Venue operators throughout England have welcomed the Government’s reopening roadmap, with many keen to get involved in the Events Research Programme and stage pilot events. Events bookings are increasing, and tickets are selling fast but the reopening of venues will not be plain sailing for all.
In July last year Manchester’s Emirates Old Trafford (EOT), which has a 50,000 capacity for concerts and 26,000 for cricket, hosted the world’s first bio-secure test match. Its operators then launched Safe in One Place – an initiative designed to share knowledge and Covid-safe events best practice with the industry.
EOT sales director Angela Hodson says the prime minister’s roadmap has sparked optimism throughout the industry and positive reaction from the venue’s clients: “September onwards will be the period that hopefully events will bounce back, our diary is suggesting that will be the case. We’ve even had some clients move events from 2022 into 2021, which is really positive.”
She says the venue is looking to host a pilot event in April and the aim from 17 May onward is to host cricket matches with 25% capacity crowds.
James Allen, general manager at the city’s AO Arena, says he is encouraged by how positively the prime minister’s roadmap announcement has impacted ticket sales: “They increased significantly in the following week, with sell out shows including James and Happy Mondays, Little Mix, Queen + Adam Lambert and Celine Dion. After almost a year of pause, we are all looking forward to being able to press play and welcome fans and artists back to the venue.”
“We’ve even had some clients move events from 2022 into 2021, which is really positive.”
The announcement has also put a spring in the step of Ally Wolf (pictured below left), general manager of London venue The Clapham Grand (1,250). Last year the venue received £300,000 from the Arts Council England-administered Culture Recovery Fund. Prior to that, in-house initiatives had raised more than £50,000 for the venue. In December, Wolf oversaw a programme of reduced capacity shows at the venue.
Wolf does have concerns though, despite the Government’s extension of the furlough period and reduced VAT rate on tickets. He points out that 21 June is not the best time for indoor venues to re-open.
“The return to full capacity date is at the beginning of the summer, which is a notoriously hard period for all indoor venues to trade at the best of times. If you combine that with us entering into it without having built up capital resources through the profit-making winter months and with a market that is hesitant to return to indoor venues partly because the much-publicised nature of outdoor spaces being less risky for transmission and also take into account the huge resurgence of festivals and outdoor drinking – I think the summer will see a lot of indoor venues at their most financially precarious,” he says.
As a result, Wolf says he would like to see Government provide a support package that lasts beyond the return of full capacity trading: “We are a 1,250 cap space that requires pre-booked talent to sell the volume of tickets required to cover the costs of executing the events, that can’t be turned around at a moment’s notice. We are being told that we will find out for certain if we can go ahead and return to trading at full capacity just one week beforehand.”
Royal Albert Hall artistic & commercial director, and chair of the National Arenas Association (NAA), Lucy Noble (pictured below right) says it is not financially viable for the 5,200-capacity venue to stage events from 17 May with a maximum audience of 1,000, so activity in the building in front of audiences will be held off until after 21 June.
Like Wolf, Noble is concerned about the lack of prior notice that venues will have prior to full-capacity events being be allowed to take place.
“What is crucial to us reopening is having enough notice to remobilise and what makes this new timeline challenging for venues is that we will only hear one week before if we are able to proceed to the next stage. Sadly, many venues will have to take decisions on seasons and performances a long time before that which means that many performances across the summer could be lost. At the Royal Albert Hall we are very hopeful that we will host a Proms season again this year from the end of July, and perhaps some performances before then.”
Noble says the venue’s management is talking to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport about running pilot events at the venue, and that several of the NAA’s members are also talking to Government about getting involved in the Events Research Programme.
She says, “We are confident that the industry can prove that we can operate events safely and we are ideally placed to track and trace contacts because we know the details of every booking and where they are sitting in the auditorium.”
Noble is keen to emphasise that not all indoor venues are traditionally quiet during the summer months and that many will be able to begin trading in earnest:, “Venues that host mainly rock and pop acts are hugely impacted, and the extension to the furlough scheme until September will be life saving for many but there is a whole host of venues who will be fully booked out with other genres during that time. Classical music venues for example will have plentiful programming. Venues in that position would just like to get back to presenting live performances and some venues will be able to operate with shorter lead in times.”