Watch It Burn: Part I - Lessons Learned from the Fyre Festival

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

It was going to be epic. A music festival on a remote island in the Bahamas, hosted by an impressive line-up of performances and appearances by A-list stars, the Fyre festival was expected to be an unparalleled musical experience (Olhleiser, 2017). Instead, when party-goers began arriving on the tropical island on Thursday April 27, 2017, they found scenes of chaos and disorder, nothing like what they had been promised in the months leading up to the event and certainly nothing like what they thought their tickets, ranging in price between $400 and $250,000, had paid for (Olhleiser, 2017). This unmitigated disaster was recently described in two separate documentaries on Netflix and Hulu. Between these two documentaries and the large number of articles written about the subject, there has not been such a thoroughly analyzed failure of logistics in the last 15 years. Thankfully though, no one was seriously hurt and we are left with an impressive array of lessons learned that are surprisingly applicable to military logisticians.


Disclaimer

It is important to clarify that this analysis of the logistics failures at the Fyre festival in no way implies that all military operations go flawlessly and that one needs to look to civilian events to learn from failure. Every plan has changes and military plans have been plagued by problems with logistics support since the days of Alexander the Great (Arrian, 2019). Even today there are concerted efforts to capture lessons learned from logistics issues during military operations (Solis, 2003). In fact, readers who are interested in learning from outstanding examples of civilian expeditionary logistics operations are invited to stay tuned for the next two installments of this series.


Operations/Logistics Synchronization

From the start of the Netflix documentary, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, it is clear that there was a complete disconnect between those responsible for designing the festival (similar to military operations planners) and those responsible for making it happen (similar to military logisticians). This disconnect most clearly manifests itself in the lack of timelines for required milestones and a lack of follow-through to establish essential basic life support contracts to support as many as 5,000 festival attendees (Smith, 2019). Repeated efforts were made by the civilian logistics organizers to clarify the requirements with the planners and to source solutions prior to the start of the event. However, the time afforded did not allow proper coordination or execution of these contracts. Specifically, the festival planners did not begin looking for a company to assist with the festival management or to provide services until approximately four months before the event was to start and when the estimated costs exceeded their expectations by several orders of magnitude, they simply did not select one (Burrough, 2017).


Any logistician who has been involved in the planning for a military exercise or multi-day operation recognizes the inherent issue with this lack of clear communication between planners and logisticians. Logistics planners must be involved in the planning process from the start. This ensures that very clear milestones are established throughout discussions with the operational planners, which enables logisticians to meet strict contracting timelines. Also, the two entities are able to coordinate the multitude of requirements to support the operational plans. Additionally, when it appears that the estimated cost of a military exercise will exceed its planned budget, operations planners must be involved and briefed so they can make decisions about the appropriate reductions. These are basic fundamentals of any military planning, but they were ignored during the Fyre festival, dooming it to failure from the start.


Expectation Management

Fyre festival attendees were sold tickets based on their desired accommodations ranging from small rooms to multi-bed villas. These accommodations were advertised to be plush and comfortable, and likely would have been if any of them actually existed, but they did not (Burrough, 2017). The month prior to the festival, an event producer named Yaron Levi was hired and immediately recognized what was being advertised was not possible, instead advocating for a delay in the festival from April to November which would have enabled his team to plan and coordinate appropriate contracts (Burrough, 2017). Other life support services such as food catering and medical support were contracted last minute, but continued to have issues such as the caterer withdrawing from the contract in early April, just weeks before the festival (Burrough, 2017). At no point was any effort made to explain to these changes to ticket holders (Burrough, 2017).

Billeting provided during the Fyre festival. Photo by Olivia Bannock, Twitter.

Expectation management is equally important in the private and military sectors. While military personnel have generally lower expectations than that of a concert attendee who paid $45,000 for a ticket, both benefit greatly when they know what to expect in their billeting, food service, and other life support services. This knowledge enables them to adjust their mindset and prepare themselves for what is ahead. Any exercise planner who has neglected to brief that personnel will not be staying in hotels, but instead will be in tents in an effort to reduce costs has committed the same egregious error as the Fyre festival planners. The most commonly incorrect expectations that the author personally observed during multiple month-long exercises dealt with billeting allocations, shower and laundry schedules, the availability of midnight rations (mid-rats) or Post-Exchange services, and the availability of internet access. In most cases, the misunderstanding resulted in a minor inconvenience. In others, such as when the night crew’s unplanned, but expected mid-rats suddenly became a command priority and the feed plan had to be re-worked in stride, it could have been much worse.

Billeting provided during Mountain Exercise 2-18 at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. Photo by Mark Wlaschin.

By simply communicating the approved final plan to everyone from the lowest private to the highest ranking officer, all participants will understand what their billeting will be, when meal, laundry, and shower hours are, and what items they will need to bring in order to sustain themselves in order to accomplish their mission. Too often these details are left out of confirmation briefs or not communicated to junior personnel needlessly which leaves them in the dark and reduces morale and operational effectiveness.


Requirement for Creativity

The challenge of supporting the Fyre festival would have been familiar to many military planners, but that would not have made it any less difficult. The requirement could have been re-framed as the following: Provide logistics support for approximately 5,000 people over two 3-day periods on a remote island in order to facilitate a music event. That overall support requirement is no different than what is needed multiple times across the Pacific each year as Indo-Pacific Command conducts bilateral exercises ranging from a few days to a few weeks at a time (US Indo-Pacific Command, 2019). Many of these exercises are conducted at locations very similar in nature to the location chosen by the Fyre festival. Had logistics planners been given an appropriate amount of time to plan and coordinate, the event would have likely unfolded in a very different manner. In fact, many of the creative solutions proposed in Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, would have likely worked. One such proposal was to contract a cruise ship and then billet all the attendees there in order to eliminate other separate contracts (Smith, 2019). Similar creative solutions have been used by military planners to support humanitarian assistance / disaster relief operations in the past, where amphibious ships have deployed in support of forces ashore. Following the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, US Navy ships were sent to the Philippines in order to provide assault support and to act as a platform from which to launch humanitarian support (Rowland, 2013). Additional ships, including an entire class of Expeditionary Fast Transports (EFT), have been and will continue to be used to fill this critical support role (US Navy, 2017).


Creative solutions are also frequently required to support military operations. While the conventional use of organic logistics capabilities augmented by contracted support is typically preferred, there will be times when alternative solutions are needed. This includes a large number of “outside the box” methods to facilitate and support military operations that frequently are only learned through a critical examination of previous military operations. In the same sense that the Fyre festival operational planners could have looked to other successful festivals in order to identify friction points and gain lessons learned, military planners must do the same so they can build upon the hard learned experiences of previous logisticians. Too many people are unaware that military lessons learned are collected and compiled online at sites such as the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL) and the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL). These online repositories are a tremendous resource for curious logisticians who are interested in not repeating the mistakes of the past.


Military planners should not limit themselves to the study of only military operations. While military logisticians can learn from the Fyre festival, they can also learn from a number of other events. Tasking a junior officer or staff non-commissioned officer to develop a case study on logistics lessons learned from another event like Woodstock 1994, could provide an alternative opportunity to learn from civilian logistics problem solving. A guided discussion about Woodstock 1994, for example, could give more experienced logisticians a framework by which to share their thoughts site selection, how to mitigate poor weather, and a number of other life support and camp set-up issues that are experienced by expeditionary military forces (Scott, 1994). As a result of these discussions, subordinates will be able to enhance their much needed sense of creative problem solving without having to suffer through the friction of an actual failure.


Conclusion

It should not be surprising for an experienced military logistician to hear that stress and friction are as inherently part of any large civilian festival or event as they are for military operations (Kaufman, 2019). Detailed planning and clear communication are the proven solutions to reduce that friction and would have helped mitigate the chaos at events like those seen during the Fyre festival. The Fyre festival and numerous other civilian events provide an untapped, but tremendous opportunity for military logisticians to learn from logistics support to large groups. It will always be important for senior logisticians to take time to mentor and share their experiences with subordinates. Discussing the mistakes of these civilian events could provide a framework for such a meaningful discussion. Doing so may help prevent their next military event from being documented and compared to the logistical nightmare now known as the Fyre festival.


References

Arrian of Nicomedia. (2019). Alexander in the Gedrosian Desert. Retrieved February 20, 2019 from https://www.livius.org/sources/content/arrian/anabasis/alexander-in-the-gedrosian-desert/.


Baggs, Michael. (January 18, 2019). Fyre Festival: Inside the World’s Biggest Festival Flop. Retrieved February 20, 2019 from https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-46904445.


Bannock, Olivia (April 17, 2017). Retrieved February 24, 2019 from https://twitter.com/OliviaIvey/status/853985326766972930.


Burrough, Bryan. (August 2017). FYRE FESTIVAL: ANATOMY OF A MILLENNIAL MARKETING FIASCO WAITING TO HAPPEN. Retrieved February 20, 2019 from https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/06/fyre-festival-billy-mcfarland-millennial-marketing-fiasco.


Kaufman, Amy. (February 20, 2019). Andy King went viral thanks to Netflix’s Fyre Festival doc. Now he’s getting back to his day job. Retrieved February 22, 2019 from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-oscars-andy-king-fyre-documentary-party-20190220-story.html


Ohlheiser, Abby. (April 28, 2017). The complete disaster of Fyre Festival played out on social media for all to see; ‘NOT MY FAULT’ says organizer Ja Rule. Retrieved February 20, 2019 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2017/04/28/the-complete-and-utter-disaster-that-was-fyre-festival-played-out-on-social-media-for-all-to-see/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ef940d39531e.


Rowland, Ashley. (November 18, 2013). Amphibious Ships to Replace Carrier Helping with Philippines Disaster. Retrieved February 26, 2019 from https://www.stripes.com/news/amphibious-ships-to-replace-carrier-helping-with-philippines-disaster-1.253487.


Scott, Janny. (August 15, 1994). WOODSTOCK '94: THE OVERVIEW; Woodstock: Music Fades and Muddy Trek Begins. Retrieved February 22, 2019 from https://www.nytimes.com/1994/08/15/nyregion/woodstock-94-the-overview-woodstock-music-fades-and-muddy-trek-begins.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar.


Smith, Chris (Director). (January 18, 2019). Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened [Documentary]. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix.


Solis, William. (December 18, 2003). Defense Logistics: Preliminary Observations on the Effectiveness of Logistics Activities during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Retrieved February 20, 2019 from https://www.gao.gov/assets/100/92396.pdf.


US Indo-Pacific Command (press releases). (2019). PACOM News. Retrieved February 26, 2019 from https://www.pacom.mil/Media/News/.


US Navy (press release). (January 19, 2017). Navy Marks Milestone for Two Expeditionary Fast Transports. Retrieved February 26, 2019 from https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=98450.

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