York Festival of Ideas – Infinite Horizons

As the pandemic hit in 2020 the York Festival of Ideas took tentative steps online to great success. Still in partial lockdown in 2021, the team took a leap of faith, creating a fully online programme of over 200 events. Find out how the Festival embraced Infinite ‘Zoom’ Horizons and what lessons were learnt.

Virtual Horizons: 2020

In March 2020, when lockdown was announced, the Festival team took the difficult decision to postpone the programme – and 10th anniversary celebrations – until the following year. However, following a few successful test events on Zoom, it was decided that a reduced version of the planned lineup would go ahead online under the banner Virtual Horizons

The response was staggering, with an audience of over 41,000 from over 100 countries, viewing talks both live and via our new YouTube channel, York Ideas which gave audiences the chance to watch events again at their convenience.

Infinite Horizons: 2021

The success of this online Festival and exposure to the worldwide community gave the team a huge challenge when planning the format of the 2021 Festival and belated 10th anniversary programme. 

How could the Festival be faithful to its York roots, while retaining the incredible profile it had gained online? In addition to this, there was no clear idea as to what stage of lockdown the country might be in during the summer and, crucially, how audiences might feel about in-person events – and whether Zoom fatigue would have set in. 

After thorough research into comparable Festivals and having surveyed the audience, the decision was taken to provide a fully online programme of talks, while offering in-person tours, well-being activities and family workshops. This proved to be the right decision as in-person events were still constrained under the government’s rules in June.

The team, working with 112 Festival partners, delivered 215 events to an audience of almost 67,000 from 130 countries live through Zoom, YouTube Premiere and the York Ideas YouTube platform. 

Audience behaviour

An observation the team made during and post-Festival was that the audience were increasingly taking advantage of the opportunity to watch events at their leisure via the YorkIdeas YouTube channel. It was noted that the live attendances were slightly down on 2020, but once videos were uploaded onto YouTube the viewing figures rocketed. 

YouTube also aided with highlighting one video, Britain Alone, generating an outstanding 3,700 views in a matter of days.

The post-Festival survey revealed that 60% of the surveyed audience were new to the Festival and 78% would like to see a continuation of online events in the future. The survey also conveyed that 35% of this section of the audience were 35 years old and younger, demonstrating that the flexibility offered by online and on-demand events appealed to a wider demographic than the previous in-person only offerings.

Social media and marketing 

Moving the Festival online also allowed the events marketing team more flexibility to concentrate on marketing events via social media and other online marketing including emails to interest groups, resulting in a full-time presence online throughout the 13 days. Successes included: 

  • 1.5million impressions on Twitter
  • Targeted campaign to 10 worldwide cities via Facebook with one £17.74 advert reaching 65,000 people in Delhi alone
  • 18% of surveyed audience heard about the Festival via social media, a further 16% selected ‘other’ with social media and Eventbrite frequently cited
  • Mailing lists increased by 4,000
  • 84% of the surveyed audience preferred to find out about the Festival via the web

The Festival was also reviewed by a number of blogs including:

Diversity, inclusion and addressing big issues 

The Festival has never been afraid to tackle big issues and 2021 was no different, enabling audiences to engage with, and reflect on, what are often challenging topical issues. In an age of increasing societal polarisation, the Festival brought people with different experiences, opinions and cultures together. This wide range of topics was frequently cited in the survey as what people liked most about the Festival.

Equality and diversity were key themes throughout the programme creating opportunities to discuss levelling up the economy; male privilege; the lack of diversity in the arts, and LGBT+ in the workplace. More than 55% of the contributors to this year’s Festival were women.

The programme also included discussions around topics including fake news, digital inclusion and social activism, and the climate and sustainability crises.


The online events enabled those who wouldn’t normally be able to attend due to mobility restrictions, caring duties etc. to take part. And to promote digital inclusion, we worked in partnership with Explore York Libraries to provide free ear-buds so anyone without access to a computer at home could listen to online Festival events from their local library.

To ensure there was something in-person for the local York audience a number of events were created by the Festival and partners, such as a labyrinth for wellbeing, science demonstrations for families, and themed walking tours of York. 

And to inspire children from hard-to-reach groups in our city, the team worked in partnership with REACH – the York Cultural Education Partnership – to produce and distribute over 2,000 ‘Bags of Creativity’. Full of arts and crafts materials, resources and activities, these were given to every York primary school child eligible for free school meals.

The next chapter

As the Festival team look ahead to 2022 we need to once again consider how to ensure the programme is inclusive for all our audiences – both in York and away, in-person and online. Plans have already been put in place for a blended approach with some in-person only events for those in York, some online only and a weekend of live-streamed in-person activities. We look forward to sharing the programme and our findings with you next year! 

To find out more about the 2021 Festival, please do take a look at the Impact Report.

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