Innibos is an Afrikaans arts festival that has been held annually in Mbombela (Nelspruit) in Mpumalanga since 2004. A range of musical events lie at the heart of the festival with performances from many of South Africa’s top artists. Pre COVID-19, the festival experienced significant growth to become one of South Africa’s largest arts festivals with the main stage attracting crowds of 20 000 - 35 000 people per night. The festival attempted to harness this popularity and audience loyalty in their adaptation to COVID-19 by taking their audience with them on a journey of evolving festival events and formats.
Innibos has evolved their festival response to account for the changing COVID-19 pandemic and what they have found works well for their audiences. Usually held in June/July, Innibos was one of the first South African arts festivals to offer a comprehensive online festival programme in response to COVID-19 with Innibos Digitaal (Digital) in 2020. Their main motivation was to provide income to performing and visual artists as well as technical crews. Patrons could purchase tickets to gain online access to arts exhibitions, music concerts, literary readings and theatre productions. The online programme included popular productions filmed during the 2019 festival and several new productions recorded specially for Innibos Digitaal 2020.
One of the benefits of an online event is that it is not geographically bounded. Like several other festivals participating in this research, Innibos extended their audience beyond South Africa’s borders to attract international audiences from Australia, Bahrain, Germany, Namibia, Nigeria, Taiwan, UAE and USA. Some of these countries have significant South African expatriate communities who are likely to be amongst the audiences who logged on to enjoy productions in Afrikaans. Encouraged by this support, the Innibos management team have identified Australia and the USA as potential growth areas for the festival in the future as they could tap into these communities to offer hybrid festival events.
However, ticket sales for the various online productions were not as high as had been hoped and cannot match revenue generated from previous festivals. Compared to the usual live festival which attracts approximately 100 000 people, the virtual festival was streamed by around 8 700 people. Like other South African festivals who adapted to a virtual festival in response to the pandemic, Innibos struggled to attract their audiences to the virtual format and to monetize festival programming.
Though Innibos’s audience are loyal, this did not translate into much support for the virtual festival and Innibos’s social media was full of comments asking about when the live festival would be back as it was being sorely missed. Innibos’s audiences seem to have an especially marked preference for the live festival which is probably based on the festival’s history and content as the “heartbeat” of the festival lies at the main festival grounds where large scale music events are staged and for which the festival has become renowned as people come for the ‘Innibos experience’. Having recognised that the virtual festival format was not working well for them, the Innibos management team switched tactics and undertook a project-based approach with small COVID-compliant live events for 2021.
The Innibos festival was extended throughout the year with new projects being introduced as the COVID situation in South Africa continued to change so that new events became possible. A full programme of music, theatre, literary, craft, cultural and heritage projects were offered in 2021. These projects sought to “bring the arts to the marketplace” or to the people of Mbombela and so flipped the Innibos festival model on its head as people usually come to the main festival grounds. Geographically, Innibos is usually quite centralised with relatively few venues in the town, but in 2021 the majority of venues were local businesses and homes. In December, the final event of the year included a mini-festival, Bietjie-Bietjie Bos which was reminiscent of the pre-COVID large scale event.
Six In Jou Huis (in your house) concerts were held in the homes of local residents for small live audiences adhering to COVID-safety protocols and broadcast on the radio to reach a wider audience of 32 000 potential listers. These concerts were very well received by audiences as they were more intimate and offered a different experience from the usual live festival where there are large crowds. In this case, festival organisers took advantage of the COVID-safety regulations to develop something new which links to creative tourism and the experience economy. The feedback for the In Jou Huis concerts has been so positive that this adaptation will likely become a staple of Innibos in the future
One of Innibos’s largest and most successful events of the year was Gaan Bos Innimall (Go to Innibos in the mall), which was a close collaboration with the private sector. A fully fledged pop-up festival was hosted in a local shopping mall with live music in restaurants, a film festival and one-man theatre shows in the cinema, and a craft market and exhibition space. Through this initiative, Innibos was able to deliver on a number of their objectives as they were able to provide a platform for artists and, since the venue allowed them to bring art to the people, exposed new audiences to Innibos and promoted social cohesion as audiences and artists were more diverse. The economic return was also significant as I’langa Mall recorded their highest turnover ever. Based on the success of this event, a good working relationship has been established between Innibos and I’langa Mall that is likely to continue in the future, possibly with smaller scale events being held on a more frequent basis.
In an attempt to recapture the experience and vibe of the pre-COVID Innibos festival music programme, a smaller version of the usual large-scale event, Bietjie- Bietjie Bos (a little bit of Innibos), was held in December 2021 for 2 000 people. Unfortunately, the mini Innibos festival was not as successful as had been hoped. Just four days before the opening of the festival, the Omicron variant was detected in South Africa. Fears over the new variant meant that people did not feel confident attending live events and so ticket sales and attendance was disappointing. However, those who did attend enjoyed the return of the pre-COVID Innibos festival format and there was also some new audience development.
As part of the Future Festivals South Africa project, a song writing competition was held by Innibos. Jaco Smit won the competition with his song As dit Reën (If it Rains). The song was recorded by Karlien van Jaarsveld and Dewald Wasserfal, two popular Afrikaans singers. At the time of writing in August 2022, the song has over 31 000 views on YouTube and charted at number 36 in South Africa. The focus on ‘hope’ is a striking feature of this winning song. Hope was also a prominent theme in the Innibos Letters from the Future project with a number of artists suggesting that COVID-19 was also an opportunity to grow and branch out into new artistic ventures.
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