With the Olympics an off-track distraction in early August, it seemed behind its previous personal best. Ticket sales were sluggish to begin with; the city's streets were surprisingly quiet. But this is a festival that will always – come rain or shine, recession or boom, sporting distractions or not – deliver. After its slow start, it is back to form and outstripping its previous successes. As they say in the athletics world, Edinburgh has achieved a new personal best.
After the gloomy sales figures of the early weeks, post-Olympics, many venues have seen sales break previous records. Both the Pleasance and the Gilded Balloon have boasted their biggest ever Saturday night. Pleasance sales for the past week were better than they were last year. The Gilded Balloon predicted that this weekend would be a "sell out".
Beyond the Fringe – and out among the other festivals – the outlook is just as good. The Edinburgh International Festival has been doing great business since the start of August, and can boast an 8% rise on last year's sales. The Edinburgh International Book festival has been selling on a par with previous years, and, through the Edinburgh World Writer's Conference, gaining global attention through a series of controversial debates on literature featuring big names including Ben Okri, Irvine Welsh, John Burnside and Joyce Carol Oates.
Jonathan Mills, Edinburgh International Festival director, said: "As we move towards our final week, with many spectacular shows still to come like the Mariinsky Ballet's debut with Cinderella, Vanishing Point's new work Wonderland and world premieres of three operas by Scottish Opera, we are still 8% ahead of ticket sales in 2011."
Even Glasgow seems to have started to care about the festivals. Although Glaswegians tend to ignore the highlight of the Edinburgh cultural calendar, with just 3% of the festival audience coming from the city, the Fringe Society says that a ticket kiosk placed in Glasgow's Queen Street station has been a "popular" success in drawing more Glaswegians over to the east coast.
However, ticket sales are just one barometer to measure success. There are others – the mood of the town, the footfall through the shops, the buzz in the bars and restaurants, and, of course, the street saturation level, best measured by the degree of frustration locals feel on trying to cross town through throngs of happy, erratically moving, tourists and festival-goers.
The talk among bar owners and shop keepers is broadly similar: it started slow, then went, as taxi driver Tony Kenmuir describes it, "crazily busy". A director of Central Taxis, the city's largest cab company, he said the streets are now mobbed.
Colin Paton, chairman of the Edinburgh Hotels Association, which represents 50 hotels, said: "The first two weeks were soft because of the Olympics, but bookings seem to have strengthened in the second section of the month." When the figures for this second period come out, he said he imagines they will be level-pegging with last year.
Bed & breakfasts and rented rooms are doing well too. According to spare room rental website wimdu.co.uk, its 400 Edinburgh hosts made a combined total of £56,000 in the three weeks of the Fringe.
The high street also experienced a disappointing start to August – which again was blamed mainly on the Olympics. However, counters across Edinburgh showed a 28% increase in footfall between the first and second week of the month, and a further 5% rise the week after. Steve Cardownie, Edinburgh City Council's events and festivals champion, said: "Whether it was a change in the weather, a post-Olympics feel-good factor or something else, a busy city centre is very welcome, especially during our festival period which is so crucial for local businesses."
There are a couple of stand-out successes among the capital's venues, pubs and restaurants. The Peartree House pub, which has run some of the hugely popular Laughing Horse Free Festival events out of its linked venue, The Counting House, has had, according to manager George Fyvie, its "best year yet". He said: "We've had to regularly turn huge queues of people away from The Counting House. I just counted 117 that I turned back from the last show."
And in between these shows punters are sitting in the Peartree courtyard and eating and drinking. Fyvie recalls that "probably for the first few days it was a little slow". Now, however he is "just looking forward to September for a day off".
Summerhall, in its second year on the Fringe, has also been packed with festival-goers. Publicity director Paul Gillon said: "Our ticket sales per number of shows are significantly up over last year. The sale of food and drink is way above our expectations."
Summerhall – sited in the former Royal (Dick) Vet School building on the edge of the Meadows – is also part of the buzz of freshness in the air this year; a feeling that the Fringe has returned to old form and past values, something more than a vast stand-up comedy extravaganza.
The Edinburgh International Writer's Conference, a recreation of the original world-changing 1962 event, also fed into that mood of revival. Here was a conference, big on ideas, that the world was interested in. Director Nick Barley said: "The Edinburgh World Writers' Conference has not only generated a great deal of interest here in the UK, but also around the world, as the live online broadcasts were watched in over 40 countries."
This kind of outreach is marketing at its best, for the festivals and for Edinburgh and Scotland more widely. The Edinburgh Festivals Impact study, published by Scottish Enterprise and the Festivals Forum, emphasised the contribution the festivals made "to local, national and international profile". Culture minister Fiona Hyslop said this year, Edinburgh had "scaled up" its position as the world's leading arts festival city. She said: "What we are providing now, with Creative Scotland, is a real international hub where people can do business – booking artists and performances. If anything, we are scaling up by introducing Edinburgh as a place where you go for discussions on a worldwide scale."
The Edinburgh festivals can always be relied on to provide a good news story for Scotland. The impact study estimated that they generated £261 million for the economy. The story of this year's festivals is one of resilience. In spite of the weather and the sporting excitement, people came, went to shows and bought things in the shops of the capital as they always have. This is a festival that is continuing to grow, a vast ever-expanding snowball of the arts. Businesses out there are smiling, as yet again, they beat another personal best.
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