This Christmas promises to be the first since 2019 without Covid-related restrictions, but while that has sparked increased confidence and investment in winter events, there are new challenges. Access explores how the season is shaping up.

At last we have a Christmas events season that looks set to be uninterrupted by pandemic related restrictions. Familiar festive favourites are returning en masse, such as Winter Wonderland at London’s Hyde Park, and Edinburgh Christmas and Hogmanay, while new events have sprung into the market.

With experience in organising Winter Wonderland, the Natural History Museum Ice Rink and Windsor Great Park Illuminated, IMG is a major player in the festive events market. Its new event Glide is set against the backdrop of London’s iconic Battersea Power Station, which finally reopened to the public in October following a £9 billion renovation. The event features live music and an open-air ice rink, while private igloos are available to book within Glide’s festive village.

IMG event director Daniel Filmer says, “It’s exciting to see the numbers that the venue is getting each day at the moment. The quality of the redevelopment is clear to everyone who goes down there. When you look at that building, how unique it is, the space on the front, the footfall they get, it was something that we really wanted to jump on.”

IMG is using Ice World for its ice rinks and Ascot Structures for its Orangeries. “That’s what I’m most excited for. I don’t think there’s anything like it in the UK,” says Filmer about the impressive glass temporary structures.

With the cost of living crisis involving rising prices and reduced consumer spending power, launching a new event is a brave move. “You have to go in to it with your eyes open,” says Filmer. “We obviously have to be considerate with the environment which we find ourselves in. We’ve had an incredibly tough few years. It just makes it more exciting to be working on a project like this, to open a completely new experience for visitors to enjoy after the two years that they’ve had.”

Hogging the limelight

After Angels Event Experience could no longer deliver on the terms of its contract to stage Edinburgh Christmas, Edinburgh City Council approved revised plans for event producer Unique Assembly to deliver both Edinburgh Christmas and the Hogmanay festival this year. Created and delivered by Unique Events from 1992 until 2017, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay will feature live music for the first time this year, with Sophie Ellis Bextor and Pet Shop Boys set to perform to around 30,000 people. LED wristbands will be distributed to all attendees with the aim of creating an interactive sound and light show. The wristbands are being supplied by Xylobands, which has worked at Glastonbury Festival and the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony this year.

Unique Assembly director Penny Dougherty says she sees 2022 as being very much a recovery year, particularly with Edinburgh’s Hogmanay having been cancelled for the past two years: “The amount of funding available for both events has dropped since the events were last held in full. We are confident, however, that we can rebuild and refresh both projects, ensuring Edinburgh remains a key winter destination.”

Welsh connection

Following its sell-out debut last year, Cardiff’s Christmas at Bute Park is returning this winter with a focus on Welsh partners and creative talent.

Roxy Robinson, creative director of Manchester-based From The Fields (FTF), promoters of Kendal Calling (cap. 40,000) and Bluedot (10,000) festivals, says, “Last year, we didn’t have the luxury of time to scope out possibilities for local participation. This year, that has been at the top of the agenda.”

FTF is working with Pontypridd-based Citrus Arts, which has taken on local trainees to help develop a water-based installation. It will also work with several other local creatives and suppliers with support of Arts Council Wales.

FTF is introducing a range of new illuminations, many of which are bespoke creations, to the event this year, including iridescent light orb experience Prismatic that was designed by DBN Audile. Robinson says it will also feature a “lake of light” created by lasers, and a “sensory canopy” called Spectral Cloud that was created by Welsh artist Jessica Lloyd-Jones. Local operator 2Can Productions will oversee the event’s operational planning and delivery.

Some of the installations used at Bute Park will be given a second life during the summer season. Last year FTF commissioned a large spiral installation for the Christmas trail, featuring programmed light and audio, which it then used as a feature in the woodlands at Kendal Calling.

“We have zones within both Kendal Calling and Bluedot that are focused on light art, so we hope to do more sharing of resources as we develop Christmas at Bute Park and invest in more purchased content over the next few years,” she says.

Robinson acknowledges the company has had no choice but to pass on some of the increased costs via a raised ticket price but she says it remains at the lower end of the festive event price spectrum and there has been a major focus on delivering value for money: “We have introduced measures such as the extension of our early bird price period, and other community discount schemes to make tickets accessible to more people for longer.”

While Bute Park provides a beautiful backdrop, Robinson says it does not come without its operational challenges: “As a well-loved and well used city park, we must maintain some access during the build, and negotiate with local businesses to reduce any negative impact. As Bute Park is not a rural stately home and gardens, like the site of many other light trails, we also have a bigger task around security, but the efforts are all worth it.”

Building momentum

Two other event brands that launched during Covid-hit Christmases are back for 2022; Winter Funland at Birmingham’s NEC and Kilimanjaro Live’s festive light trail series. In 2020, Kilimanjaro launched its first trail at the height of the pandemic in Wollaton Park, Nottingham, and this year it will also once again hold trails at Trentham Gardens in Stoke on Trent and Kenwood House in London. Kilimanjaro CEO Stuart Galbraith says he expects the Christmas light trail market to continue to expand, and the company is planning to roll out its festive event series to further sites in 2023.

“We took the learnings from [German parent company DEAG] and the experience they had and applied it to the UK,” says Galbraith. “The beauty of having three sites, plus the activity in Europe with DEAG, is the ability to move some of the installations around so that we’re keeping each site fresh from a customer perspective each year.”

He says the fact that the promoter was able to sell 107,000 tickets for the Nottingham event when the city was in lockdown gave his team increased confidence that the event format would be a huge success when the pandemic subsided.

For the promoter, which handles major concert tours and summer outdoor concert series and festivals, the winter shows enable it to provide some of its suppliers with year-around work. Among them is Manchester-based lighting, sound, rigging specialist DBN Audile.

Birmingham’s NEC is hosting three festive events this year, including the UK’s biggest indoor funfair, Winter Funland, which will take place in a 25,000sqm, hall.

NEC Group new business director Richard Mann says Winter Funland, which involves funfair rides, circus acts and ice skating, is a key project in the venue operator’s strategy to increase the number of events it hosts outside of its core exhibition business. Winter Funland follows Festival Republic’s Wireless festival and several Birmingham 2022 events that took place at the NEC during the summer.

The NEC will also be hosting Vivid Experience’s Christmas Party World, and the Luna Drive In Cinema this winter. Held on a 440-acre outside space owned by the NEC, Luna has been one of only a few events of its kind to find success well beyond the Covid lockdowns, when demand for drive-ins peaked.

Mann says, “We’ve got a huge resource that is used by various core exhibitions, but historically not a lot of people outside of this industry are aware of how flexible the site is.”

Despite concerns around costs and consumer spending power, there is widespread industry confidence that the public will be out in force this season to celebrate the first unrestricted Christmas since Covid struck.