Covid-19 has caused seismic changes to the outdoor events industry. In a post-lockdown world, is it time to rethink the ‘festival season’? Stuart Wood investigates
(This feature was the cover story for the May edition of Access All Areas, which you can read at this link)
The outdoor events industry is walking a tightrope. Across the world, organisers are looking nervously at their calendars, trying to decide between postponing and cancelling their events as the Covid-19 lockdown continues.
Some European governments have taken the decision out of the hands of the industry. In Germany, Denmark and Belgium, summer has effectively been cancelled with all mass gatherings banned until 31 August. By the time you read this, there is a strong possibility that other countries will have joined them.
In the face of such uncertainty, organisers have taken a variety of approaches. Some were quick to act, postponing to the end of what we typically call the festival season (see ‘Delayed gratification’, p19-20). Some cut their losses and cancelled (see ‘Anatomy of’, p8-9). Others embraced the uncertainty, and took a bold leap into the world of virtual events (see ‘Full screen ahead’, p30-31).
News is moving so quickly that it is hard to predict which of these solutions will be the right one. While it is understandable that many companies are erring on the side of caution when an incorrect bet could mean going out of business, it is also true that there will be an enormous demand for outdoor events once lockdown is over. Those who can think of safe, creative ways of operating (and, crucially, who can communicate that safety to their audience) could be in for a windfall.
The seismic shifts that have happened in the event calendar are also raising another question: do we need to rethink the concept of the festival season in 2020? Assuming things go ahead as currently planned, we are looking at a bottleneck of major events in late August, September and October – well past what we typically think of as the festival season.
In fact, the festival industry’s seasonal nature is one of the reasons why it is currently at such risk. Nick Morgan, CEO of We Are The Fair, points out that “once sanctions are lifted, many UK businesses should see some return of sales and procurement, in a shorter cycle than the outdoor industry. If the season is missed, it might be eight to nine months before suppliers can legitimately bill advances and deposits for 2021.”
Missing an entire season could be fatal for businesses that are less nimble and reactive, or which are heavily weighted towards summer events. Tom Critchley, Managing Director of accommodation supplier Caboose & Co, sounds a similar warning.
“Sadly, I think a significant number [of companies] will go bust,” he says. “We have a lot of small companies in our industry who rely solely on the summer season and having already lost half the summer months, revenue versus costs will not stack up. The companies that are still nimble and lean, and who haven’t made any huge investments this year, will be the lucky ones.”
Businesses will need to be more resilient, and more flexible, in order to survive the Covid-19 crisis.
That could mean stretching their services thinner over the whole year, as opposed to concentrating the majority of their business between May and August. This is a process that has already been taking place across the outdoor events industry, according to the National Outdoor Events Association (NOEA).
NOEA Chairman Tom Vrements says: “It’s true that, for some time,
the outdoor events industry has been patting itself on the back for lengthening the events season. We’ve long lobbied ourselves to create more winter events, and [the season] now runs from April to October, with a jump in November and December.
“But let’s not kid ourselves either – for many businesses, especially the smaller ones, up to 90% of their income will come between June and September. The idea of extending the season is great in theory, but we have to admit that this is a summer industry first and foremost.”
Parks & cancellation
There are difficulties for the outdoor venues, too. I asked Alun Mainwaring, Head of Events at The Royal Parks (which includes Hyde Park, St James Park and more), what the major challenges of extending the festival season would be. “It’s very difficult to look at rescheduling major events when there is still such uncertainty about the current situation, and about what the guidance will be on mass gatherings and social distancing at that time,” he said.
BST Hyde Park, organised by AEG Presents, was recently cancelled after lockdown was extended. The festival was originally scheduled for July, and a busy calendar made it an unlikely candidate for postponement. “The Royal Parks already has a busy autumn and winter event schedule, so any postponements would need to fit in with that programme,” says Mainwaring. “We must also consider the implications they may have on other key agencies outside of the park who we work with.”
The bottleneck which Mainwaring mentions could be a real problem if events are able to go ahead. The bank holiday weekend at the end of August, for example, has already been a prime candidate for some movers (see p8-9). Kevin England, Director of KJE SFX and KJE Broadcast, says it could cause some problems.
“I think that we will see a potentially massive bottleneck this Autumn,” he says, “and whilst it will be challenging I feel it will show how resilient we are as an industry. I believe we will see a great deal of collaboration between events in terms of sharing spaces, suppliers, equipment and people that we will come through that bottleneck together.”
Collaboration within the industry is crucial at the top end, too. Nick Morgan says that “[in our] industry, bodies such as BVEP, AIF, NTIA and NOEA are all doing a great job in continually promoting the sector and trying to gain DCMS and Treasury support. It can be frustrating explaining to Ministers the gravity of the current situation.”
Crisis breeds invention
There are, then, many difficulties involved in extending the festival season. But it could soon become the only option for companies that have missed the summer window. Making it through to winter could require a complete change of direction, according to England: “The strongest companies will be those that have the ability to pivot into providing essential services. For example, we have seen Formula One teams constructing breathing apparatus for the NHS, and some of my special effects suppliers have turned to making hand gel.”
Crisis breeds invention. There are many challenges ahead, and some companies will not survive the loss of business. Smaller players will drop off, or be swept up by the big companies which have some money remaining in the bank.
Those which do hang on must be able to think outside the box, perhaps be willing to fly in the face of conventional wisdom about the festival season. It is hard to imagine any company which survives not having a strong contingency plan going forwards – whether that means having wide- ranging insurance coverage, or being less in sway to the industry’s seasonal nature.
However you choose to tackle the virus, we wish you the best of luck – and we hope to see you out in a muddy field as soon as it’s safe to.