Fizzled Fyre Festival promises refunds but partygoers 'skeptical'

Organizers of the ill-fated Fyre Festival have promised disappointed partygoers full refunds and VIP passes to next year's event.

Most attendees have decamped after being met with disorganization and music acts that fail to show

This photo provided by Jake Strang shows mattress and tents set up for attendees of the Fyre Festival, Friday, April 28, 2017, in the Exuma islands, Bahamas. (Jake Strang/Associated Press)

In this day and age, the young and beautiful live and die on social media.

In the case of the ill-fated Fyre Festival — a multiday music, art and culture party that promised "an invitation to let loose and unplug with the like-minded" on the Bahamian island of Exuma — it's been a sudden and ugly death, chronicled in real-time on YouTube and filtered through Facebook.

Organizers cancelled the event, promoted by Ja Rule, at the last minute after poor planning, disorganization and lack of accommodations. Most of the A-list acts had pulled out of the festival days before, citing a lack of payment.

Those who arrived on the island expecting villa accommodation were housed in "disaster relief tents" and served bread and cheese in Styrofoam containers.

It was supposed to be a sun-soaked experience filled with yachts, gourmet food and models. Ticket prices ranged from $500 to $12,000.

"The conditions were basically the exact opposite of our expectations," Toronto partygoer Elise Darma told CBC News Network by phone Saturday.

Darma, who says her group of friends were told to expect a private island, private jets and luxury lodging, instead faced a "free-for-all" upon arrival as attendees were told to "grab a tent."

"When we got to the tents, we discovered that they were soaking," she said, citing rain as the possible culprit. "So when you stepped on the carpet inside, you'd have a puddle of water around your foot."

Attendees at Fyre Festival in the Bahamas were promised a luxurious, private party but instead found themselves eating bread and cheese sandwiches under a tent. (William N. Finley IV/Twitter)

Security, she said, consisted of "lockers in the middle of our tent city" and "anything you left in your tent was open to be taken."

"Luckily, I had brought a padlock so I was able to lock my things up in the middle of the night," she said, referring to a laptop and camera she had brought. "I did wake up in the middle of the night to go grab them because I felt too worried about them being in the middle of all this madness."

She said there was ample water, but no electricity. 

By Saturday morning, partygoers including Darma had decamped, many of them to hotels in Miami in hopes of salvaging a weekend.

Fyre Festival attendee describes chaotic experience

6 years ago
Duration 5:17
The conditions were 'the exact opposite of our expectations,' says Elise Darma, a Canadian who attended the cancelled festival in the Bahamas for just one night

The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism expressed its deep disappointment in a statement sent to the media.

It looked like they were trying to sell lots for homes.- Jake Strang, festival attendee

"Hundreds of visitors to Exuma were met with total disorganization and chaos," the tourism office wrote in a statement.

In a statement posted on the Fyre Festival website Saturday, co-organizer Billy McFarland said festival goers will be refunded in full. "We will be working on refunds over the next few days and will be in touch directly with guests with more details. Also, all guests from this year will have free VIP passes to next year's festival," he wrote.

Darma said she paid $500 US for the total package but she and her friends added extra cash to their "wristbands" ranging from $200 to $2000, which was supposed to allow them to make food and drink purchases on site.

"Whether we see that money refunded or not, I think we're all skeptical until that day actually happens," Darma said. "I hope it does but we're kind of treating it like a loss right now."

Seductive social media hype

The hype for Fyre Festival began months ago, marketed with slick videos on social media.

"I saw it on Instagram and booked it before the lineup was announced," said Mitch Purgason, a 25-year-old bespoke menswear designer in Charlotte, N.C.

The Instagram ads looked especially "ridiculous" — parlance for amazing — what with models like Gigi Hadid and rapper Ja Rule. Blink-182 was supposed to perform. Photos of the impossibly blue water and the sugary sandy beach looked incredible. And the veritable icing on the cake — docile wild pigs lived on the beach and swam in the warm water, perfect props for a killer Instagram selfie.

Although the festival on the island chain east of Florida appeared to cater to the millennial trust fund crowd, it was people like Purgason and 29-year-old Jake Strang of Pittsburgh who purchased early tickets — young professionals who wanted to spend a fun weekend in the tropics.

Like Purgason, Strang paid $500 for a flight to the island from Miami, lodging and food. Strang and seven of his friends planned the trip to coincide with a birthday. They reserved a "lodge" for eight, with four king beds and a seating area in the middle.

Worst case scenario, I figured, we're still in the Bahamas in a villa.- Mitch Purgason, festival attendee

"Everything made it look amazing," said Strang.

The festival website was also enticing. It promised a treasure hunt of "exceptional proportions," with over $1 million in riches to be found. It also said the event would be held on a private island.

Purgason said he was skeptical, but went ahead with the planned vacation anyway. "Worst case scenario, I figured, we're still in the Bahamas in a villa."

'The first three hours was dope'

His first inkling that something was amiss came on Thursday morning. Purgason was on the first flight from Miami to Exuma and when they landed, organizers said the villas weren't ready. So they whisked the planeload of partygoers to a restaurant at a nearby resort. He noted that it wasn't a private island at all.

Still, food and drink were free and plenty. Cute pigs and bikini-clad girls roamed the beach. There was a DJ.

"They actually treated us pretty well," he said. "The first three hours was dope."

Jenna Conlin, 30, an advertising professional in Venice, Calif., said, "They were putting down bottles of tequila on every table in an attempt to make everybody happy."

This photo provided by Jake Strang shows tents and a portable toilet set up for attendees for the Fyre Festival. Organizers of the much-hyped music festival in the Bahamas cancelled the weekend event at the last minute Friday after many people had already arrived and spent thousands of dollars on tickets and travel. (Jake Strang via Associated Press)

Strang flew in later Thursday and wasn't so lucky.

"When we arrived, it essentially looked like a construction site. It looked like they were trying to sell lots for homes," he said.

By daybreak, people had already started to line up and complain, and buses began taking people to the airport. It was official: the festival was cancelled. Word got out via social media that organizers issued a statement citing "circumstances out of our control" for their inability to prepare the "physical infrastructure" for the event in the largely undeveloped Exuma.

"I'm heartbroken at this moment," Ja Rule, whose real name is Jeffrey Atkins, said on Twitter. "I wanted this to be an amazing event. It was not a scam as everyone is reporting. I truly apologize as this is NOT MY FAULT."

Model Bella Hadid, one of the celebrities involved in publicizing the festival, tweeted Saturday she felt "so sorry."

"I initially trusted this would be an amazing & memorable experience for all of us, which is why I agreed to do one promotion ... not knowing about the disaster that was to come," she posted.

With files from CBC News