In under a decade Croatia has gone from an East bloc nation known only for its horrific civil war to an international music hub to rival aging monarch Ibiza. From June each year, over 20 back-to-back music festivals grace the 1000km Adriatic coastline, with the apartments in Croatia overwhelmingly inhabited by Brits. Whilst economists and tourist boards have attributed “The Croatia Phenomenon” to a whole host of factors, for many, the sole reason for the explosion is simple: The Garden Festival – the niche nu-disco beach-holiday-with-music that started it all, back in 2006.
“I came out on holiday here in 2003” explains English Nick Colgan, owner of The Garden Festival, “I had a friend who lived in Croatia and we’d often talked about running something here. Eventually a local hotelier showed us some disused ground at the back of the hotel and offered it to us, with 10 days to decide.” Now, with temperatures regularly topping 30 degrees and making for thirsty revellers you’d think this would have been easy work but setting up camp in the Adriatic wasn’t without its challenges “To make it work, we ended up having to invite all our UK friends over – promoters, DJs, and their mates. Our first official festival was in 2006, and almost half the attendees were on the payroll!”.
It certainly wasn’t a sure thing, as Dave Harvey, now head of bookings for The Garden Festival testifies: “Like most people being flown out there by Nick in its first year, I thought it was madness. Some people had never even heard of Croatia, never mind thought of putting on an event there. But when we got out there, something magical happened.” Whilst the numbers were only in the mid-hundreds, a movement had begun. “I guess people suddenly woke up and realised there was an alternative” explains Nick. “You didn’t have to be ripped off in Ibiza or rained on in the UK, there was now a third option for music lovers”. Quick to realise that like designer restaurants, fashion or adult videos, the key was niche, Nick shied away from aggressively expanding The Garden Festival, instead contacting groups of promoters he knew socially or through connections and inviting them to run their own festival in partnership to his, with The Garden Festival retaining its signature, Balearic disco sound and this new festival concentrating on the bass-heavy end of the spectrum, resulting in 2008 in the first Outlook festival.
After that things moved fast. Nick’s relationship with the Outlook promoters remained strong, however it became clear that the bass-heavy boat parties were becoming a literal headache for the locals. On top of that The Garden Festival’s popularity had seen its numbers grow five-fold to some 2500 people in 3 years. It was time to leave home. With the help and blessing of Nick, Outlook in 2009 moved up the coast to Pula via a stint a Zrce beach where head honcho Johnny ran the party up to a fever pitch before taking a leaf out of Nick’s book and setting up a second festival on the same site, Dimensions, in 2012. Meanwhile Nick had gone venue shopping. A known name around Croatia by now with a penchant for employing locally – including most famously his two boat party captains, who between them started out with 2 boat parties in 2006 and today handle over 22 parties over the week-long period – Nick was offered Tisno. Nervous at the size and scale of the event and venue he was now dealing with – “2009 was a success – our biggest ever year at 3500 people, but it was stressful” Nick retained the same principles that had generated The Garden Festival and Outlook, capping his numbers back down to 2500 and diversifying into new festivals. Now some 6 festivals: The Garden Festival, Electric Elephant, SunceBeat, Into The Wild, Stop Making Sense and Soundwave grace the Tisno site back to back every summer, all in part overseen by Nick.
It’s enough of a success story in itself to make any Elite Daily reader whip out their brainstorming app and start taking notes but it’s made all the more interesting by its after effects. Seeing the boat parties, the hot interest in bassy music and the potential for Ibiza like beach parties, Ibiza like weather but distinctly un-Ibiza like prices, The Warehouse Project raised the war cry amongst its promoters and promptly went to East European playground Zrce Beach, creating Hideout, which quickly developed a more mellow sister up in Rovinj, Unknown. Meanwhile, all this noise just across the water caused the Italians to start sniffing around, leading to Sonus and Barrakud, both on Zrce. Finally, cementing Croatia’s position as a world destination for clubbing, EDM megastar brand Ultra steamed into Split and Hvar last summer, in a dazzling display of sweated sample packs and slippery American students. “It’s a very healthy thing” remarks Nick, “Unlike Ibiza where it’s often a bit one-dimensional, there’s something for everyone here – beach holiday vibes like The Garden Festival, big raves like Hideout or huge stadium events like Ultra. Everyone here has their own patch. As long as it never gets political, with festivals and events slapping exclusivity on artists the way they do in other big destinations, we’ll all stay on great terms.”
So with The Garden Festival entering its ninth installment this year, how does the original inventor plan to stay ahead? “We’ve found some new secret locations. A big draw for the The Garden Festival family – that group of artists and guests that come year on year for 3, 6, 8 years, is the secret picnics: boat parties that go out to an island for an all day barbecue and picnic. We’ve got a new one of those lined up. We’ve also got a new afterparty venue, some 20 mins by party bus inland. We’re only a little festival, but we’re lucky in that there’s only ever been a handful of our artists that haven’t wanted to come back year on year so this year the roster’s looking as healthy as ever.”
The interview draws to an end. Nick has to go out and meet some local promoters – he lives in Zadar where he runs Garden Zadar, a local hotspot for residents and expats alike. As a final parting note, DT asks if he ever gets that itch to go start it all over again somewhere else. Nick laughs. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. But I have been thinking about it, yeah. I’m thinking of something in the Philippines The Phillipines? ‘That’s pretty leftfield’ DT answers. “Yeah, but they said that about Croatia too…”
The Garden Festival is on the 2-9th July in Tisno, Croatia. Boutique accommodation, luxury Shikar tents from India and apartments and villas are both on The Garden Tisno site and spread around the locality, along with many fine restaurants and bars.Head to www.thegardenfestival.eu for more information and tickets
Words: Ally Byers
Photos: Khris Cowley, www.heathershuker.co.uk