With the UK already able to boast some of the busiest and best arena venues in the world, Access explores the likely impact a raft of new major venue openings will have on the market, and how the leading operators are ensuring their venues not only remain state of the art but are meeting sustainability goals.

This article was published in the winter 20/21 edition of Access All Areas. Read it here, and/or subscribe for free here.

Manchester’s 21,000-capacity AO Arena, the Utilita Arena Birmingham (cap. 11,000), London’s The O2 (20,000) and The OVO Hydro (14,300) in Glasgow are among the UK arenas that year in, year out are among the busiest in the world when it comes to event tickets sold.

At the end of 2019, the last full year of full-capacity events, The SSE Hydro generated more than $72m (£54.3m) from ticket sales to become the second-best performing arena in the world, according to Pollstar data.

The UK is already in a strong position when it comes to offering domestic and international touring artists a network of impressive arena facilities, but that network is due to be significantly strengthened in the next few years.

Among the new buildings in the pipeline are a 15,000-capacity arena in Cardiff Bay, the 17,000-capacity YTL Arena in Bristol, and the 23,500-capacity Co-op Live in Manchester which once opened will be the UK’s biggest arena.

While all those buildings are in the pipeline, the plan by America’s Madison Square Garden Company to build a 21,500-capacity MSG Sphere arena four miles from The O2 in London has not made a great deal of progress since it was first announced in 2019. The Stratford-based Sphere is still awaiting planning permission from the London Legacy Development Corporation, but a decision is understood to be imminent.

AEG Europe chief operating officer John Langford – who oversees the company’s many arenas across the region including London’s The O2 arena, Barclaycard Arena (16,000) in Hamburg and Paris’s AccorHotels Arena (20,300), says he welcomes new arenas but draws the line at the MSG Sphere.

He says, “We welcome the competition, the arrival of new venues helps raise the bar. My feeling is that all boats rise on the tide and particularly from an environmental perspective – if you look at the things that Co-op Live is doing or the Climate Pledge Arena [17,500] in Seattle, they’re able to use new technologies and focus on things that maybe older arenas haven’t been able to consider.

“Competition makes us all look at things differently, whether it’s technology, whether it’s service, whether it’s content – the whole operation.”

“Competition makes us all look at things differently, whether it’s technology, whether it’s service, whether it’s content – the whole operation. It’s really good for consumers, and having a range of different venues of different sizes provides opportunities for artists and promoters and that can only be a good thing. We’ve always said that there is space in London for another venue although fundamentally we don’t believe that it could be two tube stops away from the O2.”

One of the areas where a new opening has the most direct competition is in Manchester. The £350 million Co-op Live venue, located next to Manchester City football club’s Etihad Stadium in the Eastlands area of Manchester, is expected to open in 2023. The project is overseen by US-based Oak View Group (OVG), which was formed in 2015 by former AEG CEO Tim Leiweke and former chairman of Live Nation Entertainment and artiste manager Irving Azoff.

Both OVG and ASM Global, which operates the AO Arena and was created by the merger of AEG Facilities and SMG Europe, have cited independent reports which support their opposing views on whether Manchester can support a second arena of a similar size.

OVG EVP facilities development Brian Kabatznick says construction of the new venue is on target for the 2023 opening: “There are currently up to 400 people working on-site daily and, over the three-year construction period it will directly create more than 3,350 full-time jobs.”

Unsurprisingly, Kabatznick believes Manchester, and the UK more broadly, can sustain the arena newcomers.

He says, “The investment in a next generation of arenas in cities around the UK is a clear signal of the confidence in the UK’s live entertainment market. There is a demonstrable appetite for new venues capable of hosting a diverse range of music, family, sports, corporate and e-sport events.

“Through our £350m private investment in Manchester in partnership with City Football Group and Harry Styles, and through our partnership with Live Nation for the new arena in Cardiff in cooperation with Cardiff Council, we are backing that confidence with significant financial commitments.”

Pandemic priorities

The future certainly looks bright for the arena sector but having survived a torrid time during 14 months of pandemic lockdown, many venues have seen a higher than usual number of ticketholder no shows at events since the full-capacity reopening in July.

At the ASM Global operated SSE Arena Wembley (12,500), VP & general manager John Drury says that the venue team worked hard to bring projects into the building during
the lockdown.

“We were probably one of the busiest, if not the busiest arena in the UK, through the closure period, filming Danny Dyer’s The Wall, The Masked Dancer series, we had behind closed doors boxing with Matchroom, and then we were lucky to get the Anthony Joshua fight in December last year with just 1,000 people in the audience,” he says.

With the UK’s arenas mostly dormant for so long, its representative body the National Arenas Association (NAA) was kept busy with Covid-related issues.

“Our overwhelming priority during that time was working with DCMS to try to mitigate the impact on the live events sector,” says Lucy Noble, who as well as being the NAA chair is artistic director at the Royal Albert Hall (5,272).

“One new development that has been incredibly helpful is the formation of the new LIVE [Live Industry Venues and Entertainment] group, which draws together 13 live music industry associations. The NAA is a founding member of the group, and it feels that for the first time we have a clear, industry-wide voice, which has been invaluable during our discussions with government.”

The Royal Albert Hall, which celebrates its 150th Anniversary this year, was in line with many arenas in seeing a little initial uncertainty among concertgoers after the reopening, but Noble says business has picked up strongly since.

“Business has been very good”, she says. “We have had shows almost every night during autumn and winter, all of them at full capacity. Sales were a little slow when we reopened in July but are now strong. Audiences mostly seem to feel confident about coming to performances, so things are moving in the right direction. Obviously, our finances took an enormous hit due to the pandemic, and we are only just starting out on that road to financial recovery.”

Langford says AEG’s venues are still seeing a larger than usual number of no shows: “We are seeing the same trend across the European portfolio – there are still some shows that have a large number of no shows and it appears shows that have been postponed multiple times have a larger volume of no shows than those that haven’t been postponed. We are also finding a correlation with the ticket price, shows which have
a lower ticket price have a larger number of no shows than those
with a higher price.”

At ASM Global, which operates 325 venues worldwide including the Bonus Arena Hull (3,500), Utilita Arena Newcastle (11,000) and Aberdeen’s P&J Live (16,000), the company spent the pandemic lockdown enhancing facilities at existing venues and focusing on expanding its portfolio.

ASM Global executive VP Europe John Sharkey says it is working alongside AEG Presents to manage the refurbished Wolverhampton Civic Halls and will operate the planned 3,500 capacity Becketwell Arena
in Derby.

He says business at the company’s UK venues has bounced back strongly since the reopening but some events are more vulnerable to faltering consumer confidence than others: “It depends on the circumstances not least whether there is a lot of rescheduled events backed up to take place in a short period of time, and also the genre of the event. The older generation is proving more resistant to returning.”

Green matters

Langford is chair of LIVE Green, an offshoot of LIVE focused on driving environmental progress in the live events industry. All 13 association members of LIVE have committed to its Beyond Zero Declaration, to deliver measurable and targeted action on climate change, with the aim of reaching net zero emissions across the sector by 2030. Among the services it provides are a free-to-access resource hub and industry-wide measurement of CO2 emissions.

Langford says the most important step toward the Beyond Zero Declaration’s goal for arena operators is addressing energy consumption and supply: “The simplest and most prescient thing to do is all about energy supply, arenas are big buildings that consume vast amounts of energy both when they are dark but obviously when there is a show in.

“The key thing is measuring and monitoring, and making every effort possible to reduce their consumption of energy first and foremost. It’s blindingly obvious but everybody should be running on renewables.

“If we take The O2 arena for example, its carbon emissions have been reduced by 80% in the last 10 years simply by following the simple steps of measuring, reducing and moving to renewables.”

Once completed, OVG’s Co-op Live venue will be the first arena in the UK to be solely powered by electricity, meanwhile venues such as the SSE Arena Wembley Arena and OVO Hydro are partnering with their energy supplier naming rights sponsors on environmental solutions.

Debbie McWilliams is director of live entertainment at the Scottish Event Campus, the home of the OVO Hydro, which played host to Cop26. In October, SEC signed a sponsorship deal with OVO Energy for the venue that involves a raft of environmental commitments and initiatives including a sustainable food strategy.

Says McWilliams, “OVO launched with the aim of making energy cheaper, greener, and simpler and has used a range of imaginative and innovative measures to do this, such as offering 100% renewable electricity as standard and planting one carbon-fighting tree for every customer, every year. We are working towards achieving Greener Arena Certification through A Greener Festival, which will show that carbon reduction and transition strategies are at the heart of our operations. OVO will support us in that process.”

At Wembley, John Langford says that this month will see red meat removed from menus in the venue. Other key measures include reducing the amount of single-use plastic.

“I remember a Prodigy show we did years ago, at the end of the night there was a sea of plastic on the floor and we looked at it and thought ‘that’s a good night, the bar take was really strong’.”

“I remember a Prodigy show we did years ago, at the end of the night there was a sea of plastic on the floor and we looked at it and thought ‘that’s a good night, the bar take was really strong’ and the evidence was everywhere but if we saw that now we would think we have failed. We’ve been working with Stack-Cup reusables but we’re also looking at other solutions.”

Secure approach

Following the tragic events at Astroworld, and on a far smaller scale at The O2 last month when a group of Wizkid fans forced their way into the building, event security has yet again been in the media spotlight.

Security has always been a huge focus for arena operators, not least since the Manchester Arena attack and subsequent inquiry, but the dearth of available trained staff is a key concern.

Following the Manchester attack the NAA established a Security Group in 2018 which has helped venues work to improve safety standards alongside police and counter terrorism agencies.

Says Noble, “Security is obviously of paramount importance to all of us in the arenas sector, and we are constantly reviewing our policies and following the most up-to-date guidance. When the findings of the [Manchester Arena] inquiry are delivered next year, we intend to support and implement all the recommendations that are made.”

The suggestion of a ‘Martyn’s Law’ has been led by Figen Murray, mother of Martyn Hett who was one of 22 people who died in the 2017 attack at Manchester Arena. She says the law would be a coherent and proportionate approach to security at venues of all sizes. She is hoping the inquiry will result in the recommendation that ‘Martyn’s Law’ is passed into legislation.

Kabatznick says OVG welcomes the proposals set out in Martyn’s Law, and all the requirements will be incorporated into security measures at Co-op Live: “We will implement the newest security and anti-terrorism technology within our design and operation planning.”

As the arena sector continues to evolve apace it is not only safety and sustainability measures that are being enhanced, but the customer experience is also continually being assessed and improved upon.

McWilliams says measures such as the move to digital ticketing have improved the customer experience by making event entry seamless, while at the Royal Albert Hall, Noble says one of the most exciting recent innovations has been the introduction of d&b Soundscape, which will be showcased in Birmingham National Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker on 28-31 December.

“It’s a revolutionary tool that is being used by artists including Björk that adds a whole new immersive layer to productions, providing an incredibly clear and specific degree of surround sound,” she says.

Langford says the sector is going to see a lot of technological advances in the coming five to 10 years: “I think there’s going to be significant changes that will be motivated by the move towards the metaverse, and a bigger ability to use data and bandwidth.”

This article was published in the winter 20/21 edition of Access All Areas. Read it here, and/or subscribe for free here.