Until early last week, only seven events had been cancelled and all ticket buyers affected had been reimbursed. Reimbursement continued until Friday 13 March.
Official advice was to proceed as normal. Speakers had re-confirmed their intention of coming, and it looked as though the festival just might be able to take place.
However, as the week progressed, it became clear that festival venues were likely to be closed to public events, speakers from overseas and many from the UK would not be able to travel, and the government was likely to ban large-scale public events.
In common with many arts and commercial organisations in the UK, the festival was caught in a perfect financial storm.
We had sold tickets worth £170,000 and were expecting to see a further £100,000 in sales between mid-March and the end of the festival.
We are now faced with a debt to ticket holders of £170,000 and no prospect of being able to refund it.
The stark alternatives are to:

  • go into immediate liquidation and no-one will receive any refunds
  • try to keep the festival going, recognising that we are in no position to offer refunds

We are determined to make every effort over the coming months to stage a series of events in late 2020 and early 2021 if the public health and financial circumstances allow it. A 2021 festival could be held in early autumn of next year. We hope to soon have news of a new date in the autumn for one of this year’s big Sheldonian events.
We would be grateful for any festival-goers who felt able to consider their tickets as a donation to the future of the festival. We are extremely grateful to those of you who have already confirmed gifts. We are also looking at how we might credit ticketholders for future events.
It will take us time to work through all the options, which could include launching a fundraising appeal. Please appreciate that we cannot give any further assurances for now. I believe we can mount a full programme in future with your support, patience and understanding.
We have been extremely moved by the extraordinary number of proposed and former writers and speakers who have already pledged their support for the festival.
In the coming weeks, we will be talking to our long-standing sponsors, donors and partners about the situation. I will report back to you at regular intervals.
Best wishes          Sally          Sally Dunsmore         Festival director

Email received Monday 16/03/2020 12:59.

Dear Friend
It is with a heavy heart that we have taken the decision to postpone this year’s 2020 festival.  It is the only and right thing to do in the light of continued concern and uncertainty about the spread of the coronavirus.
Our foremost concern is that the festival does not put at risk the health of yourselves – our visitors – our authors, sponsor partners, festival staff and volunteers, and university and college personnel hosting our events in their venues.
The Oxford Literary Festival is one of the world’s most prestigious, with 28,000 ticket holders attending and 450 writers speaking over nine days.  For many of you who have been so generous to support our festival over a number of years (this year was to showcase our 24th festival) you’ll be familiar with its style and content. Featuring discussion and talk of literary subjects and the concerns of our time by some of the greatest writers and influential thinkers of our age, the festival has been a platform for education, debate of ideas and free speech.  No doubt an analysis of our current circumstances will form part of future festivals.
I know this postponement of our events will not come as a complete surprise, and I am sorry for any disappointment or change of plans this will cause. We are deeply committed to the future success of the festival, and a good part of what we had scheduled we plan to carry over until later this year or next year. I hope that you will appreciate that we will need to assess options when we are in a better position to do so.
We very much appreciate all the tremendous encouragement that you have given, and hope we can continue to rely on it.
Because we could not be covered by insurance for this kind of eventuality and because we are a self-funding charity not making a profit, we would like if at all possible to treat any ticket sales as a donation.
However, we will treat ticket sales as a credit for future festival events if requested. Unfortunately, we are unable to refund at this stage. We will be back in touch by the end of May to explain how you can make your donation of your ticket or claim your credit.
Next year will mark our 25th anniversary, and I very much hope that by then we will lay on a wonderful programme of events we all can enjoy and be proud of.
Our website will be updated to carry more questions and answers as we receive further information.
We send our warm wishes to you all for your good health and that of your families.
best wishes            Sally                     Sally Dunsmore         Festival director