It wasn’t the merriest of Christmases for the industry last year, but this season festive events are back, and in some cases bigger than ever. Along with the return of landmark events such as IMG’s Winter Wonderland, this winter will see a flurry of new and imaginative offerings.
After a 24-month hiatus, festive events are set to make a comeback this season and many promoters and venue operators are upping their game.
Promoter Kilimanjaro Live is preparing to run an additional two Christmas lights events at English Heritage sites this year, having staged Christmas at Wollaton in 2020 “against all odds”, according to head of business development Lucy Levitt.
The promoter’s owner Deutsche Entertainment AG (DEAG) has a track record of operating Christmas light trail events at locations across Europe, and Levitt says Kilimanjaro is focused on doing the same in the UK.
Kilimanjaro’s new light trails, which last around 90 minutes, will be held at Trentham Estate in Staffordshire and Kenwood House in London. Levitt says the partnership with English Heritage is a perfect fit due to it having a great events team and locations that provide stunning backdrops.
Some 125,000 tickets were sold for Christmas at Wollaton last year and Levitt says the uptake has been fantastic so far for the forthcoming festive events. Having staged Christmas at Wollaton at such a difficult time, mid pandemic, she says the team has benefitted from the experience of creating and delivering a Covid-safe event.
She says, “I suppose it’s different from a normal year but it’s not different from last year; we haven’t relaxed any of our plans. We are lucky in that we can keep everything in that we had last year.”
Increased safety measures are being taken across the market, including the biggest festival event of the year Winter Wonderland. Among the measures being taken are the requirement that attendees book tickets in advance, choose an entry time, and pre-select the shows, rides and games they wish to experience. As well as staggered entry times, IMG said it is providing increased sanitisation facilities across the site.
Another burgeoning aspect of the festive events market is ice skating. Among the key players is temporary structures supplier Arena Group. As well as supplying some of the world’s biggest events, including the Olympics and London Marathon, the turnkey event solutions provider hires equipment for ice rinks and runs six rinks itself; Hampton Court Palace, Queen’s House in Greenwich, Skate Manchester, North Pole Cambridge, Warwick Castle and Liverpool Christmas Ice Festival.
Despite the company hiring out a bit less than its usual 20 ice rinks this year, Arena’s EMEA managing director of events and event hire Rob Derry says the return of the rinks is very encouraging: “They have become an important part of the business.”
The company organised three ice skating events before lockdown, which Derry says has prepared the team for hosting events amid potential Covid anxiety this Winter. To help with social distancing the company introduced larger rinks at Hampton Court and Greenwich last year. It plans to continue providing the larger rinks on the back of positive feedback from attendees, who appreciated having more space on the ice.
As for non-Covid related changes, Derry says Arena has the UK’s longest ice slide at the Cambridge event, as well as another slightly smaller one in Liverpool. It has also introduced ice caves at both venues, where visitors enter a themed ice room with music where they can purchase drinks.
For the first time this year Arena is opening the rink in Manchester for Halloween, which Derry says is second only to Derry/Londonderry as the biggest Halloween event in the UK. Arena is working with Manchester City Council to build monsters on top of buildings around the city, including at Cathedral Gardens where the rink is located.
Derry says bookings for Arena’s rinks are up 100% from 2019, and 500% in some places such as Cambridge, which he suggests reflects the change in consumer confidence and the fact people are more inclined to book in advance now, rather than simply turn up on the day.
Joining the ice-skating market for the first time this year is motor racing circuit Silverstone. After hosting 200,000 visitors for its Lap Land event last year, the Northamptonshire venue will open again in December to enable visitors to not only drive a lap of the Grand Prix circuit and enjoy a festive light show on the way, but also ice skate in areas including the Formula One pit lane. The event, which has been rebranded Lap Of Lights, will run from 1 December to 3 January, with the aim of attracting 500,000 people, according to Silverstone managing director Stuart Pringle.
“We need to operate 12 months a year, and like a festival, we never stand still so it’s all about coming up with new concepts.” – Engine No. 4 director Jon Drape
Escaping to winter island
Another ice rink in Manchester will be set up next door to the site of The Warehouse Project when Escape to Freight Island hosts the Winter Island markets again this year after being forced to shut after just five days of trading in 2020 due to the lockdown. The Mayfield venue’s production is handled by local independent operator Engine No.4, which works across numerous festivals such as Parklife, Lost Village and Bluedot.
“When we started building the first phase during the first lockdown, that was when I should have been in the middle of the field delivering Parklife,” says the company’s director Jon Drape. “Instead, I was in a building site, so I just brought all the suppliers with me, and it’s a real collaborative festival industry production team.”
This year the ice rink, provided by Blue Martini Group, will sit in a 700sqm mezzanine, which is described as a “world first” by Drape as it was constructed using a new material called concretene – a graphene-enriched concrete. With a capacity of 2,000, the venue will also feature a 45-foot-high Christmas tree in the centre, surrounded by market food and festive entertainment.
Drape says the festive season is a hugely important period for Engine No.4: “We need to operate 12 months a year, and like a festival, we never stand still so it’s all about coming up with new concepts and new elements to make sure it’s constantly fresh.”
Drape explains that the event has been designed to make sure it has Covid-safety “baked into it”. Among its Covid-safe features will be individually heated outdoor booths that can seat up to 10 people.
Winter Island will be launched on Bonfire Night with a firework display. Says Drape, “Not many city centre venues can offer that but due to the unique nature of where we are on the Mayfield site, luckily we can do a few things that others can’t.
“The Mayfield site, from what it was five years ago, which was a completely derelict, unloved, unknown area in Manchester, now has around 40,000 people going through it every week – whether that’s Escape to Freight Island or Warehouse Project.”
Kew the lights
A rather more verdant venue in the winter events market is Kew Gardens, which has also hosted an ice rink in the past. A large part of the venue’s offering is its Christmas at Kew light trail – a joint venture between the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and entertainment promoter Raymond Gubbay. To deliver the trail the pair are also working with Culture Creative, which has been creating lighting festivals in heritage and landscape settings since 2007.
Christmas At Kew was cut short last year but is back with several new art installations and a new route, which is something organisers do every few years to “keep things fresh”, says Culture Creative associate producer Jane Greenfield.
She says the venue’s new light installation spans the width of the Gardens’ Sackler Crossing and is by far one of the most challenging artworks ever installed at Kew due to its scale, the fact it is based in water, and it has to be craned into position.
The venue also has a new commission by Newcastle-based digital artists and designers Novak, which will see animations projected onto trees along the trail.
“We have asked them to create a bespoke visual story referencing original botanical imagery from the Kew archives mixed in with more traditional Christmas animation,” says Greenfield.
Daire Basra, head of commercial events and event production at Kew Gardens, says the team switched to cashless last year, which enabled increased operational efficiency in terms of the speed of entry and queue management. QR codes have been introduced at the entry gates providing attendees with a map of the trail that shows the locations of food and beverage providers.
Other updates include three additional session times to spread out the arrivals and give a more “comfortable flow” at entrances. An additional gate has also been opened with the aim of spreading out visitors and reducing congestion. The number of stewards has also increased.
Meanwhile, some 400 miles away, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) will host its Christmas At The Botanics, which Culture Creative senior producer Emma Henderson describes as a magical event.
“We were pleased to have been able to open during 2020 to visitors from Edinburgh,” she says, “but this year will be particularly special as we can welcome visitors from across Scotland and beyond.”
Christmas At The Botanics will include several new installations this year, including Digital Rain, an installation by Bespoke Lighting and Video that will feature LED pixels that “rain down” on those below. Fireflies in the Woods, an installation by new supplier Electric Foundry, will contain 100 points of light that “twist through trees”.
To meet current Scottish Government guidelines, reduced capacities and a one-way system will be in place at the event, and customers will be asked to wear face masks in indoor spaces. As for ticket sales, Henderson says she is pleased with the response from the public ahead of its opening on 25 November.
London Southbank’s Winter Festival is returning this year and will include a Winter Light exhibition, free public events, and the Winter Market featuring activities and pop-up food stalls. The Winter Market will take place on a smaller scale than usual, with 15 traders and four pop-up bars and restaurants to allow for social distancing measures.
The festival will include performances at Southbank Centre’s three indoor venues, including Circus 1903 at Royal Festival Hall, Bring It On in the Queen Elizabeth Hall and The Tiger Lillies’ Christmas Carol in the Purcell Room.
Meanwhile, the Southbank’s 4,000-square-foot outdoor venue Between The Bridges on Queen’s Walk will host Electric Winter. Between The Bridges was launched by Field Day (cap. 25,000) co-founder Marcus Weedon, whose team produces festivals including the 25,000-capacity Mighty Hoopla and Cross The Tracks (15,000).
Electric Winter, which is being run by Weedon in collaboration with Peppermint Bars and Events, will run from 11 November featuring an on-site pub with entertainment including live DJs, drag karaoke, Bongo’s Bingo parties and music quizzes. The team at London’s Clapham Grand will take over its Spiegeltent venue with cabaret, drag and comedy shows, while other entertainment includes a minigolf course.
Peppermint co-founder Adam Hempenstall says, “Electric Winter is the metamorphosis of our summer Between The Bridges event that’s been a huge success.”
While concerns remain about whether the Government will turn to its Plan B in response to a spike in Covid-19 cases, which could see vaccine passports and masks mandated, the industry has already proven incredibly adaptable during the pandemic and is well placed to bring Christmas cheer to the masses no matter what the obstacles.