I started Love Trails with George Restall in 2016. It wasn't really a festival at all in that first year. But about 28 friends gathered in a soggy field in North Wales and it was so much fun. A complete escape from my full time job in London organising very corporate biz conferences that simply didn’t inspire me.
At that time running was an escape for me.
Looking for more fulfilling projects outside of work, evenings planning Love Trails scratched an itch.
With that first event in Sept 2016 being such a success, George and I thought we'd do it again the following summer. Having a passion project to work on outside of my main full time job was an outlet for my creativity. Loving trail running and music festivals certainly helped too.
I'd need to quit my job and work on LT full time, or risk the event being a giant, very public, expensive, crash and burn f*** up.
Wanting to build more of a proper music and running festival with a stage and acts meant we needed to get a bit bigger. So we invited the London running crews we knew to come to Love Trails 2017. 270 people got tickets! We didn't really know what we were getting ourselves into. It was all getting a bit serious. Councils needed applying to for licences, stages & a bar needed to be built, running routes planned and a million other things. My side hustle passion project was growing. About 8 weeks from the 2017 festival I realised a few things. Firstly, I was going to need to plough some of my savings into the event to make it work. Secondly, I was going to have to make a choice. The mountain of work to organise the festival was simply too big to only be doing in the evenings and at weekends. I'd need to quit my job and work on LT full time, or risk the event being a giant, very public, expensive, crash and burn f*** up. I still remember that moment of realisation and clarity. It was a terrifying moment really. As the Co-Founder that was pushing for growth, I now needed to own the consequences. My hand was basically forced, by myself in a roundabout way(!), I needed to quit the day job immediately and go full time on LT. It was all chips in, or bust.
That 2017 festival turned out to be absolute magic. It was the definition of job satisfaction on a level I had never experienced before.
Seeing people come together and have an amazing time running trails, getting inspired, making new friends and dancing. Seeing that vision - mixing the best of trails with music festival vibes - come to life. Working with a fantastic team. And receiving a mass of positive feedback after. I'd made the right decision to quit my job! Could Love Trails grow into some bigger and even more impactful? I was daring to dream it could.
And yet Love Trails 2017 lost money. Not only was I not being paid anything for my work, I actually went backwards financially. Imagine going to work for a month and at the end of it, on the day you were expecting your pay cheque your boss says, i'm really sorry, not only are you not getting paid this month, but actually we'd like you to pay us for the privilege of working here! That's how it felt. So I now had no job, and no income. My savings quickly depleted in the lead up to Christmas. I didn't know if then, but as it worked out Love Trails couldn't afford to pay me a steady wage till sometime in mid 2019. Months would go by where I'd work full time with no financial reward.
But memories of the immense highs of the festival weekends carried me forward.
I'm not going to pretend it wasn't hard. At times it really was. I have my Mum to thank (big up Sally Jones) for lending me cash when needed. Tears were occasionally shed. Panic attacks were had. Debilitating and self destructive self doubt & imposters syndrome crept in. It was immensely lonely at times. But somehow I fought past all that. And my god was it worth it. Those 3 days when Love Trails comes round are the most alive I feel all year. And it just gets better every time.
January 2018 was when the team expanded. From being me full time and George and a few fab friends inc. Ollie and Matt working every year in the build up to the festival, there were now two people at Love Trails HQ! Sarah Pritchard joined the team to help us get organised and deliver our biggest festival yet. (Phew!)
Love Trails 2018 went beyond my wildest expectations in terms of the vibe and the positive energy. About 1000 people showed up. The running community is actually amazing. On the last day I went backstage to my mum's campervan and just suddenly, inexplicably burst into tears. Tears I now think were in response to a deeply felt feeling of relief. Relief that it went off as planned. That people seemed to be loving it. That we didn't break a law and get shut down by the police. That my reputation wasn't ruined. That no one died frankly! We didn't make a penny of profit but it didn't matter. We know we were building something amazing and that was all that mattered.
By October 2018 the team expanded again. Up till this point, I was managing all the accounts and receipts and payments myself. I'll be kind to myself and just say it wasn't exactly my strong point. Having first attended as a guest in 2017, Rich Williamson joined on a part time basis as finance manager.
By Christmas we'd run out of money, (thanks for the loan Mum) and George and I both had to put up more cash to keep the business going. It was a funny moment. By January around 900 people had already purchased a ticket, but we'd spent everyone's cash getting the wheels in motion and so had nothing left in the bank account. Not a penny! We needed to sell hundreds more tickets or there simply wouldn't be a festival for people to come to in July. It was around this time that I was genuinely worried about being able to pay Sarah's salary. I could skip a month here and there and often did, but I couldn't ask Sarah to do that.
Have you ever seen that thing where they give a spider LSD and then it makes a web? Well the car park looked a bit like that.
Somehow, with a lot of help from our friends, run crew partners and incredible event team, a lot of hard work, and a big dollop of luck it worked out in the end. About 2000 people turned up for the 2019 Love Trails. It was another big success. And how the sun shone! As always though, the weekend itself was characterised by both immense life affirming highs and panic inducing fear of god scratching into my soul lows. Like half way through day 1 when we realised that the car park attendants had parked the cars all wrong. Not packed together in lovely straight lines as per the plan. Have you ever seen that thing where they give a spider LSD and then it makes a web? Well the car park looked a bit like that. And the result was, i'd been told in no uncertain terms: we weren't going to be able to fit all the cars in the field. Oh and another thing. The campsites are almost at capacity. We'd have to turn ticket holders away at the gate. What the actual f***?! For several hours I and the team problem solved, ran from field to field, tried to bribe the car park attendants to do a good job with offerings of pizza if the lines straightened up and extended the campsites where we could. I was bracing myself for our Fyre Festival moment that thankfully never came. At some point that evening it transpired we'd be absolutely fine after all. We had room for everyone.
The 2019 festival propelled us forward into the autumn and it felt like Love Trails wasn't so little anymore. We were getting approached by magazines and newspapers. People and brands were approaching us to be involved. We moved out of WeWork into our very own shipping container office.
By November, the team grew again. Claire Edwards joined looking after brand partnerships. Despite the festival never turning a profit, here we were with a team of four people aiming to bring in £500,000 of revenue with 3500+ runners at our 2020 event.
By Christmas once again we had ran out of money (can you see a pattern emerging here?), so George and I put more money in to maintain cash flow. We needed to sell a LOT of tickets in January to get the momentum we'd need or we’d be in trouble. But the marketing plan worked and 511 people purchased a ticket in January alone. adidas TERREX, MOJU and On Running came on board as sponsors too. We were getting on for bringing in £100,000 in one month. Money that was vitality needed. Awesome!
On the 6th of February we went out for a big team meal to celebrate our success. We were buzzing. Love Trails 2020 was going to be f***ing insane! Quitting my job to do this definitely WAS worth it i told myself again as I looked around the table at everyone laughing and bonding as a team.
The following week was a flurry of paying invoices. In the run up to Christmas and through January, we had begged all our suppliers for more time to pay. We finally had enough cash in the bank to lock in all the showers, the toilets, tents, stages, music acts and more we'd need, plus pay a massive VAT bill.
Rich's spreadsheet showed that if we kept on track with ticket sales, 2020 would be the first year we'd make a profit as a business. We'd have enough cash to invest in a bigger team and maybe even enough to start some new Love Trails Festivals in other countries around the world. The positivity from week after week of amazing ticket sales was infectious. We were on track. All was well.
Around that same time coronavirus got on my radar for the first time. I identified the virus as a potential black swan event for Love Trails back in late January. Privately I was fairly terrified and spent many hours following the outbreak in China and listening to what infectious disease experts had to say. It didn’t look good. However it felt way too soon to even tell the team or act decisively. So we ploughed on. And kept paying all those invoices as they came in. On February 12th I text a friend in the events industry to ask how worried he was. Not very came his answer.
We all know where this story ends.
The unraveling of Love Trails Festival 2020 was a painful and drawn out process. From around February 12th to April 10th when we announced the festival was cancelled. A two month process whereby each day that passed the worst nightmare situation I thought of in late January edged ever closer to reality. At some point in early March tickets sales dried up after a slowish February.
In an effort to cut costs, we cut back on everything we could. The team got smaller. We made plans to leave our newly decorated office as soon as possible.
But we had nearly 2000 customers who had invested in us. Who'd trusted us with their hard earned money to deliver the festival and now we couldn't fulfil that promise. Not only that, but the timing of the pandemic meant we didn't have any money to refund anyone. One night before the official cancellation statement went out I sat at my laptop late at night looking at our online banking and cried. We had just over £10,000 to our name. It felt hopeless. A lost cause. Could all of these years of hard work really end like this? Is this the end of Love Trails? Am I going to be breaking the law, and be personally held responsible for all the money lost?
What followed was a deeply sad period for me and the team. The lovely messages of support from ticket holders and friends was incredible and I'll be eternally grateful for this support. Yet personally, a deep depression like no other I have experienced followed the initial period of what I now look back and recognise as shock. I withdrew to my bedroom for days on end. My amazing Mum and sisters brought food and cups of tea to my bedside table. Then I stopped eating altogether. My depression somehow manifested itself in physical pain throughout my whole body. I didn't know it then but thankfully I'd reached rock bottom.
And then at some point I woke up one day and decided “no, it can't end like this”.
I had to find some strength from somewhere.
Love Trails Festival was and is simply too precious to imagine any other scenario. Not "too big to fail" like a bank. But too much love and good vibes and community spirit to fail.
It wasn't an easy process. Each week I felt a little bit better. I'm hugely indebted to my friends and family and girlfriend Soph and the Love Trails team for all their support as I rebuilt my mental wellbeing step by step.
May 2020 has been the real turning point. Resolute in the belief that we will get through this. That we must.
But we now stand at yet another make or break moment for Love Trails. All the optimism and the best intentions in the world meet the cold hard indisputable financial facts.
Rich has calculated that due to coronovirus we have lost £127,000. That's money that is completely unrecoverable. It's staff wages, deposits paid for infrastructure that various suppliers refused to roll over to 2021, office rent, marketing, VAT bills, graphic design, website development, credit card fees and 100s more individual cost items.
This amount of debt carried into next year's festival is not sustainable.
So, having exhausted all other options we’re asking YOU, the Love Trails community who have shaped and given meaning to the last 5 years of our lives beyond measure, to join us in our mission to SAVE Love Trails.
We would not be asking if the only other option was Love Trails Festival possibly never happening again.
As well as developing A Good Runner, our new online course, and founding Global Trail Running Day, in part to help raise vital festival funds lost due to coronavirus, we are going to be launching our first ever crowdfunding campaign soon.
And we would like to invite you to be a part of it. We want to see Love Trails Festival bounce back next year. So we are asking everyone that feels the same way to join.
The crowdfunding campaign is launching next week. And it'll include some amazing perks for all our backers. Can we count on you to help?
On behalf of the whole team, thanks in advance for all the support and continued good wishes. It really does mean the world to us.
Keep on running, and keep up the positive vibes.