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Summer Festivals and Risk Management

A crowd is gathered and sitting on the grass while a band plays in a covered area at the Seattle Center

“April showers bring May flowers” — and then summer will be right around the corner! Summer festivals are a great way for local governments to bring people together and celebrate their communities.

Our state is home to a variety of summer festivals, each with its own unique charm. From music festivals to food festivals to arts and crafts festivals, there’s something for everyone. This year especially we expect to see many in-person festivals return. However, these events can also be a source of potential liability.

In this blog we discuss some risk management tips to protect and improve our summer festivals. In addition, an agency planning to host an event should consult with its risk management representatives and legal counsel for their guidance and recommendations.

Plan Ahead

Ben Franklin said, “By failing to plan, you are preparing to fail.” The most successful summer festivals have well-developed plans that are shared in advance. Some plans are even made and updated years in advance.

Summer festival plans should touch on leadership structure, marketing, budgeting, staff training, vendor policies, festival security, and insurance needs. These plans should also address how to handle emergencies, including medical incidents, circumstances under which to evacuate the festival grounds, and how to contact the appropriate authorities. Don’t skip careful planning and collaboration.

Train Staff

All staff working at a festival should be trained to understand their duties and responsibilities before, during, and after the event. This can be accompanied by written policies and procedures, which will be useful in structuring future events. Daily staff meetings before festival doors or gates open also provide useful opportunities for last-minute tips and training to make sure everyone is ready for a successful event.

Agencies sponsoring events or festivals should partner with law enforcement as needed for security and safety, and ensure that event staff are trained to know how and under what circumstances to contact event security.

Site Inspections and Incident Reporting

Both before and during a festival, inspect the festival site, including all areas open to the public and those spaces reserved for staff and vendors. Review sidewalks, stairways, pathways, seating, grandstands, and parking. Consider ADA accessibility and look for general safety concerns, such as potential risks of tripping, electrical issues, or fire hazards. Such inspections may also include ongoing safety checks, especially on public property such as parks, public squares, and fairgrounds.

Try to document and remedy potential hazards that are found. Consider posting warning signs and/or cordoning off those issues that cannot readily be repaired or otherwise taken care of during safety checks.

If there are any incidents or accidents during the event, make sure appropriate measures are taken to assist impacted staff or attendees. Complete reports and take photographs, as needed, to document what happened and to whom.

Review Insurance Coverage

One way for public agencies to protect themselves from summer festival liability is to have sufficient insurance and/or self-insurance coverage. Check in with your risk insurance pool representatives about the types of coverage available, including general liability insurance and property insurance. Check on coverage limits and whether additional reinsurance or excess coverage might be available and appropriate for your event.

Another protection is to have both the festival and any sponsoring public agencies included as additional insureds on policies required of festival vendors and other participants.

Monitor the Crowd

Crowd management is important, especially for festivals with capacity limits and large public gatherings for live events (music, sports, rodeo, parades, etc.). Crowd-related risk management includes sharing and posting rules that are easy for members of the public to access and understand.

Staff should cooperate with local law enforcement to monitor crowds and intervene as needed if crowds start to get too large or too rowdy. Having a plan in place with steps to take to deescalate or disperse an unruly crowd will help prepare staff for such an occurrence.

Smaller incidents, such as an altercation between individuals, may often be handled by event security or police with little or no disruption to others.

Be Prepared for an Emergency Shut Down

Have a plan in place for the unlikely event that a festival needs to be shut down quickly for safety or security reasons. Be prepared in advance for possible emergencies that may require an orderly evacuation and festival closure, such as severe weather or a security matter. Review your agency’s emergency disaster planning process in advance of the festival and be sure all event staff know who to contact should an emergency arise.

Lessons Learned

This final tip is not limited to risk management but certainly could help. Make sure festival leadership, staff, vendors, and members of the public (attendees and neighbors) have been given easy ways to provide feedback and suggestions. Surveys and other outreach, both in person and digitally (e.g., on social media) will give your agency valuable information to use in making future festivals even more enjoyable.

Your agency should plan to hold an all-staff meeting not long after the festival closes while the event is fresh in everyone’s mind. Review feedback and available documentation as you share what went well and what could have gone better. These lessons learned are likely to serve the community well as planning continues for the next year’s event.

By including steps like these in summer festivals, most potential risks can be identified and prevented —or at least mitigated. However, it is important to note that all activities have some possible risk and there might still be an injury or property damage that needs to be addressed and handled through your risk management program.

Here are additional resources from MRSC:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Linda Gallagher

About Linda Gallagher

Linda Gallagher joined MRSC in 2017. She previously served as a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County and as an Assistant Attorney General.

Linda’s municipal law experience includes risk management, torts, civil rights, transit, employment, workers compensation, eminent domain, vehicle licensing, law enforcement, corrections, and public health.

She graduated from the University of Washington School of Law.