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Putting a Bit of Glamour into the Festival Season

An interview with the new CEO of Henley Festival, "Lionel is a massive soul icon, it is incredible he is part of the festival"


I think the location of our festival is very unique, being on the bank of the Thames with the stage actually floating on the river

If you are going to hold an event billing itself as the most glamorous festival around, then of course it has to take place in Henley, the town that practically defined the term ‘prestige’. But with a floating stage to build and an army of acts to organise, how is new CEO Charlotte Geeves facing the challenge? OX went along to meet the lady in charge of making sure Henley Festival continues to shine.

You are stepping in to fill Gill Mitchell’s shoes. She has been a firm hand guiding the festival for ten years. Is it a hard act to follow?

I suppose I haven’t ever really thought about it in that way. For the past year I have been looking to move into the position of a CEO and I wanted to come back into working in the arts where I had worked for the previous 20 years.

I’d been running a film festival in Bristol for the TV and film industry, so when I was approached, I didn’t hesitate. It’s always a challenge taking over from anyone but particularly if they have been within an organisation for a long period of time such as Gill had. I see this year as an opportunity to learn about the festival, work with the team and continue to create a successful festival for the future. The event is in a really good position, so it is a really lovely thing to take over.

There are a lot of festivals out there at the moment and they all seem to have their own character. What would you say is the character of Henley Festival?

I think the location of our festival is very unique, being on the bank of the Thames with the stage actually floating on the river. It’s an incredibly unique selling point along with the mixture of music. In fact we offer so much across the board – not just the pop artists and classical that we have on the floating stage, but also the acoustic sets are across the site and the bands, which we bring into the salon. There is comedy and a very strong visual arts presence, and then of course there is the food. Where else can you choose between a range of grazing options and fine dining in the presence of Michelin starred chefs Albert Roux OBE and Michel Roux jr. The festival also takes place exclusively in the evening, which makes us very different from the more traditional arts festivals and adds that extra layer of glamour.

The floating stage is the main focal point. How on earth do you get it there and how long does it take?

It’s quicker than you would think because there are a lot of people involved. We start with a team of divers who come in and they pile up structures onto the river bed and then the stage sits on top of those. So it isn’t literally floating but gives the illusion that it is. We get access to the site at 8:30 on the Sunday evening before the festival and they do prep until about midnight and then the stage build starts first thing on Monday morning.

We open at 6pm on Wednesday so we have to make sure everything is up and ready for the sound check at 2pm in the afternoon.  We’ve been working with the team for many years so they all know the intricacies of the job and the complexities of what they are doing. We work with some really good people.

So, obviously one of your big names this year is Lionel Richie. Is he the act you are most excited about?

Well Lionel is obviously a massive soul icon, and it is quite incredible that he is part of the festival. However, having just announced Jessie J and Gipsy Kings on Wednesday and Saturday, the jury is out on that! Just imagine Lionel Richie on the Thursday night and a Gershwin night on Friday, exclusive to Henley which features both Gregory Porter and Laura Mvula, two incredible soloists along with a full 65 piece Philharmonic orchestra on stage, and now our new headliners – I am simply overwhelmed by the talent we have this year.

Will you actually get time to see the performances?

I think there will be moments when I get to stand and enjoy the artists but there will also be moments when I am busy chatting to our sponsors or chatting to the friends of the festival and the audience generally. As this is my first year I haven’t seen how it works so it is hard to know at this moment in time what to expect. At other festivals I have had moments when I can stand and watch and equally moments where I am far too busy entertaining and I imagine with so much going on across the site that the same will apply.

Outside of the festival, I believe several other charities benefit too?

Well, the festival is not-for profit, so we give directly back to five local charities in and around Henley. We also give a grant to the Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts, a national charity that enables them to do activities across the UK.

So make sure that you don’t miss an opportunity to spend a long summer evening in the most beautiful setting, with world class music, fabulous food and an incredible array of artists!

Henley Festival takes place between Wednesday 8-Sunday 12 July and tickets are available now.