Royal Albert Hall artistic/commercial director and chair of the National Arenas Association Lucy Noble tells Access about the battle arena operators are fighting to sustain a future for their venues.
Arguably the most prestigious and historic arena venue in the country, the 5,200-capacity Royal Albert Hall has maintained a relatively high profile throughout the Covid-19 crisis thanks to the dexterity of its team and its desire to illustrate to Government that events can be hosted safely.
With venues permitted to accommodate streamed performances and rehearsals during the current lockdown, the Royal Albert Hall’s doors have stayed open. As well as providing rehearsal space of the likes of the Royal College of Music, it has hosted televised events including the Royal British Legion’s annual Festival of Remembrance, with the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in attendance.
On 7 November, the venue hosted simultaneous live-streamed shows by Niall Horan and Kylie Minogue, which combined sold more than 150,000 tickets.
Despite the varied activity, Lucy Noble says the revenue raised does not come close to filling the financial void created by the lack of audiences in the building: “We really just cover our costs with those events. It is about keeping the venue’s brand alive, giving people work and providing a bit of stimulus and activity – something positive in this difficult time for everyone.”
As chair of the UK’s National Arenas Association (NAA), which represents 23 arenas, Noble says many of the organisation’s members have been unable and/or chosen not to stage events of any kind and the sector has seen a significant number of redundancies.
“That demonstrates people aren’t worried about coming out to shows, even the ones that attract an older audience.”
She says, “When you have a building like the Royal Albert Hall I think you have a responsibility to lead and try to do whatever you can, even if it’s not on a break-even basis, to give staff, production people and artists work. The aim is to get a bit of buoyancy in the market.”
A series of Christmas shows, in front of socially distanced audiences, is due to commence on December 9, but Noble expresses concern that the current lockdown could see ticket sales suffer. Among the scheduled shows are a presentation of The Nutcracker, by Birmingham Royal Ballet, and Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas.
Stage four of the DCMS arts guidance enables arenas to host shows as along as A raft of measures are taken, including audience distancing. For the Royal Albert Hall that means operating at a reduced capacity of around 2,500.
“Christmas will be the first time that we have audiences back,” says Noble. “The biggest question is are we going to be able to do it, but we are going to hang on in there and forge ahead in the hope lockdown is not extended.”
Among the measures taken are staff training, contactless payments, digital ticketing, fogging and a rigorous cleaning regime that involves the regular spraying of seats with an advanced anti-viral fluid used by TfL.
“In agreement with Westminster council we are operating within the Government guidelines. We have one metre between audience members and the venue is constantly cleaned, even during performances. There are signs offering guidance and contactless hand sanitising stations throughout the building, and all the crew and staff are wearing face coverings,” says Noble.
It is an expensive business, with reduced return, and while the NAA head is enthusiastic about the potential for testing to enable full-capacity shows, she says the process is currently too expensive and not fast enough to make it practicable for arenas.
“You would have staggered entry times but the process would need to be be fast, otherwise in arenas with capacities of up to 20,000 you could literally be there all day doing it,” she says.
With events lined up for next year at the venue selling strongly, and news of a vaccine in the pipeline, Noble says she is optimistic: “It’s great that people are buying tickets, we’ve sold a lot of tickets for Christmas shows and this week we went on sale for a show in spring next year and it sold out.”
She says Eric Clapton’s three-night residency in May is also selling extremely well: “That demonstrates people aren’t worried about coming out to shows, even the ones that attract an older audience.
“As venue operators we need to demonstrate that we are expert at what we do. What we’ve been really been pushing for, obviously, is to get back to full-capacity shows and we would like to work with Government to achieve that whether it is with mass testing or alternative methods that enable people to feel they can sit next to each other.”