A hub of creative talent and home to an impressive and expanding event infrastructure, Manchester has been hit hard by the pandemic but the virus has done little to dampen the spirit of its event professionals. Access explores how the city is preparing to emerge from the Covid cloud.

With Manchester being home to two of the UK’s most successful Premier League football teams, a selection of some of Britain’s busiest and best venues, huge and successful festivals, and a rich history of creative output, it is hardly surprising there is no shortage of civic pride among the city’s many events professionals.

Aside from its sporting achievements, Manchester has spawned a remarkable array of hugely successful music acts over the years, including New Order, The Smiths, Stone Roses, Elbow, Oasis and The Chemical Brothers to name but a few.

With so much to offer, tourism is big business in Manchester. The city boasts the largest international airport outside England’s south-east, and tourism is worth around £4.5 billion to the local economy each year.

In November, Greater Manchester’s Night Time Economy Adviser Sacha Lord, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and mayor Andy Burnham, released the Greater Manchester Night Time Economy Covid-19 Recovery Blueprint, which contains some remarkable statistics about the city’s workforce.

“It has always been a creative city, a city with a buzz.” – Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham

It revealed that around one-third of the Greater Manchester workforce are employed in jobs or businesses that are “significantly active at night”. It also stated that since 2001, employment in the night-time economy has grown 45% faster than in any other sector of the Manchester economy.

Burnham (pictured) is convinced the foundations of Manchester’s rise as a creative powerhouse were laid by TV presenter turned music industry impresario Tony Wilson – the founder of the legendary label Factory Records and iconic Manchester club The Haçienda.

He says, “It didn’t happened by accident, you can trace it back to one man in particular, Tony Wilson, he really put Manchester on the map. It has always been a creative city, a city with a buzz, but throughout the 1980s there was a deliberate attempt to make Manchester a rival cultural centre to London.

“Tony was really clear about not having people go cap in hand to London, he wanted to build a power base, an infrastructure here to compete. By the time the late 1980s came and the whole Madchester thing happened the infrastructure had been built and local talent had been nurtured. We have since reaped the benefits of that.”

Lord (pictured below), who is also the co-founder of the 80,000-capacity Parklife festival and The Warehouse Project club night series, is an outspoken advocate of Manchester’s hospitality and events sector and is passionate about channelling funds, created by his events, back into local businesses.

Parklife contributed £15m of economic benefit to the Greater Manchester economy in 2019. The LN Gaiety-owned festival has been rescheduled from June to September this year, and should it go ahead as planned it will not only benefit the local economy and the event’s many staff and suppliers but numerous small neighbourhood projects.

A collaboration between Parklife and Manchester, Bury and Rochdale councils, Parklife Community Fund provides local organisations with grants. Priority is given to projects that make use of parks and open spaces.

“In 2019 we raised £120,000,” says Lord. “The festival site, Heaton Park, sits on the border of Manchester and Bury so we split the money between the two councils, and they distribute the grants. It’s great to put something back into the community.”

Lord has lobbied Government continuously and supported successful legal action against some of its policies throughout the pandemic. His continual calls for increased support for freelancers, venues and nightclub businesses, have been heard and action such as the extension to furlough and VAT relief are welcome but he is in no doubt there will be lasting damage to the city’s economy.

“Manchester is a city of innovation and it always has been from the industrial revolution onwards.” – MIF head of music Jane Beese

“I think it will probably take three years for businesses get back to pre-Covid levels because of them having taken on so much debt with bounce back loans and rent arrears – it’s going to take a while to recover but I am absolutely confident, if there’s any city in the UK that will bounce back it is going to be Greater Manchester,” says Lord.

Another hugely important event for the Manchester economy is the Manchester International Festival (MIF), which takes place every two years and focuses on newly commissioned work that is presented at the festival and then tours internationally. Since the multi-art-form festival was launched in 2007, it has grown to become a landmark event that regularly attracts a worldwide audience of ticket buyers from up to 40 countries.

In 2019, MIF consisted of more than 1,000 ticketed events over 18 days, it drew a record audience of more than 300,000 and delivered an economic contribution of around £50m to Manchester. Acts to perform at the event in recent years include Janelle Monáe, Bjork, Damon Albarn and New Order.

The event operation consists of a core team of around 100 people but in the build up to, and during, the event around 1,500 freelancers are involved.

MIF head of music Jane Beese (pictured), who joined the organisation in April last year from London’s Roundhouse (cap. 1,700), says that in 2019 MIF engaged the services of 766 local suppliers.

She says that while MIF was fortunate not to have a scheduled event in 2020, the pandemic has had a considerable impact on the organisation: “We were fortunate we weren’t in a festival year but we were about to present Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye for three nights so those performances were postponed and then all of our international touring got put on hold.”

Beese is busy planning this year’s event, which is due to run from 1-18 July. She says, “We are planning with the full support of the city council. Of course, the Government road map does give us some optimism, but we’ve been planning since I arrived for all sorts of scenarios.

“The scenario at the moment is that there will be city-wide visual art presentations and interactions, and we are also planning a number of socially-distanced events – so live performances for live audiences. In July, if we can do things with less restrictions then that’s also catered for in our planning.”

“We were attracted to Manchester because more people go to concerts per head of population than in any other UK city.” – OVG chief operating officer Mark Donnelly

Funded by UK Treasury and Manchester City Council, a £186m new arts centre called The Factory is being constructed to provide a permanent home to the MIF team and its activity. The building is due to be completed in December next year. While the work has been ongoing, the MIF team has created the Virtual Factory to provide online access to artistic projects.

Beese says that the festival will include online content provided throughout the event: “We’re not just going to put things into the digital space because we can, it’s got to make sense artistically and creatively.”

During the lockdown Lord and Burnham collaborated on online events initiative United We Stream, which debuted in first week of April last year, showcasing live DJ sets, musicians, singers, comedians, poets and actors every night.

“We entertained 20 million people over 10 weeks and raised £600,000. It was Andy that made that happen,” says Lord.

Burnham says it was Lord’s suggestion, and is understandably proud of the initiatives results: “A lot of money was raised and it was an important statement – it was an important flag in the ground to say we recognise the value of this sector to the city region and we are doggedly promoting it. People from 80 different countries tuned in, which says something about the power of the Manchester brand.”

Manchester has long been home to the biggest arena in the UK, the 21,000-capacity the AO Arena, but believing its event industry has the potential to accommodate another even larger building, Manchester City Council has given planning permission to the Oak View Group (OVG) to build a 23,500-capacity new arena,

OVG, the US company formed in 2015 by former AEG CEO Tim Leiweke and former chairman of Live Nation Entertainment and artiste manager Irving Azoff, is to begin building the Co-op Live arena this month.

The £350 million venue, located next to Manchester City football club’s Etihad Stadium (63,000) in the Eastlands area of Manchester, will compete with the ASM Global-operated AO Arena. It is due to open at the end of next year.

OVG has signed a 15-year naming rights deal with Co-Op that involves around £1m being distributed to charities by the Co-op Foundation. OVG chief operating officer Mark Donnelly says the arena will result in around £1.5 billion of extra spending in the city during the first 20 years of the arena’s life, and estimates that 3,300 jobs will be created during construction and more than 1,000 longer term jobs created once the venue has opened.

This article was originally published in the March edition of Access All Areas. Read it here. Don’t miss an issue – subscribe for free here.

Asked why OVG has chosen Manchester to invest in, when it already has a huge arena, Donnelly says the company is convinced the city’s events business has room for growth: “We were attracted to Manchester because more people go to concerts per head of population than in any other UK city.

“Manchester has always had a reputation and music heritage that really sets it apart. Historically it was always in the top three cities in the world for ticket sales for arena shows but over the last few years that has fallen away. We think there is the opportunity to significantly grow the number of events that come to Manchester – the stronger the market is in terms of events and tickets sales for them, the more events will be attractive to it.”

In September last year, ASM Global signed a five-year naming rights deal with Bolton-based online electricals retailer AO to rebrand its 21,000-capacity venue ahead of reopening for events and the planned redevelopment of the venue.

ASM Global has submitted development plans for the AO Arena to Manchester City Council, they include its capacity being expanded to 24,000 and it becoming one of the most environmentally sustainable venues in Europe.

AO Arena general manager James Allen says the venue averages 130 shows and over 1.2m visitors a year, which result in more than £114m in spend in the city centre.

While ASM Global awaits planning permission, Allen says the move has been met with strong public support and once the development is complete it will significantly enhance the building: “The increased capacity will come from an enlarged event floor, appealing in particular to events with standing audiences, with the addition of a new event floor concourse for a significantly enhanced customer experience.”

Unlike OVG, ASM Global does not believe Manchester can comfortably accommodate two arenas of such a large scale. Allen refers to a study conducted by Grant Thornton UK LLP that supports that view: “Industry projections demonstrate a very real risk that two arenas will end up in unsustainable competition with each other. The consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted the city centre economy and recovery will need to be a collaborative approach.”

Manchester’s Emirates Old Trafford (EOT) venue is another huge contributor to the Manchester economy. In 2019 the venue provided a £32m boost following its biggest year of events on record; with more than 500 conferences and events, as well as 24 cricket matches including six ICC Cricket World Cup matches.

The building is able to accommodate audiences of up to 50,000 for concerts, while the cricket capacity is 26,000. It also houses the 1,200-capacity The Point venue and a 150-bedroom hotel that has pitch-facing balconies that can be used to view the open-air action.

“2019 was a massive year for us in terms of what we were able to deliver and achieve – it was a huge high and then obviously Covid hit in 2020,” says sales director Angela Hodson (pictured).

Despite the paralysing impact of the pandemic, EOT was one of only two venues to be selected by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to host England men’s international matches, behind closed doors, against Ireland, Pakistan and the West Indies last summer.

Having hosted what was billed as “the world’s first bio-secure Test match” between England and West Indies in July, Lancashire Cricket and EOT launched Safe in One Place – an initiative designed to share knowledge and best practice with the industry.

“Bio-secure sport had not happened anywhere in the world before, so it was very much a first for us, working alongside the ECB. We delivered 21 international matches over the summer, which was a massive undertaking and certainly different from the year before when we welcomed in massive crowds but the actual amount of detail and planning that goes into delivering cricket behind closed doors in the middle of a pandemic is massive,” says Hodson.

With its sector-leading venues, festivals and promoters including SJM and Kennedy Street, along with outspoken campaigners for its events and hospitality industries, Manchester is a formidable presence in the UK’s event landscape.

MIF’s Jane Beese sums it up nicely: “Manchester is a city of innovation and it always has been from the industrial revolution onwards.

“It’s that coupled with a really rich seam of music history – there is so much creativity around; incredible music colleges and schools, great venues, driven and talented event professionals – there’s just a really great scene here.”

This article was originally published in the March edition of Access All Areas. Read it here. Don’t miss an issue – subscribe for free here.