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Secret Garden Party Creator Jo Vidler Shares Her Top Career Tips

Jo Vidler is the director of one of the UK’s most successful festivals: ‘Secret Garden Party.’ Set on Abbot’s Ripton estate in Cambridgeshire: a 220 acre landscaped garden surrounded by a river and lake, each year over 26,000 ‘gardeners’ flock to the four-day extravaganza.

Jo is the brains behind the creative side, championing ingenuity and invention. Think actors and acrobats, circus performers and moving statues interacting with ‘gardeners’ embracing fancy-dress. Then there’s the music – this year Faithless, Django Django, Bastille, Goldie, 2ManyDJs and Regina Spektor to name a few perform.

In the midst of organsing ‘a party like no other,’ we caught up with Jo to talk networking, mentors and working with men.

Tell us a bit about your background?
Growing up I was always organising events at school. I took a gap year when I finished and ended up working in Ibiza putting on club nights and fashion shows. I come from quite a creative family. My grandfather managed the comedic group ‘The Crazy Gang’ and my great grandmother was in lots of shows and I’ve always loved theatre. I’m a real extrovert, basically a silly person! However, I realised early on that I wasn’t the best performer and what I preferred was coming up with the creative ideas and transporting people to a different reality. So I decided to study a BA in arts and events at Bournemouth University.

How did that lead to what sounds like a dream job?

During my summer holidays at university I started working with an events company called ‘Continental Drift.’ My boss was really eccentric and basically introduced me to everyone. We used to do all the festivals and I met all these amazing people. I got chatting to Tim Harvey and Charlie Dolman at Lovebox and we all got on really well. I was travelling around Australia with my boyfriend when Charlie phoned me saying they needed a production manager for a festival called Secret Garden Party they were planning.  At that stage it was basically just a big party in a field. They wanted me come on board and do the things I had always talked to them about doing – basically incorporating all these different art forms and elements to create an amazing event. I jumped at the opportunity, flew back to London that week and got straight to work. It’s grown from there.

Who are your mentors?

My parents never stopped me from doing anything I wanted to do which was amazing. My Dad always told me if you want something you’ve got to go and get it. They’re really proud of me and even come to watch the show I produce each year on the lake at SGP. Another mentor I’ve started to look to is Marian Goodell. We’re working together on ideas for the Burning Man Festival which is hugely exciting.

Is it quite a male-dominated industry?

When I first started it was mainly men. But it was just something I got on with. Of course there were times when it got a bit boyish and I had to close my ears but in general I enjoy the boys’ banter. Nowadays, thankfully more and more women have begun to move higher and higher up the ranks across the entertainment industry as a whole. It’s really important to me. Our company is now very much 50/50 because of the type of events we do. If it wasn’t we’d just get a one-sided view so it’s really important that we have a balance of male and female views.

What are your tips for leading a team?

I manage people in a way that makes them feel positive and want to work hard. Everything I do is collaborative. That means sometimes it takes a bit longer to reach a decision but I respect everyone’s opinion. I also make sure that if someone has an idea they feel they have ownership of it.

What three things do you look for in someone when recruiting?

Everyone I employ has to love and believe in what they’re doing. They have to be themselves, express their personality and have a kind heart. Creativity is important but it’s not always the most important thing. You’ve just got to be hard-working and dedicated to the task.

What habits do you have that make you successful?

My job isn’t a job, it’s my lifestyle. I’m always thinking of crazy ideas. We’ve now got a business development manager who I’ll phone and he’ll be ‘calm down, we need to do a feasibity plan.’ But I never stop planning ways that people can have fun.

What advice would you give to someone that wants your job?

There is no set way of getting to where I am. I worked my way up and did lots of networking along the way. I made sure I always worked really hard and people knew they could rely on me. I think the best piece of advice is that – you’ve got to work hard and prove your dedication.

What makes Secret Garden Party such a success?

The mixture of art forms and allowing people to do whatever they want works really well. People love the interaction and freedom Secret Garden Party gives them.

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?

The show on the lake is going to be immense. I can’t tell you anything about it but let’s just say you have to see the lake show. The theme this year is Superstition so I’m really also excited about those moments where I’m walking around and suddenly see something amazing and I’ll be like ‘did that really just happen?’

Any festival tips we should know?

My number one tip is you’ve got to get involved. This really does just happen at Secret Garden Party. Once you walk through the gates you’ll want to interact. Everyone is there for the same reason – to have fun and incredible. experiences. My practical tips are to take an airbed and don’t forget the baby wipes!

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