An increasingly attractive events destination, this year’s UK City of Culture has put Coventry firmly on the map. Its local council and event professionals are now focused on cementing its reputation and enabling it to compete strongly with neighbouring Birmingham.
The city that produced the 2 Tone label and acts including The Specials and The Selecter has in more recent years made significant progress in hosting major events.
In 2018 Coventry was home to BBC’s The Biggest Weekend. Organised by Festival Republic, it took place at War Memorial Park, a venue described as the city’s “jewel in the crown” by Coventry City Council head of events Jon Hogan.
The park is also the venue for the city’s flagship music festival; Godiva. Organised by the council, the three-day event was free-to-attend until 2019 when the council began charging for tickets. Due to take place on 3-5 September, with headliners including Craig David, it typically has a capacity of around 40,000.
Coventry may have had a recent setback with the postponement of the Rugby League World Cup in Birmingham, which would have included a game in October at the Coventry Building Society Arena (cap, 32,600) complex, but among the more positive developments have been the formation of the West Midlands Music Board by West Midlands sector support organisation Culture Central. Its goal is to drive the recovery and growth of the region’s music sector.
“We’re going from being a ghost town to a culture city.” – Coventry City Council head of events, Jon Hogan
The city’s destination marketing organisation (DMO), Destination Coventry was set up just before the Covid-19 outbreak but has only began to take shape this year. The collaboration between Coventry Council and Coventry & Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce is part of a two-year project designed to increase tourism and develop more commercial income generating opportunities.
Destination Coventry is led by MD Paul Jones, while other members of the DMO’s oversight board include Coventry City of Culture Trust director of audience strategy Laura McMillan and CBS Arena commercial venue director Paul Michael.
Michael says, “When Coventry won the City of Culture bid in 2017, that acted as a catalyst for the city to look at its tourism strategy. City of Culture will bring a significant volume of additional visitors to Coventry during the year and it will leave a legacy.”
Jones says the target for the City of Culture was to attract an additional 2.5 million visitors during the year: “That will be affected by Covid because the City of Culture programme has had to change quite significantly but we still anticipate a massive influx of new visitors.
He says the city’s visitor economy grew significantly in 2019 as a result of it having the City of Culture status, and the organisation is now hard at work persuading event organisers, bookers and agencies to bring events to the city.
“We work in an impartial way to find the right solution for anyone who wants to hold an event in the city,” he says. “Coventry hasn’t done the best job of positioning itself and speaking broadly about its assets and its ability to stage fantastic live events. We have incredible facilities and this is an opportunity to compete on a national level. Everything lines up – our infrastructure, accessibility and the will from the city and the pride from the wider region.”
He says a new campaign, funded by Destination Coventry in collaboration with Coventry-based PR firm Advent Communications, will spread the word about Coventry and its live event credentials.
A Major player
In the year ahead, Coventry’s sporting calendar includes an array of key events including the rescheduled Rugby League World Cup, and the Commonwealth Games that will see it host rugby sevens, judo and wrestling at the CBS Arena. It will also be the host city for the International Olympic Committee’s International Children’s Games.
Coventry recently hosted the Legends Festival at War Memorial Park, and will stage the Peace Festival later this year to commemorate the bombing of the city during World War II.
“There’s a huge amount of activity still to come – lots of outdoor activity that we’ve done so far from our Midsummer Fire Gardens event through to outdoor street theatre and installations,” says Hogan.
He suggest suggests Coventry is going through a “renaissance” as an events destination: “We’re going from being a ghost town to a culture city. We’re open for business and long may it continue.”
Along with the CBS Arena and War Memorial Park, other notable Coventry venues include the Warwick Arts Centre (1,450), Albany Theatre (620), Belgrade Theatre (1,150) and HMV Empire. The 1,400-capacity Empire is back in business with several high-profile gigs lined up for the rest of the year, including Ed Sheeran on 25 August.
Belgrade (pictured above), the city’s largest arts venue, is playing a key role in City of Culture. Nicola Young, director of communications at the theatre, says 75% of its income depends on earnings from ticket sales, catering, conferencing, set construction and costume creation, which it lost overnight after closing in March 2020.
“The government’s Cultural Recovery Fund was fundamental in allowing the theatre to continue creating work,” she says. “We were also able to continue with our redevelopment project, transforming our building ready for City of Culture including our new Nineteen58 bar.”
As for the city’s future, Young says, “Coventry has a very different offering of live events than its surrounding cities. It’s a unique cultural experience, and with the title of UK City of Culture, we’re excited to see more people visiting us this year and discovering what they’ve been missing.”
Hosting City of Culture celebrations with Step 3 Covid-19 restrictions was a tough ask but organisers of its opening event, Coventry Moves, managed to pull off a successful showcase spectacle on the city’s streets. The event, on 5 June, saw parades on 400 closed roads during a 12-hour period.
According to Coventry Live, the event, co-directed by Justine Themen and Nigel Jamieson, was watched in 88 countries, with the Coventry 2021 Facebook livestream reaching an estimated 164,931 people. Coventry City of Culture chief executive Martin Sutherland says the team that worked on the event “did the impossible” by creating the first major event in the UK since the pandemic began.
He says, “We had to consider how to be present across the city, ensuring that communities who are typically excluded or ignored by major events were proud of the surprises that popped up on their doorsteps or in their neighbourhoods.
“We are determined to keep the promise that everyone is welcome to participate in their City of Culture. Coventry Moves enabled us to keep those promises. I’m very proud of that.”
Coventry-based traffic management, security and event services supplier Stadium was involved in the running of the event, with more than 100 members of staff helping three processions to move through the city’s streets.
Founded in Burnley in 2009 by MD David McAtamney, Stadium works nationally and internationally on a range of events from its Coventry headquarters. The firm counts the likes of Liverpool Football Club, Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, CBS Arena and Wembley Stadium among its clients.
Says McAtamney, “We are doing the traffic management for all events on Coventry’s road networks. We are also working on the pop-up events in open spaces, from a security and stewarding point of view, as well as operating the control room for those events.”
He says Coventry has not yet reached its potential for staging live events but is moving in the right direction: “Along with heavy investment in the city centre and then the success of landing UK City of Culture, there is a new and added vibrancy, hope and a healthy expectation.
“We have some wonderful open spaces and public buildings – many of them paid for by the great industrial benefactors from before the war – that stand us in very good stead when it comes to events.”
Sutherland says more than £100m in capital investment has come into Coventry since its City of Culture designation, which has funded a “huge transformation” but he says the pandemic has impacted all elements of the City of Culture operation.
“Delaying the beginning of our year as City of Culture to May 2021 but still running for an entire year gave us an opportunity to be flexible and adapt our plans, as well as think of new ways to respond to the challenges, such as increasing our digital broadcast output,” he says.
Event attendees are encouraging to wearing face coverings at all indoor venues, while attendees are asked to take a lateral flow test before arriving at all City of Culture events, while some shows are being sold to 75% of venue capacity.
Among the landmark elements of the City of Culture event programme is its next major project, Faith. The co-commission with the Royal Shakespeare Company will see live performances across the city and the lighting of 500 beacons in the city centre. designed by theatre designer Tom Piper.
In September the Turner Prize, comes to the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum and is the first time the prize has been held in the Midlands. This will feature as part of the Coventry Biennial – a citywide celebration of the diversity and excellence within the city’s visual arts sector.
While there are many short-term wins for Coventry being the City of Culture, there is also a powerful ambition, that is ubiquitous among its event professionals, to put Coventry firmly and finally on the map as an events city.