Just days after the Government lifted its Covid-19 mitigation measures, the live events industry bounced back in style – safely and successfully entertaining around 100,000 people across three major festivals.
In May, Benn oversaw a 5,000-capacity concert in Liverpool’s Sefton Park before running the 10,000-capacity Download Pilot at Donington Park the following month. At 40,000, Latitude was much closer to business as usual for the man who stages some of the UK’s biggest festivals each year – including Reading (cap. 90,000) and Leeds (80,000).
Having first tabled his Full Capacity Plan back in early June last year, which suggested access to events be allowed for people who had taken a Covid-19 test and download the NHS tracing app, it had been a long road back to staging one of Festival Republic’s full-size events.
Benn says it was not only a rewarding experience but for many very emotional: “I always describe these events as having an economic, cultural and emotional value. At Latitude – the sound engineers, riggers, lighting guys and scaffolders: their emotions were all over the place ranging from tears of release to tears of joy. It was an emotional build for a lot of people, we had BBC sound engineers breaking down in tears when testing the audio.”
Having been given the green light from government in late June, Benn’s team had just three-and-a-half weeks to get Latitude off the ground.
“It was really hard to envisage that we would be able to pull Latitude off to the level that we did. The collective effort of my team but also the whole industry is the thing that stood out – the whole industry got behind it,” he says.
Among the supply chain issues that had to be overcome was an extensive search for crew caterers, while infrastructure elements including portacabins, tents and barriers were in short supply. However, Benn says staff shortages was one of the biggest issues: “Labour shortages seem very significant, there’s definitely a mix of people who have moved away from the industry and taken jobs in other industries. They may hanker to come back but they are probably waiting for more certainty before they quit a regular job to come back.”
The promoter believes the live events industry was in a precarious position and could well have suffered irrecoverable damage if full capacity events had not been allowed to return this summer.
“The industry was on a cliff edge, I don’t think we realised quite how much of a cliff edge we were on in terms of potentially losing a continuity of skillset that had been built up over many, many, years,” he says. “It would have been lost this summer completely if events were not able to return. Fortunately, we’re not going to be in that position – we’re going to rescue this summer and we’re going to maintain that skillset, but it was pretty tight.”
“The industry was on a cliff edge, I don’t think we realised quite how much of a cliff edge we were on.” – Festival Republic MD Melvin Benn
In terms of the Covid-19 mitigation measures in place as part of the ERP, it was necessary to provide evidence of having had a negative lateral flow test to gain entry and to test again every 48 hours. Workers were also required to complete a daily health questionnaire and take regular tests.
Measures around the site included all bars and food traders being cashless, increased ventilation in areas such as the BBC Sounds tent, and ultraviolet air purifiers used in some of the more enclosed environments.
“I’ve had Luke Cowdell and Ange Goliger working on a Covid plan for me since August last year, they have led the Covid mitigations delivery team alongside John Probyn and Isle of Wight Festival’s Caroline Giddings and Dave Steele – they have been at the heart of it and given their time and effort on all our festivals,” says Benn.
Asked how he feels about independent festivals having been excluded from the ERP, the Live Nation promoter says he pressed Government to be more inclusive and enable other events to take part: “I did say to DCMS that every festival scheduled for the weekend of Latitude should be given ERP status but from their point of view they are obviously focused on gathering data at these shows and there’s a limit to what they needed to gather. Every festival given ERP status costs the DCMS money.”
While the highly experienced festival operator has not been told when the data from the latest round of the ERP will be available, he is looking ahead to the company’s other festivals with confidence that punters are eager to return.
“Consumer confidence is not just back but exceeding what it was previously,” he says. “The UK festival industry is very sophisticated now and most people have learned to provide something that people want. I genuinely believe we’re in a really strong position.”
Located on the grounds of Standon Lordship, near Standon, Hertfordshire, Standon Calling (cap. 17,000) celebrated its 15th anniversary over the same weekend. Among the headliners were Hot Chip, Primal Scream and Del La Soul.
While not able to benefit from the assurance of being part of the ERP, the festival’s founder and director Alex Trenchard worked closely with suppliers to minimise the financial risk of pressing ahead.
Not having the ERP framework to work within also meant that Trenchard’s team was left to develop Covid-safe event protocols independently. The result was its Pre-event Covid Certification Process (PCCP), involving a video recorded testing procedure and the Certific app verifying people’s identity and test results.
Trenchard says the system was well received, with 93% of feedback respondents stating it was easy to use: “The general feedback was that everyone was very happy that they went through the process, particularly the video certification, because it provided a level of reassurance that meant they could enjoy the festival more freely. The atmosphere was incredible, and I think that was partly down to the fact everyone had been through the same process.”
The promoter says the decision to push ahead with the event was made when the Government delayed the reopening date by a month.
“That made 19 July much more certain than the previous date. We felt it was one of the safer weekends because it would be very unlikely for things to be opened up only to be closed again within a week,” says Trenchard.
With the timing appearing to favour Standon Calling, there were two other factors that were pivotal in it being able to go ahead – a £400,000 Cultural Recovery Fund (CRF) grant and the flexibility of its key suppliers.
“Because of the CRF we were able to say to our suppliers we would use the funds to pay them,” says Trenchard. “We agreed that if we had to pull the event before 12 July the deposits paid would roll over to 2022. That was key; having received the deposits suppliers agreed they were not going to charge us until two weeks before the event.”
He says Standon Calling’s relatively small scale also proved helpful. “Our build is only two-and-a-half weeks, so that was an advantage over larger festivals. It meant we were able to delay making a decision on whether to go ahead until the eve of going onsite to start the build, thanks to the flexibility of our suppliers.”
Among the key team that brought Standon Calling to life were Clare Goodchild and Tim Wilkinson of production company We Organise Chaos. Trenchard says they worked to overcome challenges including the last-minute replacement of crew catering and power suppliers.
“Clare and Tim were fantastic,” says Trenchard. “I am indebted to them for essentially making the event happen. Clare must have called about 80 crew catering companies before finding one that was able to come in.”
With Kendall Calling cancelled, Standon Calling was able to poach the festival’s power supplier at short notice. Another fortunate turn of events was that the festival’s team and contractors were not impacted by the ‘pingdemic’.
“We had a few among our audience pinged but not suppliers – they were making sure they were wearing masks and had been strictly following the guidelines, so I think that helped,” says Trenchard.
Having enjoyed glorious sunshine since the start, the event was hit by a biblical rainstorm on Sunday afternoon that saw 110 millimetres of rain fall in a few hours. Just before 5pm during Jake Bugg’s set, the audience was evacuated from the main stage area due to a risk of lightning. Standon Calling was then paused for four hours before organisers announced it was unsafe to resume. It meant acts including Primal Scream, De La Soul, Craig David and Sophie Ellis Bextor were unable to perform.
Trenchard says that the festival was covered by insurance and is offering Sunday ticket holders a 75% refund: “Thankfully it happened on the Sunday evening, it would have been much more of a challenge financially if it had happened earlier in the course of the festival, so I’m grateful for that.
“Ticketholders have been really supportive and none of the weekend ticket holders are asking for a refund, it seems they are extremely supportive of the decision to cancel and they had a great time.
“I am delighted that we managed to stage the show. We had three and a half days of incredible atmosphere, performances and a real sense of achievement and positivity.”
Having extended the daily audience capacity from 33,000 to 40,000 this year, Superstruct Entertainment-owned Tramlines was not only one of the year’s first-full-capacity festivals it was the biggest in the Sheffield event’s history – which started life as a venue-based urban festival before moving to Hillsborough Park in 2018. It was sold by radio giant Global to Superstruct in April the following year.
Founded by a group of bar and venue owners in 2009, Tramlines has evolved considerably over the years but the pandemic brought unprecedented challenges. Operations director Timm Cleasby (pictured) says that without the certainty that being part of the ERP brought, Tramlines would not have gone ahead.
With ERP confirmation coming just five weeks prior to the gates opening, the Tramlines team had to work fast.
“Five weeks is a very short time, when planning a festival,” says Cleasby. “We had started planning but there was still a lot to do and being part of the ERP added another layer of work, so while it enabled us to go ahead it made the process a lot harder. It also added a level of cost; we had extra staff on the gate, answering phones, and back-of-house.”
“About four days before we went on site, the marquees supplier said ‘I have lost all my team to Covid so I can’t deliver any of your tents’. That was quite a shock.” – Tramlines operations director Timm Cleasby
Among the “stringent” measures back-of-house were regular testing of all personnel and the requirement to complete a daily health questionnaire. The NHS app was used to provide Covid status certification prior to access for all customers, crew and suppliers.
Other measures included an upgraded Wi-fi provision to help ensure the entry process was as smooth as possible.
Says Cleasby, “It worked surprisingly well, people turned up very well prepared. Over the weekend there were a few hundred people that we had to send to our Covid resolution centre to get sorted out and a handful we had to ask to go and do a test. The process was really well received; we had a lot of comments from people that it made them feel more secure about being there.”
Supply chain pressure
As with the other festivals taking place that weekend, Tramlines had to overcome some major supply chain bumps on the road to the event’s delivery.
“It was very tricky,” says Cleasby. “I had had conversations with a lot of suppliers earlier in the year and asked them to hold the dates. We kept those conversations going on a weekly basis, and as we got closer to potentially going ahead we were talking daily because things were changing rapidly.
“Most suppliers were really good and accepted that we couldn’t commit. Without their support I don’t think we could have gone ahead.
“During the pandemic we have all had a battering, not least the supply chain, so we came across a lot of hurdles and had to look at other supply options, some were very last minute.”
Among the issues was a lack of tents, not an ideal situation for a greenfield festival to find itself in with only days to go.
“Fencing was tricky to get hold of, as were cabins, then four days before we went on site the marquee supplier said, ‘I have lost all my team to Covid so I can’t deliver any of your tents’. That was quite a shock,” says Cleasby.
Fortunately, a last-minute solution was found, and 100 metres of clear span tent coverage was purpose built for the festival.
As well as the event’s suppliers, Cleasby says he is very grateful for the help of Sheffield’s director of public health Greg Fell whose team he says were “progressive in their thinking”. The ops director was also hugely impressed with the attitude and behaviour of the event’s staff.
He says, “It was really wonderful to see and hear so many people so happy and that’s across both the public and our team – they were absolutely buzzing to be back at work and doing what they love, and seeing the audience react to what we do.
“I hope what we did between us, Latitude and Standon Calling shows there is a way forward; that was the whole point of it.”