A blue and white sign from Cheltenham Literature Festival that says Accessible Viewing Area

Cheltenham Festivals Andrew Lansley on the organisation’s accessibility improvements

Andrew Lansley, innovation manager at Cheltenham Festivals, talks to StandOut about some of the new measures that the events organiser has implemented to improve the event experience for customers with additional access needs. In this exclusive Q&A, Lansley talks good practice, access platforms, and adapted picnic benches…

What’s your role at Cheltenham Festivals and what does it entail?

My job is innovation manager and I work across the organisation with a focus on accessibility, sustainability, community, and tech. It’s wonderfully varied and differs from one hour to the next. One of my favourite parts is that the role involves identifying and progressing areas of practice that benefit our staff, volunteers, and audiences – but also hopefully creates examples of good practice for the live events sector more widely, just as we learn from partners and friends nationwide. Working at Cheltenham Festivals gives me an opportunity to really help create change and use that change to help others.

This year, you took responsibility for Cheltenham Festival’s accessibility plans. Was there anything, in particular, you were looking to build upon or provide?

One of the most impressive things about coming into the organisation was just how well Cheltenham Festivals was doing already. That’s not just about ops/production processes, either – the programming teams get really involved and some of the events like the Relaxed Concerts for Schools are so impactful and inspirational it really motivates you to push even harder for change.

My initial priorities were to share all that existing best practice consistently across the staff and volunteer teams, prioritise areas for development and get us to start shouting about what we were doing. It’s easy for an organisation to feel nervous about presenting accessibility credentials, but I’ve found it’s more important to connect with a community and take meaningful steps to address challenges – and Cheltenham Festivals didn’t take any convincing that this was a good thing.

For me, improving accessibility is a journey. I’m very lucky to work with so many colleagues who care deeply about this process, too – we’re still building, and I don’t think that process will ever stop.

An image of the entrance to Cheltenham Jazz Festival organised by Cheltenham Festivals

How did this year’s accessibility plans differ from those of 2022?

The biggest difference this year is working in partnership with the local accessibility community, which has been brilliant for us to really drill down into the specifics that make a difference, as well as being able to share back our adjustments and amendments with the community as we grow.

This started last year when we changed procurement specifics. This began the process that would ensure standards were in place for our disabled audience members right from our supply chain forwards. To achieve this, we worked with the wonderful Attitude Is Everything, as well as many local disability groups and networks that we meet and consult with regularly. This allowed us to take a dual focus of applying a national framework while being driven by community standards that could be adapted for both our audiences and site profiles.

Could you please explain to me the different access requirements that you implement and how they may differ at each festival?

The full response to this would be an entire interview in itself! As I say, we look to draw our strategy from two sources: national frameworks and standards (such as the Attitude is Everything Charter Scheme) and the work we do with local stakeholders like the Barnwood Trust. This gives us the benefit of multiple perspectives and profiles for each of our festivals and the way in which we prepare for them.

This work goes across everything you might think of when running a festival: staffing, volunteering, programming, operations, production, marketing, procurement, artists/speakers, back-of-house process, leadership, governance, pre-ops, box office, hybrid events, picnic benches, and much more. We are also involved in a number of research programmes in events accessibility, so have been trialling a load of exciting new technologies that we’re not quite ready to announce yet.

The picture shows a member of the audience that uses a wheelchair enjoying Cheltenham Literature Festival

Are the new measures and improvements you implemented at Cheltenham Literature Festival going to be rolled out at other Cheltenham Festivals?

The beauty of working for Cheltenham Festivals is we have four festivals per year, meaning that we don’t need to wait a year to make the next one better! For example, last year we introduced our new family/relaxed event format at the Literature Festival, and this was tweaked for the Science Festival 2023, and we will look to revise it again ahead of Lit Fest 2023. We are lucky in that our event schedule allows us to refine various processes and test them in new contexts throughout the year, so we’re always looking to where we can share practice between festivals and expand and improve provisions. This year it has been very exciting to consult regularly with a number of organisations (the ADCI – Authors with Disability and Chronic Illness, Criptic Arts, #KeepFestivalsHybrid amongst others) to progress our plans for 2023.

Why did you make the changes? Was it something that has been on the agenda for a while or is it in response to audience requests/demands?

When I arrived it was very much a critical part of the charity’s three-year strategy, and from my perspective, the agenda was driven internally. The organisation was already aware of my research profile in this area, so I think we were all on the same page from day one. With respect to responding to our audience’s needs, I genuinely believe we treat this as a “forever process” at Cheltenham Festivals, and the questions we tend to ask ourselves are less around “Are we doing enough?” and more about “How much more can we do?”. Being proactive, finding the snags, inviting critique, and promoting transparency is key to this strategy – the sooner we can identify a problem the quicker we can start looking for a solution.

An image of two people walking through the crowd at Cheltenham Jazz Festival

As a topic, DEI is huge. Organisers are increasingly looking at their DEI policies. Is this something that Cheltenham Festivals has analysed more closely too, or has it always been entrenched within operations?

It is huge and like most organisations is something we’re always looking at refining and improving as we learn. In Autumn 2020, we embarked on a multi-year, three-stage project to refocus our Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) approach across the organisation. Prompted by the racial justice uprisings of 2020, widening inequality across the UK, and a recognition that as a charitable organisation we have a responsibility to ensure culture can be enjoyed by all, the project set out to revitalise the organisation’s work from root to branch. The resulting report led to a three-year cross-festival EDI plan with clear objectives: to create an inclusive culture where everyone feels respected, listened to and in which they can be their true selves at work; to increase the knowledge and awareness of our people to ensure that EDI is culturally part of everything we do; to ensure that the people accessing our physical sites do so without fear of discrimination, oppression or power imbalances; to identify and address barriers to recruitment and progression, and take positive action to ensure we are representative of our diverse communities; and attract, retain, develop and support an excellent diverse staff.

Critically, and just as with our accessibility work, this is always a work-in-progress: there is always more to do, and we are always asking what that is and how we can achieve it. We assess how we do at every festival and apply learnings to the next; we listen to feedback, and we adapt according to what communities tell us. EDI – as with so much of our other work – is achieved in dialogue and co-operation and is further enhanced over time and with effort and commitment. We take all this very seriously, and thread EDI through our work in the same comprehensive way we have accessibility.

A blue and white sign from Cheltenham Literature Festival that says Accessible Viewing Area

What stands out about your job?

People often talk about their job being different from day to day, but the Innovation role feels like a hyper version of that. I feel lucky to work around the organisation with my awesome colleagues as well as with so many amazing groups and charities both locally and nationally – the community itself is a real stand out for me, in all honesty.

There are personal moments, too, and those can be really special. We removed a lot of our AAA seating at Cheltenham Jazz Festival for 2023 and put our viewing platforms there instead. When I went for my first site visit, I walked up the access ramp to the platform and just stood there and burst into tears. It was almost like being onstage, and the view was arguably the best in the venue. I had seen it a hundred times on the CAD plans and been in dozens of meetings scoping out placement, but nothing prepared me for the experience of being on the platform and realising what a difference it was going to make to our audience.

What’s next? What did you learn from the new measures you implemented at Cheltenham Literature Festival and Science Festival and how do you plan to improve access facilities for 2024?

We’ve had two whole festivals since 2022’s Literature Festival, and that has given us plenty of opportunity to refine new measures to bring forward this year. One that I’m quite excited about is our accessible provision for writers and speakers – at Cheltenham Science Festival this year we moved to a proactive disclosure system that triggered a process to create individually tailored access plans and adjustments for each of our speakers and this worked really well. We’re also digging into the roles of our disabled volunteers and working with them to develop processes based on their experiences over the past year.

One improvement that I’m hoping will make a real difference is the expanded use of our new picnic benches. Our amazing production manager managed to source some brilliant made-to-order adapted picnic tables that accommodate wheelchair users, and we introduced these at the Jazz Festival this year. The adapted tables mean wheelchair users can sit at the table amongst their friends or family, rather than being relegated to sitting at either end. We have a lot of school groups in with our learning and participation programmes, and an adapted picnic table might not seem like a headline access adjustment for some, but I am hoping it will make a world of difference to a child in a wheelchair who will be able to sit amongst their friends at a festival for the first time.

Images: Still Moving Media