On the back of two remarkable shows at The O2 arena (cap. 23,000) by Gorillaz on 10 and 11 August, the first full capacity events at the AEG-owned venue in more than 500 days, its VP and general manager Steve Sayer (pictured) tells Access what it meant for the team involved, how the Covid mitigation measures were received and how he expects the next year to shape up.
How did it feel to have the venue open again with a full capacity audience?
It’s great to be back. I’m not sure last night will erase all of the memories from the last 18 months but what a great way to reopen The O2. I think everybody felt very safe – there was a joyful, almost spiritual, atmosphere last night. Everybody came to party and they did it in the right way.
The atmosphere among the audience was joyous but it must have been pretty upbeat back-of-house too. What was it like having everyone back together working on a full capacity event again?
Kilimanjaro was the promoter last night, X-ray Touring were the agents, it was an absolute delight to have them back in the building and doing what we all do best. Everyone from the security teams to the cleaning teams are just buzzing to be back and you saw that last night around the building, the warmth of welcome from all of our staff. The engagement was on a different level because it’s been so tough for everybody, and we want to celebrate the return but do it in a mindful way.
You had a whole range of Covid mitigation measures in place from encouraging the wearing of face coverings to mobile tickets and the requirement to show a Covid Pass to gain entry – how challenging was that to set up and action?
People were respectful of each other in and around the venue, and there was full compliance with the Covid mitigation measures. There was a very tiny proportion of the audience who arrived and had not seen the comms about using a Covid Pass, but the vast majority turned up with their ticket on their phones and the Covid Pass ready to go. We didn’t know how that was going to go – when you’re talking about checking 17,000 people in and managing queues that is a major consideration, and we had a fall back for that, but we managed to check every single person in. We have developed a blueprint to manage backstage in a slightly different way just to ensure that it is a Covid-secure environment. It’s about the venue, promoter and the production working together to ensure that we get the show on the road and do it safely.
How much of an impact has the pandemic had on the venue’s team?
It’s been a really difficult ride for all of us, we’ve had we’ve had people on furlough for a long time, sadly some employees left the business last summer as part of a restructure that we had to undertake – we’ve lost some good people and the supply chain has lost good people. We know that firms have gone bust one of the real plus points of the pandemic on amore micro level is the way that the industry has come together. We’ve always prided ourselves on the relationships that we have got with promoters and agents, and the way that we hopefully service our brand partners but what we have seen through the pandemic, out of necessity, is all of those different parts of the ecosystem had to come together under the live banner to collectively find a way through this so the collaboration and the spirits is probably better than it has ever been.
How did the band react to delivering the first full-capacity shows at the arena in 15 months?
We spoke to Damon Albarn and the band after the first night and we did a lovely presentation (pictured above) for them as a thank you for reopening the building. It’s fair to say that that they were absolutely buzzing to be back. They were blown away by the reaction they had on both nights. We had worked very closely with British artist Madeleine Floyd who designed the original piece of nightingale artwork to commemorate the NHS Training Facility at The O2 in 2020. So we commissioned a piece that incorporated the nightingale artwork, Gorillaz logo and The O2; and we presented that to every member of the band.
Are you confident about customer sentiment and the willingness among consumers to return to full-capacity events?
Yes. Last night’s show had been postponed but a significant number of fans held on to their tickets and the refund rate was a tiny fraction. I think what we will see off the back of these first events is confidence coming back quickly. The fan survey we did about six weeks ago showed, at that point, that confidence was still a little bit fragile – there was a significant proportion, more than 80%, who were desperate to get back to live but 20% were holding back a little bit. Now that we’re putting shows on, the infection rates are at least flattening and the vaccine rate is edging up, I think the conference will come back fairly quickly. We believe the Covid Pass in combination with the ventilation technology and hygiene measures we have adopted are really important in the short term to build up that consumer confidence.
“We have got more than 220 confirmed events already in the diary for next year – next year is going to be a record year at The O2.”
What has been the financial impact of adopting the Covid mitigation measures, and who are the new suppliers you are working with as a result?
The two key new suppliers are Unilever brand Lifebuoy, which is providing all the hand sanitisers right across the site, and Rentokil Initial whose Viruskiller cleaning technology is being deployed. So there has been investment but AEG has been able to partner with those two companies to showcase their technology. I couldn’t put a figure on it but yes we have invested well into six figures in terms of infrastructure. We felt that was important to ensure we build up that confidence and we deliver the safest possible environment both for the fans and the bands. For a venue of our size, and with the amount of events we have, we felt the investment was proportionate. We’ve also been able to roll out mobile ticking. Burna Boy on 28 August will be our first shos that is 100% ticketed via AXS Mobile ID. Last night was a hybrid because we had a lot of tickets that had been sold in the marketplace some time ago through third-party agents. We’ve also sort of upgraded different parts of the building to make the experience as contactless as it can possibly be.
Will the contact-free ‘clear bag policy’ be lifted when Covid infections fall?
We do see the clear bad policy being here to stay, it’s not a short-term reaction to the pandemic it is a key part of our counter-terrorism measures. We hope the Covid Pass is a short-term measure as that does add another layer of checking and we want to get fans in as quickly as possible.
Looking ahead, there fears that the market could get congested – what is your perspective of the way next year is shaping up?
We have got more than 220 confirmed events already in the diary for next year – next year is going to be a record year at The O2. Artists are already looking into 2023, which is starting to book up. There’s so much pent-up demand from both the artists who want to get back out and play and the fans that have been starved of live entertainment but I’m not sure that there is necessarily going to be a major issue with the market being saturated. Yes there’s going to be a lot of festivals, outdoor shows, big arena shows and gigs in smaller venues but we’re not overly concerned about it. As long as we can build up that consumer confidence and deliver shows safely we are confident that there’s enough demand out there to sustain an incredible recovery for the whole of the sector, not just The O2 and arena circuit.