Secret Tips From A Festival Vagabond

Article by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley

Tue July 09, 2013 | 00:00 AM

Know your tempo. That’s one mantra that reminds this “man of Fest” that I often feel a little weary and wonderful simultaneously about this time of my trip. I’m doing five European festivals in two weeks and I’m 60% of the way through. I have that festival glow from chalking up fantastic photos and memories so quickly, but my head yearns for my own pillow, my body aches from too many cramped flights, and my mind is a little numb from processing all of this in such a short time and chronicling it on this blog. Six months ago, I did five Asian festivals but I gave myself five weeks, so this trip has been a bit of a sprint. Not a bad analogy as I write this on my flight to Pamplona.

If I could distill my growing wisdom on how to meander the lovely obstacle course of the festival circuit, I think I could capture it in five basic trip tips:

  1. In designing your trip, seriously consider the collateral benefits (and costs) of which festivals you’re going to visit. I took a risk traveling to a tiny village in northern Spain for El Colacho, the YouTube-famous baby jumping festival, as I’d never talked with anyone who’d done this sojourn. But, the picturesque town of Burgos forty kilometers away is worth a trip on its own.

Similarly, if you don’t love horses or the medieval gallantry of Il Palio, who wouldn’t enjoy Siena?



I’m a little nervous about my upcoming trip to the Nowhere festival in Spain’s desolate desert because, frankly, I’m having a hard time thinking of many collateral benefits. So, choose locations that give you the opportunity to explore elsewhere especially if the festival, from your own perspective, is a bust.

  1. Create “restivals” amidst your festivals. Even the most resilient vagabond needs an occasional “rest interval.” I’m a bit of an Energizer bunny who just keeps going until I suddenly stop. My savvy assistant, Karen, convinced me that traveling from Siena six hours through the Alps to a lake in Austria for the World Bodypainting Championships by means of three trains wasn’t a great way to relax before moving on to a Turkish festival two days later by a flight from Slovenia. So, last minute, we did a little research and found the Spoleto Festival less than a two-hour drive from Siena and on the way back to Rome where I could catch my flight to Istanbul.

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Spoleto: a great place to meander and recharge the batteries

Spoleto: a great place to meander and recharge the batteries

I thought I was varying my adrenaline (a good idea) by including bodypainting in between bareback riding and oil wrestling, but I hadn’t calculated the cost of the travel on my body. Consider mixing up environments, yes, but allow for relative ease in traveling in-between. Proximity is your friend.

  1. Pay attention to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For those of you who know me, you get that psychologist Abe Maslow is my patron saint and his pyramid of human needs is an insightful lens with which to view one’s life. If I’m not sleeping, eating, or drinking enough water, I probably won’t find much self-actualization – at least for any extended period. At the enormous Maha Kumbh Mela that tallied 100 million attendees, I knew that staying in a private room in a nearby ashram was going to give me the welcome sanctuary I needed from the crowds.

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My welcome ashram

My welcome ashram

Post-meditation in the ashram garden

Post-meditation in the ashram garden

The more of an introvert you are, the more you should carefully consider your hotel choices so you can have some much needed private space. Also, beware that finding a hotel room in some cities without booking far in advance can be a harrowing experience, so I have found Airbnb to be the festival travelers’ friend – allowing one to both have a place to stay in someone’s home or apartment and a local’s perspective on the festivities. Airbnb or not to be? I choose to be with Airbnb.

  1. Choose festivals with complimentary wardrobe demands. I made a festival faux pas last winter. I went to the Hindu devotional festival Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur and followed that by flying to the border of Manchuria and Siberia in January for the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. Within 24 hours, I had a 110-degree shift in the external climate. The good news is I packed enough clothes to handle this (along with a suit as I was making a few speeches during this trip), but I had to lug all that luggage (now I understand the root of that word) for five weeks. Similarly, don’t plan on following any costume-heavy festivals like Burning Man, Sydney Mardi Gras, or Venice Carnival with another festival. Hightail it back to your closet!


  1. Pick the right companions or meet some new friends. Let me be blunt. Your spouse or best friend may not be your best festival partner. Festivals bring out the best and worst in people (when it goes bad, it can often be traced to tip #3 above). Make sure this isn’t all your idea or you may have to deal with some serious passive aggressive behavior by your soon-to-be-ex. Your cool festival buzz can be ruined by feeling responsible for someone else’s glum mood. And, some festivals are just made for the serendipity of meeting either a new friend or some interesting locals. Occasionally, I reach out to my Facebook friends and tell them I’m on my way somewhere to see who wants to join me. That’s how Alana Winter, who was doing some business in Pakistan, joined me in central Turkey at the annual Mevlana Whirling Dervish festival last December.

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I’d never met Pheonyx Roldan Smith except through social media and Skype, but he joined me last minute from the Philippines for a series of village festivals, teeth filing ceremonies, and cremation rituals in Bali. Not everyone is as adventurous or spontaneous as Alana or Pheonyx, but do know that social networks are made for this kind of palling-around.

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I guess this is my Nomad “not mad” list. If I follow my own advice, I’m less likely to be mad and my spirit of joie de vivre is more present. Happy trails!