Selling Water At Festivals: Greedy Policy Or Economic Necessity?

Some month ago one of the leading festivals in the Netherlands, Welcome To The Future, announced that it will have a special ‘Gemeent Pils’ bar, where visitors can get tap water for free, including as many refills as they please. With this decision WTTF is breaking a trend which most commercial dance-festivals are sticking to: letting visitors pay for water. So why did it take so long before somebody decided to make a change to this common policy? And shouldn’t all festivals┬ámake free water available, or is that just wishful thinking when you take the ever-growing production size and costs of modern festival into account?

With every festival season in Holland the water-debate is a recurring phenomenon. Pretty much all commercial dance festivals seem to ask a buck for a cup or a bottle of water. First bar staff withheld the cap of the bottle so it would be harder to carry a full bottle of water around with you. When that didn’t work out the way it was supposed to, many organizations have chosen to prohibit refilling bottles or cups altogether. During a recent festival one of our writers who is from Switzerland – and is used to the overall free water policies at festivals in his country and Germany – was pretty shocked by how the Dutch approached something that in his eyes is a free commodity at all times, in whatever setting. Others call the role of the organization as the sole proprietor of water at a festival downright greedy. “Aren’t they making enough money with those expensive tickets already?”

Large investments need large returns

Although it is understandable that people could look at it that way, there is also something to be said on the organizer’s behalf. Next to the increasing production costs for festivals that want to survive in a highly competitive market, the pricetag for a respected international DJ has grown exponentially in the last few years, with booking fees easily ranging from $10.000 to $30.000 for a two-hour set – and that’s not even considering the EDM superstars for who you can add an extra zero at the end. And if you take all the technical staff, bar staff, builders etcetera into account this adds up to a considerable investment that needs to be earned back. And if you don’t you probably won’t see the festival returning the next year because it will have gone bankrupt.

Drug use

To defend the policy organizers often argue that when water is made free, the majority of festival goers will drink only that because they’re on XTC or MDMA so they only want to consume water anyway, the idea is. This argument never really works for me because I would personally hate the thought of having to drink water for an entire day when you’re in the sun and exercising non-stop. You just need a coke or some fruit juice every now and then. Especially when the aforementioned substances start to kick in during the first evening hours, that ice-cold beer can taste a million times better than tepid water.

A more serious point from a drug-use perspective is the health issue. Something that can be said with some certainty is that when water costs money, people will be drinking less of it than when it’s free. Party drugs can be fun, but should be taken responsibly. Drinking a glass of water every hour or so is a crucial part of that responsibility in order to keep yourself from overheating and making sure your body can handle all the toxins. If someone were to neglect their hydration because he or she doesn’t have any festival tokens left and is out of money, then that would be seriously irresponsible the organizer. On the other hand I do trust that bar personnel would always hand somebody a glass of water for free if they really needed it.

Other options

Of course the water issue doesn’t have to be as black or white as portrayed above. There are a lot of creative ways to find a middle road in between paying top dollar for new bottles of water throughout the day, which also happens to be extremely wasteful when you consider the amount of people walking around at festivals, or not having to pay a dime for it. Getting back to WTTF: they already started with a partly paid/partly free policy in 2013, when they sold ‘waterbags’ to the public that could be refilled after purchase at designated spots throughout the festival terrain. Another option could be to let visitors purchase a stamp or bracelet that grants them the right to refill at supervised taps throughout the day. I’m sure that plenty of inventive ways can be thought of along these lines.

As we’re coming towards June and getting ready for a different Amsterdam festival with every other week, I’m looking forward to seeing which organizations will be following in WTTF’s footsteps.