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SXSW: ‘Trial by Fyre Festival’ Talk Parses Worst-Case-Scenario Crisis in Horrifying Detail

A fantastical started-from-the-bottom-now-we-here story was the focus of a standing-room-only talk at South By Southwest titled “Trial by Fyre Festival: My MBA in Crisis Management.”

Dylan Hattem launched his creative agency DS Projects just three months before getting the call he thought would change his life: an opportunity to create all the video and photo content for a major new festival. Unfortunately, that gig involved the ill-fated Fyre Festival, and as he told with A/V-accompaniment, it’s a tale that would give any wouldbe entrepreneur nightmares.

Beginning with the initial phone call, which Hattem thought was going to be the start of his new business (“I thought I finally had a seat at the table,” he said) and going through his experience managing a 35-person production team, armed with literally tons of equipment, he quickly realized a disorganized disaster was unfolding around them — and that he’d be in charge of managing both the immediate issue of getting his team off an island where all their hotels and flights had been cancelled, as well as the longer-term issue of buoying his professional reputation.

Fyre Festival, featuring headliner Ja Rule and acts like Blink-182, Migos and Disclosure, who dropped out in the weeks leading up to the event, was organized by Billy McFarland, who pleaded guilty to misleading his company’s investors. He faces up to 40 years in prison.

The Fyre Festival was billed as an ultra-high-end festival experience, and Hattem — whose work life up until the DS Projects launch was at Complex Media, where he led their programmatic advertising initiatives, which he readily admits is, “the furthest thing from working with creatives” — bought the bait along with the attendees. He recounted how he bought his entire team expensive sunglasses, figuring, “If we’re going to be hanging out with Kylie and Kendall Jenner, we’ll look good doing it.”

Hattem also remembered his experience flying out to the Bahamian island with all of the production gear (“I’m already [at that point] feeling overwhelmed with the mass of equipment we have,” he said), and realizing, slowly, that literally no one was prepared for any sort of high-end experience whatsoever. The first clue? The editing suite set up for the team had no wi-fi… and no electricity.

Unfortunately, Hattem was legally barred from spilling some of the more juicy details of his experience (during a Q&A, when an audience member asked if he was involved in ongoing litigation, Hattem gave a no-comment, virtually the same response he gave when asked if they had video of the actual “festival” itself”) but still the story of the way he pulled his business out of its low point was inspiring and inspired.

A few weeks after the Fyre trip ended — with a chartered plane loaded with the crew’s gear grounded just before takeoff, after all the rest of Hattem’s setbacks, including cancelled hotel rooms, unresponsive producers, and a huge financial investment — he emailed a major festival promoter with the subject line “I Need A W.” He recounted the story to the promoter, who then hired Hattem and brought the business back from the almost-dead.

His main strategy? “Be nice,” Hattem said, simply. “No one [that worked Fyre with me] doesn’t take my calls.” And asked what he does differently now that he’s on the up and up, his response is not a surprise. “Allow flexibility — and understand what the worst-case scenario is.”

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