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Weekend Sessions: The Quietest Bravest Bucharest Festival

One of the most consistent and strong trends in the last couple of years is the one called „Self seeking”which manifests through the increasing tendency of people to look first at their inner world and who they are before they relate to outer world. The trend made people nourish their inner confidence and unveil their self power, which helped them make better decisions, detach from things that we re not connected to, learn how to appreciate real value, stay in contact with nature. Two years ago in Bucharest, WeekendSessions appeared like a quiet festival meant to offer people the opportunity to manifest this self care in a public place, along others. „The nicest festival in open air” took place in a very special place in the city, the botanical garden. Silvia Floares, the founding partner of the festival, talked to us about the need and benefits of such an event in a dialogue with Adina Vlad, managing partner Unlock and partner empath.com.ro

Adina: Tell us a bit about WeekendSessions, how did you come up with the idea for the project, how did it grow, how did it develop?

Silvia: We had been following this kind of social event in other countries for a long time and we wished we could create such an experience in Romania. We started WeekendSessions in pandemics with a lot of support from Robert Șopârlache, my partner in all aspects and a small team of friends who have been supporting us for 5 years since we chose the entrepreneurial path. We had worked together for2 years on the roditorfoodmarket.ro and sorbitor.ro, pretty much digital, online and in isolation. We felt the need to hang out with people like us, to enjoy the company and energy provided by a community with whom we share the same hopes, joys and sometimes fears. In 2021 we held 7weekends, in 2022 there were 12 weekends, from 8000 visitors in the first year, we reached almost 30,000 in the second. The frequency and consistency have brought us close to the numbers of a big festival in Romania, but fortunately with 25-50 adult attendees, some with young families, corporate jobs, liberal professions, who know what an invoice or a bank statement looks like, who responsibly enjoy a glass of wine or craft beer, who clean after when they leave an event, who enjoy the quiet atmosphere with their friends.

Adina: What were the biggest challenges you faced in getting the project off the ground and as it grew?

Silvia: We often hear that in this country you have to have connections, you have to know someone who knows someone - both in the public and private sector. Often this also comes from the mistrust I mentioned above, it’s good to have a recommendation - but it sometimes happens that you write to the contact address with a project proposal and get called to a meeting. I have friends who don't believe me even after 2 years that I sent the proposal to the BotanicalGarden's contact address and the director Paulina Anastasiu told me to make a request to the UNIBIC senate to rent the space which was approved, two years in a row. Because the program has been visible and has brought visitors, there have been requests for rental from other festival organizers and an auction is to be organized - although it may be perceived as a challenge, we believe it is proof that the Weekend Sessions program works. Also in the challenge category was the budget issue. There are 5-7 months of events with over 200 payments to artists, suppliers, partners every 100 euros counts and it would be great not to negotiate so unfairly with every guest. For 2023 the first draft budget reaches 500.000 euro - the touring version through museums and their gardens with customizations and surprises for each host, 20 days of events and different artists every weekend. In the first two years we enjoyed the support of UniCredit Bank & Aqua Carpatica without whom we could not have set up this program, and visitor tickets were extremely important. We hope to have more funding partners onboard this year.

Adina:What about satisfaction? What did you feel you were doing that was valuable and motivated you to movef orward?

Silvia: We love the people we see at Weekend Sessions: visitors, artists, vendors, partners. Parents can enjoy meeting up with friends and going to concerts and the cinema, while children run free, take part in activities designed for them or discover jazz and classical music in an informal setting. Independent artists can enjoy a large audience that appreciates their efforts and supports their art. The 2022 Cultural Barometer highlighted the rate of cultural consumption inRomania as one of the lowest in Europe -meaning we have few people buying tickets to concerts, films, theatre performances, books or art objects. On the other hand, why would you pay for a ticket when the offer of free events organized by the public administration is so large? At first, no one thought we could sell more than 200 tickets with a mix of cultural sessions with independent artists. We have found that it is possible to sell more than 1000 tickets a day, that recurrence and consistency partly compensate for the large marketing budgets.

Adina: You have chosen a special location for the project: Botanical Garden in Bucharest. What were the reasons and what challenges you faced?

Silvia: In 2021 being still pandemic we had the format of a cultural-urban picnic, a nice festival with small music sessions, local artists, young graduates, a small stage on a colorful carpet, poetry and reading sessions, local entrepreneurs, a people-friendly urban space and guests who would vibrate to this kind of program and pay the entrance fee.I knew the first and most difficult step would be the space chosen. We are just few people, we build slowly and with hard work, many of the things we dream of don't happen, but we struggle hard and work like crazy. In 2021 we submitted several times a meeting request for Amzei Square to theCity Hall of Sector 1 - in parallel we sent requests to Romsilva and the Botanical Garden of the University of Bucharest, all on the contact addresses found on the official websites. The only answer I received was from the director of theBotanical Garden, Paulina Anastasiu, I sent a request to the University of Bucharest, it was approved in theSenate of UNIBUC, then, after almost two months we had a lease contract. Probably the concept of a quiet festival, without a big stage, without noise and disturbance to the community, convinced us. That's how we started, not knowing the space was the most difficult the first year. We're glad we continued the program in2022, got bigger with new sessions and proved it works and are taking it further in 2023.

Adina: You call it the quietest festival. What made you feel the need for such a festival/event? How did you choose the activities in the festival - the artists, the partners, the food (in Hunters there is a self seeking trend where I gave you an example and maybe you elaborate on that)

Silvia: There's a lot of noise on Facebook and from the news and comments we are often left with the feeling that only the rude, braggarts and hustlers are left in Romania, but the friends and communities of Roditor and Mezanin Market have spurred us on to look for a way to discover and bring together quiet, educated people who look to the future with optimism. After many, many meetings at the Botanic Garden we can confirm, these people do exist. The Weekend Sessions experience is very diverse - the artists and musical genres change from weekend to weekend, as do the children's activities, the sessions in the wellness area and the selection of guests in the cinema area. The small local entrepreneurs in the picnic area also change. The jazz and classical music sessions that the kids gather for are our greatest joy, Robert Șopârlache, co-founder of Weekend Sessions is amazed at how many people appreciate the wellness area with therapists, yoga, dance, mindfulness, Suzana Roșca, WSBrand Manager, is happy that although we insisted on not having anything flamboyant or screaming in the layout people appreciate the atmosphere and the little discoveries every weekend.What we want is for these moments of connection and socialising to inspire them to help each other, to collaborate, to erase this mistrust between people that actually prevents us from building things in the long run.

Adina:What feedback have you received from those who attended the festival - brands,audience,artists,partners? Positive and negative, on honesty

Silvia: Online most comments were about the ticket price (between 50-70 lei). People are surprised that in the 50 lei ticket we included the 10 lei for the BotanicalGarden to make it easier to get in, as well as two acoustic concerts of jazz, classical music, pop-indie, a contemporary poetry session, two hours of films from our partners in the smallest cinema under the trees, workshops for children, yoga sessions, mindfulness, talks with psychotherapists on different topics, picnic with a selection of small local entrepreneurs. At the event we were often compared to big festivals organised by public institutions -probably because the space was rented from a University in Bucharest, but you can't compare resources and we don't want to do a mass festival.
The first reaction of the partners and friends who visited us was about the size of the program - "it's much bigger than I imagined for a cultural event." We would like to have more food and drink options on site for those who visit us, we need partners to offer interesting options for our guests. Valentina Vesler (Aqua Carpatica& Sâmburești) and Anca Ungureanu (UniCredit Bank) were among the first to read the program outline and encouraged us to start it even though it was still a pandemic year.

Adina:You guys went for the niche idea that many wouldn't have the guts to do. What does it take to initiate such a venture and what motivates you to make this change, to finally enter new territory?

Silvia: We follow and are connected to the events area - we know the festivals with tens of thousands of participants, but also the area of specialised events with dozens of participants. We wanted to imagine a programme at the intersection of these two extremes. I was amazed to see that in 2022 when festivals exploded,Weekend Sessions was very visible, perhaps as visible as many festivals generously supported by sponsors and central or local budgets, not counting the three to four big festivals in Romania. There are a lot of people who know about it, who have been to it, who have friends who have been to it or who plan to come with friends, which means there is room in the market for this kind of festival - programme - cultural, laid back, relaxed, good natured, with a longer term mission.

Adina:How hard/easy is it to find partners to help you grow your idea? What are the challenges in this area?

Silvia: We set out to reach a certain kind of audience and made a list of projects and communities we'd like to be close to. We wanted a lot the academic areaUniversity of Bucharest, National University of Music of Bucharest, UNATC I. L.Caragiale, but also communities of entrepreneurs and independent cultural operators - Andreea Rosca -The Vast and Curious, Calea Victoriei Foundation, French Institute, Bad Unicorn, Tent Therapeutic Association,Bucharest Architects Order, RSS Reloaded, Roditor Food Market, Healthy Man Society,Recorder, IAA Romania. Year after year it is much easier to convince community partners to join us and we hope this will continue in 2023.

Adina:What's next? What are the plans for 2023? What is your mission and vision?(here I said it bigger, but it's important to emphasize why Weekend Sessions exists, what role you want to play in people’s lives and what you want to change in the world)

Silvia:After2 years with almost 40 events at the Botanical Garden "D. Brandza",University of Bucharest the concept is tested and safe. We want to expand the events to more emblematic spaces, museums and public gardens in Bucharest to which we offer a weekend program in partnership. Our mission is to encourage cultural consumption through socialising, we want people to consider a museum or cultural institution where they can meet up with their friends and family when making weekend plans. The museum is more than a guardian of artworks, it is a meeting point. We have started discussions with several institutions and are looking for new partners. In 2023 we are building a sustained programme to promote museums & their gardens with a constant marketing budget.
Bucharest can have more quiet urban social spots, cultural encounters and rediscoveries with acoustic jazz sessions, classical music, film screenings, poetry sessions, yoga & mindfulness, children's workshops, local artists and entrepreneurs enjoying audiences that understand to encourage cultural consumption and ticket purchases.



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