Bristol’s thriving creative sector is working hand-in-hand with local events professionals to keep its many impressive indoor venues and beautiful outdoor spaces busy with shows year-around. Access investigates how the city is emerging from the pandemic.
It’s no secret that Bristol is a creative hub, rich in music, arts and culture. The city famed for Banksy murals and trip hop legends Massive Attack and Portishead has a thriving urban, underground culture with graffiti and bold street art scattered across its vibrant streets.
You’re never far from a venue in Bristol, and playing a big part in creating the city’s unique allure is its strong cohort of live event workers. Despite having strong links to Glastonbury, with the country’s largest festival located some 27 miles away in Somerset, there is no single standout event in the city and it instead boasts an array of diverse events.
The city has a close-knit community of events, strung together by the supportive ecosystem of the Bristol Festivals Network (BFN), which had around 55 members pre-pandemic. The Network has run for several years but only became registered as a charity in 2013, before it was forced to close its city centre hub last October.
BFN executive director Liz Harkman says, “We’re not like other cities where there’s a big focus on one city festival, like Manchester or Edinburgh. The provision is much broader and more unique to Bristol’s urban creative voice.
“Bristol has got a very eclectic and diverse festival scene. They’ve got a really wide reach. As a sector they reach about 1.5 million people each year.”
Local events are not the only reason why the city has such a strong network of event workers; as well as Glastonbury, Bristol also has strong links to festivals elsewhere such as Northamptonshire’s Shambala (cap. 15,000) and Hampshire’s Boomtown (66,000), with many of the events’ workers being based in the city.
Harman adds that the Network runs a workforce audit where it collects information from all the city’s festival workers: “One of the things that we’re looking to develop is how we support that community and how we bring those individuals together to have a larger voice. Especially now freelancers, workers, and the ecology and the supply chain have been particularly left out of support that has come through central government.”
Despite the impact of the pandemic, Bristol’s creative talent has adapted wherever possible, says Jon Finch, head of culture and creative industries for Bristol City Council. As an example he gives African Carribean themed St Paul’s Carnival, which usually attracts more than one million people but showed “great vision” in delivering two online editions this year.
“There’s an ecology where anything goes and anybody can do anything and anything can happen.”
He says in 2019 the visitor economy in Bristol and South Gloucestershire was valued at £1.4bn, and accounted for more than 21,650 full-time jobs. At the time, total tourism supported business turnover was estimated at £1.85bn.
In 2019 the council hosted more than 150 festivals and events, both large and small, at multiple locations across the city that welcomed around one million visitors.
Kathryn Davis, director of tourism at Visit West, says events are critical in attracting tourism: “The important thing for us is that events help supplement what is there all of the time. Events and festivals can be used specifically to drive people to the city during off peak or times when the city may be quieter. They’re a fundamental part of the visitor experience.”
During the pandemic, the vast majority of outdoor events and festivals were cancelled and the sector’s revenues dropped by 90%. Says Finch, “The predominantly freelance workforce and other parts of the festival supply chain have been similarly affected. With Covid-19 restrictions continuing, and knock-on impacts in areas such as the current supply chain issues and staffing shortages, the challenges the sector face persist.”
While the council’s role is to act primarily as a facilitator of events, there are some council-managed events that it works with contractors to deliver. These include two annual road races – the Bristol half marathon and the Bristol 10k – which attract around 20,000 participants. It also works on the Bristol Harbour Festival, which has seen attendance top 250,000.
The council also supports partner organisations in the delivery of events, including the Bristol Lights Festival – a partnership between Bristol City Centre Business Improvement District and BCC Arts and Events Team. The first event, in February 2020, saw 100,000 people get involved, resulting in 58% of local businesses reporting an increase in footfall.
All the city’s public and open spaces across the city are managed by the council, many of which have become synonymous with local festivals and events. They include the Harbourside, Castle Park and Eastville Park. The Clifton and Durdham Downs, an iconic location for many of Bristol’s events, is owned by Bristol residents and is managed by both the council and the Downs Committee.
While the pandemic has presented many challenges, Harkman says a lot of creativity has come out of Covid: “The festival offering in the city has been quite healthy throughout the pandemic because a lot of people still delivered events online and reached their audiences and communities that way.”
Among the many festivals impacted by the pandemic once again this year, but finding alternative ways to make an impact, was Bristol Pride Festival. The event was moved from the Harbourside to the Downs in 2019 to celebrate its tenth year and in the process increased its capacity from 30,000 to 40,000. This year it featured a programme of events across two weeks in July, but the postponed parade had to be cancelled for the second year running.
Music and arts event Redfest, which usually attracts around 10,000 people at St George Park, was also unable to take place this year but organisers set up Red Sessions – a series of mini family themed events across the city.
The hard to miss Bristol International Balloon Fiesta did not go ahead in traditional form this year at Ashton Court Estate, where it usually hosts 100,000 people on each of the four days – in its place was the Fiesta Fortnight – a series of balloon flights across the city.
Tokyo World Festival at Eastville Park took place from 18-19 September, featuring five fields of music and a lineup including Basement Jaxx, Rudimental and Annie Mac. Following last year’s cancellation, its capacity was expanded from 10,000 to 25,000 to meet demand.
Meanwhile, the multi-venue biennial Circus City will return in October, while fellow biennial arts festival Inbetween Time continues to run having started in July. It will continue with a series of artworks and events throughout the year.
The 1,200-capacity nightclub Lakota has set up an open-air event space, Lakota Gardens, which features a large stretch tent with a live performance area. While the team behind Glastonbury’s Shangri-La & Sansar, have opened Lost Horizons – a 350-capacity bar/music venue in a warehouse just outside the city centre.
Forthcoming Halloween events include FEAR at Avon Valley Scream Park with five stages providing a “festival style” experience.
Local promoter Team Love’s Love Saves The Day (LSTD) Festival usually takes place in May, but this year was moved to September. LSTD was launched at Eastville Park in 2015 but moved to Clifton Downs this year with an increased capacity of 25,000. Team Love is set to announce a new venue for next year’s event to enable an increased capacity once again.
Team Love works with fellow local promoters Crosstown Concerts on the Downs Festival. This year, however, it was replaced by one-day event Idles on the Downs (10,000).
“Culture and events are a core part of the city’s image and reputation and what makes Bristol unique.”
Rooms for manoeuvre
Crosstown Concerts was launched in 2016 by Paul Hutton, Conal Dodds and Fraser Duffin, it has an office in Bristol, as well as London, and is very active across the city.
Hutton says that when it comes to the variety of venues available, Bristol is one of the UK’s best cities: “The Midlands for example probably hasn’t got half the venues Bristol has. The city has been built on its reputation as an arts and culture hub from back in the 1970s. I would imagine if you added up all the shows in Bristol in any given year, there would be as many as there are anywhere else, apart from London or Manchester.”
Among the city’s many venues is the O2 Academy Bristol (1,600) and the Bristol Old Vic (540); one of the oldest continuously working theatres in the UK that was built in 1766 and was a the subject of a two-year, multi-million-pound, redevelopment project in 2018.
Other venues include the Bristol hippodrome (1,951) and St George’s Bristol (562); a concert hall in a former Georgian church. The Bristol Beacon (2,075), formerly known as Colston Hall, has been undergoing a major refurbishment project since 2017, and it was recently announced that the reopening has been delayed until October 2023. The anticipated cost of the council project has reportedly more than doubled to £107m.
Among the many notable Bristol grassroots venues are the Louisiana (140) and Thekla (400). The latter, a former cargo ship moored in the Mud Dock area of the harbour, has been busy hosting gigs since 1984.
At the other end of the scale, the 27,000-capacity Ashton Gate Stadium has hosted concerts in recent years by acts including Take That, Muse, the Spice Girls, Massive Attack and Rod Stewart. Elton John and The Killers will perform there next year.
New arena for the city
Ashton Gate, O2 Academy Bristol and even the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff (5,000) some 45 miles away, could well face competition hosting major music events in a few years’ time.
Following planning approval in April last year, the YTL Arena is undergoing the last stage of its technical design. Construction is expected to begin in 2022, with the opening of the new Bristol arena planned two years later.
The venue will be built at the historic Brabazon hangars in Bristol’s northern district of Filton, where the Brabazon and Concorde airliners were developed. When constructed, it will form the focal point of a new £100m housing development and train station on the former airfield.
The arena’s CEO Andrew Billingham says its flexible capacity options mean event promoters will be able to stage shows there with a “sold-out feel” in audience capacity configurations from 4,000 to 17,000.
The venue is being built in three interconnected hangars. The central hangar, the largest, will house the arena while the two smaller hangars flanking it will offer a separate exhibition and events hall providing 11,000sqm of usable space.
Billingham says, “We have had great feedback to our plans, especially the service yard which provides space for more than 150 articulated lorries to load and unload, creating one of the biggest service yards in Europe.”
Asked how confident he is there will be sufficient demand to sustain the arena, Billingham says, “Pre-pandemic the UK arena market had been growing year on year and the European Arena Association forecast it would continue to grow by up to 5%. Post-pandemic, early indications are still very positive and demand is higher than ever.
“Bristol and the South West has been recognised as one of the last remaining key regions for a large scale music arena by promoters and event organisers – which is partly down to an untapped 16m population catchment.”
Bristol’s creative scene has long been celebrated but why do event professionals think it has such a thriving event sector? Finch says, “Bristol has been a place that welcomes people from all over the world and it is this diversity of people, ideas and cultures, that supports the sector to flourish. Culture and events are a core part of the city’s image and reputation and what makes Bristol unique.”
Harkman says it is a progressive and very liberal city that attracts people because of the creativity that exists: “It’s got a particular voice, there’s a historical, urban grassroots element to it. There doesn’t seem to be any dominating creative or cultural organsitions.
“There’s an ecology where anything goes and anybody can do anything and anything can happen.”