A&E » Music

Perfection at Pemberton will be in the details

Pemberton Music Festival organizer A.J. Niland talks about tweaks to safety, camping, security — with more lineup announcements to come in the coming weeks



A.J. Niland is being charming about Pemberton.

"Besides my home, it's my favourite place in the world!" laughs Niland, the CEO of concert festival organizers HUKA Entertainment.

He has already been in the region for several weeks, preparing for the Pemberton Music Festival, which takes place from July 16 to 19.

The 2015 musical lineup includes The Black Keys, Missy Elliott, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Tiesto, Hozier, Kid Cudi, Weezer, Jane's Addiction, M.I.A, Skrillex and Diplo.

Comedians Tim & Eric, Cheech & Chong and Reggie Watts are among those joining the comedy festival portion of the weekend.

Pemberton is HUKA's only Canadian festival. For the full lineup visit www.pembertonmusicfestival.com.

Niland took a moment to speak to Pique about the changes for this year and what the fan experience will be.

Pique: How are plans going?

A.J. Niland: The plans have been going on since the last year. It's now time to gear up. We're focusing now on the fine-tuning.

Pique: Why have you been here for weeks already?

AJN: It's hugely important for us. This is a premiere event and requires a little extra diligence. It's not close to home, so we put in the extra effort.

Pique: It's been over two years since HUKA decided to set up the festival, following the first one of 2008. What are your observations for this year?

AJN: The thing that is most noticeably different is the sheer absence of skepticism this year. It was something we battled through the entire planning process prior to last year, could the hurdles of the 2008 event be toppled by this little company? That was something we were very confident in, it's what we do full time.

We were waiting to prove ourselves and we hope there is a little more trust. We put our hardhats on and our noses to the grindstone. We went out to prove this was a valuable festival site, both from the experience standpoint and from the fact that it actually could work. We achieved that last year.

So the most noticeable thing is the dealings with vendors, regulators and agencies. That's been a tremendous amount of help this year. We can focus now on the fine-tunings and the customers.

The vision itself, the festival itself, really lived up to the dream we conceived when we seized the opportunity upon first discovering the site. The idea was to make a world-class festival that's not just a local B.C. thing, but is more of a Canadian thing and beyond that, an international festival destination. It has that potential. We want people to think that they need to go there.

Pique: What are the changes for this year?

AJN: For the most part things are the same. The one most noticeable difference would be the absence of The Blackcomb Stage in the grounds. It's the one that contributed to the majority of sound bleed issues, two stages playing over each other.

In its place is a new craft beer garden. It's going to be like a little beer festival in and of itself.

There will still be five stages.

The most noticeable thing outside the festival is the camping load-in and parking situation. We've made improvements there. It was probably our No. 1 complaint and so it was our No. 1 concern after last year.

The location of parking is changing and that will make the walk from the parking to camping more manageable. In addition to that, we are improving the condition of the trails. Some of them weren't up to par last year, due to the size of the gravel and other things. It made it difficult to roll coolers and wheelbarrows.

There is still a walk involved, that's something we can never get away from until the future when we can teleport people from the parking lot to campgrounds (he laughs). I think it's a vast improvement over last year.

There are other little tweaks, locations of food and proximity to showers and restrooms.

We sent out a pretty lengthy survey and I'm blown away every year by the response. It's long and kind of pain in the rear to fill out, but we get detailed responses and we analyze them up and down. We want to accommodate every fan need.

Pique: Will there be single day tickets this year?

AJN: There will be. It will be announced in the next couple of weeks, along with one more line-up announcement and the schedule, who is playing on what day.

Pique: How many people are you expecting this year, it was about 75,000 over the weekend last year.

AJN: We've already surpassed that number. We'll be closer to 30,000 per day, if not over.

Pique: When we spoke before, one of the things you said was how different the Pemberton side was because it was rural and had camping. How has that experience held up for you?

AJN: It has been great. It was just not that it was rural, but it also had Pemberton and Whistler within close proximity and one can choose the experience. If they want to camp, they can camp. If they want to stay in a hotel, they can do that. If they want to stay at the Four Seasons and helicopter in, they can.

It caters to that world-class festival-going audience. The infrastructure is already here when they arrive, essentially. That is so incredibly unique and cool.

Coachella is that way, to a certain extent, in that there is camping and lodging of all sizes. Outside of that, your Lollapaloozas have no camping. Bonneroo is all camping with no real hotel option.

Pique: Comedy is back. I know it was never in a HUKA festival before Pemberton last year, so did you ever add it to other festivals you run?

AJN: We actually made an investment in a comedy festival itself, but we've not added comedy to any other of our other festival line-ups. There are some special things for Pemberton that we probably won't implement everywhere else. For the time being, they are Pemberton exclusives.

Pique: Is there any tweaking to the security side this year following the accidental death of 21-year-old Regina man Nick Phongsavath in 2014? It's not anything anyone can guess at, that something like this can happen. But what sort of preparations are you making?

AJN: That was a total accident and accidents are hard to curtail, but overall tweaks have been made with the security platform in and of itself. Security members are more informed than they were last year in terms of being good customer service advocates, knowing the rules and being consistent.

We definitely fell short there last year and it was really tough to get everyone engaged and informed when security arrived onsite. It resulted in inconsistencies in rules, what you could bring in and when you could bring it in.

In terms of Nick's death specifically, that is something that has forever changed me and forever changed our organization. It was the first fatality in one of our festivals. It is a common-enough occurrence at festivals when you have as many people as a large town on one site. People get into car accidents or sick on food. All those things happen.

But we try to ensure that everything we can do to serve people is in place.

This year, we're going to roll out a program that hasn't been announced yet but the preview is simple. There is going to be a specific place set up as a safe place for those who encounter problems or find themselves in uncomfortable situations.

They can get the attention they need without repercussions or getting into trouble. The primary object in keeping a safe festival is making sure everyone feels comfortable sharing with us what their problems are. The fear of legal ramifications are real, the law still applies around the festival site. However, the primary objective is to keep people safe and their health comes first. We want a place where they could seek medical treatment, or seek counselling, no matter what it is.

And there will be more of a message this year about partying responsibly.

We feel really good about the work we've done in this realm.