Catherine Smith, Edinburgh International Book Festival
We spoke with Catherine Smith, Audience Services Manager at Edinburgh International Book Festival, about the different festival jobs that led to her current role.
Hi Catherine, thankyou for joining us. Please can you tell us about how long you have been in your current role?
I’ve had a permanent role with the Edinburgh International Book Festival since 2017, though my role/job description changed in 2019. I have been the Audience Services Manager, since 2019 and prior to that held the position of Box Office and Operations Manager from 2017 to 2019.
Can you tell us a bit more about your current role?
I manage the Box Office, Access, Digital Events Chat Moderators and FOH teams. This involves looking after around 50 temporary staff every summer, including recruitment and training. I also ensure the events are built in our ticketing system, and work closely with our website developers to ensure these systems run smoothly and events are on sale to the public.
I’m also the Green Champion for the Book Festival, with responsibility for our annual environmental reporting, and lead our green team. I also sit on the cross-Festivals Environmental Sustainability Working Group, and the Green Arts Steering Group.
What previous roles have you had with festivals in Edinburgh?
Prior to my current role at Edinburgh International Book Festival I had the temporary role of Box Office Manager at the festival.
I worked with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society in three different departments: on the printed Fringe programme and database for show listings; the Fringe Box Office; and running Fringe Central (the Fringe Society’s venue during August, used for professional development events and as an artist/participant hub).
These roles included: Marketing and Publications Coordinator, Fringe Central and Events Manager, Programme Production Coordinator, Publications Coordinator, Fringe Central and Events Deputy Manager, Box Office Supervisor and Programme Production Assistant.
I also worked as a temporary Box Office Sales Assistant for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay for three years.
I also found my jobs outwith the festivals really helped when applying for roles. I was casual Stage Crew at the Playhouse, worked a Box Office Assistant for Botanic Gardens Nights. When I was a student I was Fringe Venue Manager for the Bedlam Theatre (Edinburgh University Theatre Company).
Keeping an open mind about the type of role you are aiming for is really helpful as you never know where a career in events and festivals might take you.
What did you particularly like about working in those roles?
Temporary roles are always a new challenge, and can be very fast-paced as contracts often start immediately before very busy periods. I was always learning new skills (such as learning how to drive a van around the Old Town or how to trouble-shoot a ticket printer) and meeting new people who were also passionate about the same things as me. Some roles were very hands on, through sometimes physically exhausting, I enjoyed not exclusively being office or desk-based. Often there is scope to do things in a new way and try out new ideas. Overall, I felt like I had a lot of freedom to pick the roles I’d enjoy doing or would develop my skills further.
I’ve also always loved the Edinburgh festivals, and it can be very exhilarating working on a festival site or in a venue, especially during August – as you literally never know who you will run into next. Nothing beats that feeling of seeing what goes on behind the scenes. Often you are focused on finding solutions, overcoming seemingly impossible challenges and ultimately delivering a festival/printed programme etc, so there is real sense of achievement when it all comes together. The joy people get from the festivals is also tangible, whether they’re audiences or participants. And of course, there’s always lots of opportunities to go to events and have some great nights out after all the hard work.
What were the benefits of working in those roles when you applied for other jobs at the festivals?
Working in different roles allowed me to develop work experience that was directly relevant to each new role. Plus I had a good understanding of the kinds of roles available, when/how and who was likely to advertise. I had the opportunity to meet a lot of other temp staff which can be an extremely important personal network - I’ve worked with some of the same people at the Fringe, Hogmanay and the Book Festival for example. I also developed an understanding of the relationship between the city and the Festivals, what sorts of things are required and how things generally work.
Would you recommend working with the festivals, and why?
Absolutely! It can be a lot of fun and very rewarding. Plus you get to work with some amazing people, often in high pressure environments which can create a truly incredible sense of teamwork. I loved the variety of roles, and the constant troubleshooting and problem-solving that they involved. Each year was different and constantly evolving, with new challenges and opportunities.
What are some of the challenges of working in temporary/ seasonal roles and how did you overcame these?
It’s not always easy financially – seasonal workers need to be disciplined with personal budgets and save for periods in-between contracts. Seasonal workers also need to get up to speed very quickly as they are frequently starting when the festival team is entering its busiest time of year. The shock when a festival ends can be quite hard to deal with too!
Any top tips you would give to people thinking of working with the festivals?
Be open-minded about what roles you’ll do – you never know where they might lead. All experience is good experience, and sometimes you will need to start with an entry-level role at an organisation. Practical experience is very valuable, and do not underestimate the importance of making contacts and knowing how the Festivals, Edinburgh venues and the arts industry etc work year-round.
Having a can-do attitude, willingness to learn and being able to work in a team is usually central to most roles. Being passionate about what you’re doing helps with the sometimes long hours and intensity, and being kind to everyone you meet makes everyone’s lives easier. Working for the Festivals should be ultimately be a lot of fun, even if there are moments of pressure, so make sure that at the end of the day you’re still loving what you are doing.
Thank you for your time and all the best for the festival this year!
Interview from May 2023