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Emails reveal inside story of Dundee Winterfest chaos – from ‘scared’ traders to backlash fears

The Courier goes behind the scenes of the failed Christmas event.

Winterfest featured children's rides and a big wheel. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson
Winterfest featured children's rides and a big wheel. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

A series of emails have revealed the chaos and confusion behind the ill-fated plans to run Dundee Winterfest 2023.

The event was launched to much fanfare at Slessor Gardens in 2021 – marking the biggest Christmas celebrations the city had seen in years.

A big wheel, an ice rink, children’s rides and festive market stalls lit up the Waterfront venue.

The commercial event returned in 2022 with no suggestion that it would run into problems ahead of this year.

But it emerged in November that Winterfest was being scaled back – before it failed to even open as planned on December 1.

Now The Courier can reveal the content of messages exchanged between organiser M&N Events and Dundee City Council over the plans for 2023, which paint a picture of disorganisation, frustration and even panic.

Here are seven revelations from the emails, released through Freedom of Information legislation.

1. Traders ‘scared’ for 2023 after last year’s losses

More than 267,000 people attended Dundee’s Christmas events in 2021 – which covered Winterfest and the council’s separate City Square activities.

These events also gave Dundee an economic boost of £2.6 million.

But in 2022 visitor numbers dropped to 115,000 – and the economic impact was just £1.3m.

Then in August this year, M&N Events emailed Dundee City Council to say it had received a “very underwhelming” response from stallholders about a 2023 event.

A market stall at Winterfest 2022. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

Referring to businesses “losing money”, the firm blamed the weather and the cost-of-living crisis for last year’s “unsuccessful income” and predicted 2023/24 would be “the same, if not worse”.

Emails exchanged in October further showed M&N Events was “still struggling for stall traders”.

An unnamed person at the firm added: “I’ve even offered free rent but the feedback I’m getting from most is that they’re scared to lay out for stock/staff regardless of the duration.”

2. Organisers feared backlash from downsized Winterfest

During discussions with the council in August, M&N Events expressed concerns about the “backlash” it would receive by running a smaller 2023 event.

An email from M&N Events on August 25 said: “My main concern is that (a downscaled event) will tarnish the Winterfest brand that M&N Events and Dundee City Council have worked closely to build.

“As you were aware, there were many positive comments from both previous years but there are always negatives.

“And by delivering a smaller ‘market’ I am concerned of the backlash and whether people would even visit.”

Nisa Jordan and Monique Thomson from M&N Events at the launch of Winterfest in 2021. Image: M&N Events

The email added: “I really do think we should take into consideration the backlash and negativity that both my company and the council will receive if we run a reduced, less appealing event.”

An email from a council worker – the principal events organiser – on October 16 showed the council was also concerned about the public response.

It said: “As you can imagine there will be a lot of disappointment that there will be nothing in Slessor Gardens this year.

“And we will want to have comments prepared when the press picks it up.”

3. Bid to move Winterfest from Slessor Gardens to City Square

The emails show there was lots of confusion over the proposed location of Winterfest 2023.

An email from M&N Events in August said Winterfest would have to be downsized and sought agreement from the council “on whether an event should go ahead in Slessor Gardens for this season”.

It said moving the market to City Square “would help with footfall and regular passing trade”.

Dundee Winterfest at Slessor gardens in 2022 amid 2023 chaos
Stalls, rides and the big wheel at last year’s Winterfest. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

But M&N Events added: “I know (the council) already run an event in that area so I’m not even sure if that would be an option.

“If anyone from your side has better suggestions to make the event successful and profitable, then I am keen to hear.”

In a brief response, the council said it would discuss the idea further but that it wanted “something” to take place.

4. Council ‘not keen’ on City Square plans as frustrations grow

By October, the council was still not clear about if, or when, M&N Events planned to hold Winterfest and a location hadn’t been agreed either.

The council emailed M&N Events on October 4, saying it was looking to announce its plans for Christmas in the next week and “need to know what you are committing to delivering”.

It also said that a deadline for paperwork had passed.

Later emails show the council told M&N Events it was “not keen” on the firm’s idea of having market stalls at City Square, as “we already have plans for there”.

An area outside the Overgate was proposed for some Winterfest activities. Image: Google Street View
Finlay Petrie, 9, enjoying the council’s Christmas activities at City Square at the weekend. Image: Alan Richardson

The council told the company: “If we are to consider City Square, we will need to remove some of our items, (which are) already contracted and organised.

“It opens in seven weeks’ time and you have let another two weeks pass since we met without fixing your plans.”

The emails appear to show M&N Events still failed to clarify its exact plans, but did confirm it would not be using Slessor Gardens, which the council said it was “disappointed” about.

And although appearing supportive of some Winterfest attractions being set up outside the Overgate, the council said stalls on High Street or City Square were “not enough of an offer in themselves to be attractive, and don’t add value to the city centre”.

5. Panic signs as locals look for answers on Winterfest 2023

By mid-October, there were signs of panic at the council as “confused” locals looked for answers over whether Winterfest 2023 was going ahead – and crisis management started to kick in.

The council emailed M&N Events on October 11, saying: “Our press is due to go this week – what can we say about Winterfest?

“We’re getting a lot of customers asking what’s coming this year – I’m sure you’re seeing the traffic to the Facebook/website increasing.

“The website is promoting Nov 25-Jan 1 at the moment, which is confusing for them.

Youngsters enjoying a snow globe at the first Dundee Winterfest. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

“At the moment we’ve been telling them that there are plans (being) developed for activity in December and the organisers will go public with the details soon.

“Please come back to us today and we’ll get firmed up on what’s happening.”

Five days later, M&N Events sent the council a statement it planned on issuing to the public, confirming Winterfest was being downscaled and relocated.

This set alarm bells ringing at the council, which replied just 16 minutes later, saying: “Please do not release this today – as I described on Friday afternoon, we need a bit of time to 1. agree the plan of what you ARE doing and 2. make sure our leaders all know what you are NOT doing.”

The chain of emails about moving Winterfest to its new location appears to have ended on October 20, but the public announcement above never went out, with vague Facebook posts appearing instead.

It only emerged in mid-November that there were plans to move and downscale the event – after The Courier had contacted M&N Events.

6. Roller disco and Christmas tree maze among proposed attractions for 2023

The emails also reveal the attractions that M&N Events had considered running for 2023.

Initially, the firm said it had looked at introducing a Christmas tree/ice maze and a roller disco to its downsized offering at Slessor Gardens.

However, it later focused on developing plans for activities in the city centre instead.

These included:

  • Two Winterfest stalls selling food and two children’s rides, open between 11am and 6pm daily, near the penguin statues at the Overgate
  • Four Winterfest stalls selling crafts between 10am and 6pm daily at an unspecified site referred to as the ‘D area’; the idea of putting up a 22-metre “mini” wheel in this area was also mooted
  • Three stalls on the left-hand side of City Square selling crafts, running alongside the council’s activities
The big wheel at Slessor Gardens for Winterfest 2021. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

Addressing moves to scrap the big wheel for 2023, M&N Events said it had been running the wheel at Slessor Gardens during the October 2023 school break and it had welcomed “minimal customers”, adding: “Last year we were 30% down from years one and two, and this year is even worse.

“It is barely taking the expenses.”

7. £50k public cash commitment to previous Winterfest events

Although the council did not organise Winterfest, it previously worked in tandem with M&N Events to promote the festival.

This included a launch involving council leader John Alexander in November 2021, who donned his ice skates for publicity shots and told The Courier: “This is the biggest and best Christmas showcase that we’ve managed to put on in a great number of years.

“I want this to be a permanent fixture.”

Council leader John Alexander on the Winterfest ice in 2021. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

The council later hailed the economic impact of Winterfest 2021 – something it failed to do after the 2022 event.

The Courier can now reveal that Dundee City Council committed £30,000 to supporting the 2021 event and a further £20,000 in 2022.

No money was due to be paid to support Winterfest in 2023, though the council has not confirmed why this was the case.

What have those involved said?

Asked for its response to the revelations in the emails, a spokesperson for Dundee City Council said: “No formal proposal was made by M&N Events for Winterfest to be part of the city’s official Christmas festivities this year.

“This year’s Christmas in Dundee provides a good mix of traditional, free festive entertainment for everyone to enjoy.”

M&N Events has been contacted for comment.