BRIGHTON, U.K. – Organizers of Witchfest International, the largest Pagan conference held in the UK, announced last Saturday that they were cancelling the 2018 event due to financial challenges. The announcement was made by Merlyn, one of the organizers, directly before headliner Professor Ronald Hutton presented at this year’s conference.
Merlyn said an unexpected and sharp decrease in attendance was to blame for a lack of funds to finance the conference for 2018, but he added that plans were in the works for the conference to return in 2019.
“Final numbers aren’t in yet, but we think our losses are in the thousands [of pounds],” said Merlyn.
Witchfest International, run by The Children of Artemis, typically attracts around 3000 attendees and is held in the Brighton Centre in the seaside town of Brighton. Presentations cover a range of Witchcraft, Pagan, Occult, and mythological topics. Attendees can choose from up to six different presentations or performances in each one hour time block.
This year presenters included well-known Pagans such as Prof Ronald Hutton, Kate West, Ashley Mortimer, and Cat Treadwell. Entertainment options included Perkelt, Damh the Bard, The Dolmen, Paul Mitchell, James J Turner, and Corvus.
Merlyn said attendance was about 30% lower this yea,r and most of that was due to decreased walk up, or on site, attendees. “At about 3000 attendees we can break even. But this year we only had around 2000 attendees and that makes 2018 too much of a risk.”
He says The Children of Artemis will use the next year to raise funds for the 2019 conference relaunch.
Author Lucya Starza says she couldn’t tell if attendance was down this year because the Brighton venue is larger than the one the conference was in two years ago, when she last attended.
She did say that presentations appeared to be well attended, “My talk on candle magic was packed, with 100 people in the room.”
Witchfest International presenter Ashley Mortimer, trustee for both the Doreen Valiente Foundation and The Centre for Pagan Studies, said he was sad to hear the 2018 conference was cancelled because the event is such an important one to the community.
“You know if you’re only going to one event a year, it’s Witchfest!”
For many years the conference was held at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, but when that closed for renovation a couple of years ago the organizers had to move to a new venue.
Carrie Lee, a Witchfest International attendee, thinks the move could have impacted the conference.
“There was also a change of venue from last year from the London area to Brighton, and it is a much bigger venue. I think that did not help, people rarely enjoy a change from established routines,” said Ms. Lee.
Yet last year’s attendance at the new location was a robust 3000.
Merlyn thinks it was a perfect storm of events that lead to decreased attendance this year.
He says the usual date for the event wasn’t available, so it was held six weeks earlier than normal.
Transportation was also an issue. Merlyn says the train line to Brighton was shut down with buses being used instead. In addition, the roads surrounding the town were under construction and that caused significant travel delays.
“We had people say that it took them three hours just to drive three miles,” said Merlyn.
He also speculated that the weather may have caused some attendees, who normally show up on the day of the event, to stay home instead.
“The weather looked like a mini hurricane. Strong wind, rain, and heavy seas. Not what you’ve had in America, but enough to keep Brits at home.”
Ms. Lee thinks there are other factors at play.
“My personal belief is that conferences in Britain, especially ones that have been going for a while, are generally taken a little for granted,” says Lee, adding that there are many smaller, well attended events throughout the UK.
Lee also says that attendee tastes are evolving. “The Pagan community in Britain seems to be going through fundamental changes in how it approaches its spirituality. There is less of a focus of Wicca generally and a rise in the more, shall we say earthy, self motivated, less religious learning paths.”
“We need to see some passionate new speakers that fire up our imaginations and get us excited to talk about magic again,” says Lee.
Regrouping for 2019
Merlyn says the conference will “absolutely” be back in 2019.
“We survived 2008, we’ll survive this, too.”
He says that they are going to spend the next year looking for exciting speakers and enticing musical acts from overseas to be part of Witchfest international 2019.
Damh the Bard, who performed at this year’s conference, says it is important for the community to support events by buying tickets in advance, rather than waiting to buy them at the door.
“However, if people don’t buy tickets in advance and wait for the day we have no idea if we will be ok, or if we will have to dig into our own pockets to pay for the hall, the speakers etc, after running around finding those speakers, and entertainment, and then working your arse off for the whole day.”
Damh notes that most Pagan events are labors of love and organizers don’t make money off the event. They host the event as a service to the community. A service that may disappear.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that the cancellation of Witchfest International 2018 might be a wake up call. It’s a reminder that we can’t take these events for granted. That if we wait for the next one, there might not be a next one.”
Damh was in the audience when Merlyn made the announcement about the 2018 conference cancellation, and he says the audience was in shock to hear that if ticket sales were down again for 2019, there would be no more Witchfest International.
Mr. Mortimer is confident Witchfest International will successfully return in 2019.
“Witchfest has been an institution in the UK Pagan scene. I’m sure that, just as other events have done in recent years, they can take a break next year and come back refreshed and renewed the event will bounce back twice as strong,” says Mortimer.
He says the event has the support of other Pagan organizations and the goodwill of the community.
Witchfest Midlands still plans to be held in February of 2018 and Children of Artemis says they will continue to support other events such as Pagan Pride. There are also fundraisers being planned to help raise the money needed to pay upfront costs for the 2019 Witchfest International conference.