de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). Story-Worthy Passion. LMD. July 2008. Page145. Volume 14, Issue 12. ISSN 1391-135X.
Gehan reviews the factors that made the Galle Literary Festival a resounding global success.
During its second year the Galle Literary Festival got better. Not a small feat for an event which in its very first year earned the accolade from Harper’s magazine of being the best literary festival in the world. The significance of this event was not in the number of people it drew to the maritime city of Galle. It certainly did this to the point that almost all of the hotels, villas and guest houses were fully booked. But its impact for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan tourism goes beyond mere statistics on attendance. The event earns the country column inches in the overseas press which it would not earn otherwise. In fact, perverse as it may seem, it may even earn more international press coverage than the better known and larger scale ‘Kandy Perahera’. This is not a measure of which event is worth more or is bigger or is culturally more significant. It’s simply a case of ‘story worthiness’. This intangible quality is often hard for people not familiar with the media to understand. It can be particularly frustrating when dealing with the western press as ‘story worthiness’ to them is in relation to their values and lifestyle choices, not ours.
It would be difficult to have a writer running a piece of the intricacies of medieval Kandyan art in one of the British national newspapers for example. But an interview with Vikram Seth or Gore Vidal conducted next to the Indian Ocean in the southern riviera of Sri Lanka, will engage the British reader.
Story worthiness is an important by product of the Galle Literary Festival. Another important consequence of it is that it facilitates a meeting of literary minds. It presents an awesome opportunity for Sri Lankans, especially those with a literary bent to meet some of the greatest literary personalities in the planet. All this thanks to a business initiative by one of Sri Lankan Tourism’s greatest ideas people, Geoffrey Dobbs.
I was there during all four days of the Literary Festival. Sadly, I must confess that I was not there to be intoxicated by the literary fervor or the razzmatazz and the rubbing of shoulders with the literati and glitterati. I was there to do what I should be doing best, networking, making connections, which help grow a business. I cannot think of another event in Sri Lanka which offers such an interesting opportunity to network and especially to make connections with local and overseas press. An opportunity overlooked by many whose job it is to sell Sri Lanka. But not me. I even used the connections I made at the Galle Literary Festival to invite more press for a press relations event I had set up in Paris and London with a colleague.
Given my un-ashamed business remit of attending the Galle Literary Festival I could not help but be struck by how such a small team of dedicated and passionate individuals set up such a wonderful event. It was a role model of business leadership. A commando style operation which used a small but highly effective team to make great strides. Although there was a huge team of volunteers and sponsors, the key drivers were a very small team. Libby Southwell the Festival Director, Sitha Chinnappa-Sarwal the Festival Manager who oversaw most of the logistics, Juliet Coombe handling arrangements in Galle and committee members including Nasreen Sansoni, Ashok Ferry, etc. Less than half a dozen key people drove an event which brought an exciting literary festival to a few thousand people and brought Sri Lanka international, positive exposure.
This is a business model which is successfully used by technology companies which use product teams and product champions to make break-throughs. It works for some companies and not for others. The Galle Literary Festival will remain successful as long as control and direction remains in the hands of a few hand picked people by Geoffrey. If the big boys and the state actors enter the arena, it will probably sink into a morass of who should be on the committee. The big boys have an important role to play as the sponsors. But they should take care to remain cheering in the side lines. The business of staging one of Sri Lankan Tourism’s best events should be left in the hands of those who are driven by passion.
Another business lesson to be learnt is the investment in research and development. Time and money had been invested by Libby and Geoffrey to attend some of the other literary festivals and observe them. Useful contacts were made. Experienced hands on other literary circuits, people such as Nury Vittachchi and Deepika Shetty as a result of the networking assisted in Galle. Not many Sri Lankan Tourism companies would have the patience or the strategic mind set to allocate scarce money to invest in such a project.
I can think of another great tourism event, albeit an eco-tourism event which began with a handful of enthusiasts. The British Birdwatching Fair, the largest ecotourism fair in the world began when Martin Davies and Tim Appleton sat for a beer in a pub and thought of having a small bird fair. It is now a huge event and still holds the original magic because Martin and Tim are still to be found walking around and making sure everything is going well. The Galle Literary Festival will continue to grow as long as people like Geoffrey is also walking around and tasting the hoppers to be served at the food court.