On the back of the prime minister’s reopening roadmap, and continued support in the budget, leading events operators tell Access how they are working to overcome the remaining hurdles and prepare for a comeback this summer.

After many months of Government-induced paralysis, the outdoor events industry finally has something to aim for and ticket buyers are proving hugely supportive.

On the back of the prime minister’s 22 February re-opening roadmap announcement, the festival calendar had been re-written. While many major events including Live Nation’s 105,000-capacity Reading, Leeds (75,000) and Creamfields (70,000), along with independents Boomtown (66,000) and Field Day (25,000) have sold out, others including Parklife (80,000), Pride In London, Isle of Wight (55,000), Black Deer (20,000) and Mighty Hoopla (20,000) have been moved back in order to have the best chance of going ahead this summer.

The UK arm of Live Nation-owned Ticketmaster said it saw a 600% spike in website traffic to 2 million in the week following the PM’s roadmap declaration. According to MD Andrew Parsons 500,000 people visited the Ticketmaster Festival Finder guide alone during the period. “It’s a week unlike any we’ve experienced in a typical February,” he said at the time.

Anna Wade director of communications and strategy at Boomtown is equally enthusiastic about the reaction from festivalgoers. “It’s been amazing,” she says. “Before the announcement on the 22 February we were all feeling that there was a really big uphill climb in front of us and we just didn’t know how it was going to be possible. Off the back of it we saw huge swathes of public excitement, and understandably so – all of us felt the same – it was a huge injection of positivity.”

More than half of Boomtown ticket holders for the cancelled event last year held on to them for this year’s 11-15 August edition, leaving around 20,000 unsold. Within four days of Boris Johnson’s big reveal, all of them had been snapped up.

“We saw huge swathes of public excitement, and understandably so, all of us felt the same – it was a huge injection of positivity.”

Wade says the event’s capacity will be reduced from 66,000 to 60,000 this year but not because of Covid-19: “It will make it more manageable from an operational standpoint. It is such a sprawling festival site, and after 10 years it was time to rework it because it had been kind of building on top of itself.”

Among the festivals to fall foul of the 21 June, Step 4, roadmap timing were Isle of Wight and Black Deer, both originally planned for 18-20 June.

Black Deer Festival co-founders Gill Tee (pictured) and Deborah Shilling reacted quickly and within days had announced the festival at Eridge Park, Kent, would be rescheduled to 25-27 June. It is now due to be one of the first major events to be scheduled after the start of Step 4. With the festival industry not going to find out if social distancing will be lifted until a week prior to 21 June, it’s undoubtably a brave move.

Says Tee, “I have had such great feedback and support from the industry, it is almost as if the festival will kick off the season. It’s given people hope. People have said we are being brave, but I just feel really positive about it.

“Our team sat down, our shareholders, everybody to discuss it – we are aware of the gamble, the possible dangers that are ahead of us, but we made the decision to go forward. It will be one of the first festivals of the season.”

She says 10,000 tickets had been sold to the event prior to it being re-scheduled and following the move sales soared.

Isle of Wight Festival chief John Giddings (pictured) also saw tickets for his event sell strongly after it was announced the Live Nation-owned festival was to be rescheduled to 16-19 September.

“I wanted it three months later because I didn’t want to be the guinea pig – the first show out. We’ve always been the first show of the season, we are now going to be the last show,” says Giddings.

LGBT+ event Pride In London, which was attended by an estimated 1.2million people in 2019, is another major event to have been postponed to September.

Pride director of events, Simon Jones (pictured below) says the move has been met with jubilation: “It is a really important day in the calendar for the LGBT+ community, Pride In London is as much a protest as it is a celebration, it is one of the largest of our events and so it is great to see such an extremely positive reaction to the move.”

Along with the 20,000-capacity Mighty Hoopla festival in London, which was moved from June to 4 September, another major event to have been shifted to an increasingly busy September is Manchester’s Parklife.

Rescheduled back in December, from 12-13 June to 11-12 September, Parklife has also enjoyed a dramatic rise in interest since the roadmap announcement. Sacha Lord, co-founder of the Manchester festival, says, “We ran a pre-registration system for Parklife. We normally have about 40,000 people sign up to that but at the moment we have nearly 145,000, of which at least 100,000 happened on the back of the prime minister’s announcement.”

Measures for success

While not all the outdoor events industry’s demands were met by the chancellor in his 3 March Budget, among the measures that were warmly welcomed include the extension of the 5% reduced rate of VAT on ticket sales to 30 September, followed by an interim rate of 12.5% for six months. The extension of the furlough and SEISS schemes to the end of the September were also much appreciated.

However, despite repeated industry-wide lobbying, the chancellor made no mention of a Government-backed insurance scheme to protect festivals and other event operators against the risk of losses if they are forced to cancel due to Covid.

Live music industry umbrella group LIVE (Live music Industry Venues & Entertainment) is having ongoing dialogue with Government and the Treasury. John Glen, the economic secretary to the Treasury, suggested the publication of a roadmap for the reopening of the events sector could be the “right point” to consider insurance-based support.

As Access went to press many in the events sector remained frustrated by the lack insurance support, not least as countries such as Germany, Austria, Norway and the Netherlands have all introduced a scheme. According to an Association of Independent Festivals survey, 92.5% of its members cannot stage events without insurance.

“We’ve always been the first show of the season, we are now going to be the last.”

Kilimanjaro Live CEO and Concert Promoters Association vice chairman Stuart Galbraith (pictured right) says that the level of optimism in the industry and the huge appetite shown for events by consumers has been fantastic but without insurance event organisers will be left to make some difficult decisions.

He says, “LIVE is talking to Treasury and I understand there are increasingly positive conversations but it’s about timelines – when will it be available and when will it arrive? The fact is that summer events are having to make commitments to cost exposure by the end of March or in April, and if those insurance provisions don’t come then many festivals will not be able to afford to make those cost commitments.”

Lord agrees, “If we don’t get the insurance package, I am expecting many of the smaller festivals not to take place and I don’t blame them, they can’t take that financial risk. Insurance support is absolutely critical, it is the most important thing for festivals.”

Meanwhile, Giddings is not holding his breath. He says, “There’s no insurance against the pandemic, are the government prepared to cover it? I don’t think so. I think everybody this summer is taking a leap of faith.”

With festival operators not due to get confirmation that their events will be able take place without social distancing until June 14 at the earliest, operators are having to consider alternative scenarios.

Tee says the Black Deer festival site has sufficient room to be able to cope if some kind of distancing guidelines have to be adhered to: “We’re in a beautiful estate with plenty of room so we can do any social distancing required but we are planning confidently for the full 20,000 capacity. That’s what we want to achieve in order to make our festival viable, but if suddenly there was a restriction that hit us we have enough space at the estate to be able to react to that.”

The Isle of Wight festival’s capacity will be reduced by 10% this year, and Giddings says his team is taking all available steps to create a safe environment: “We are going to have a really robust Covid plan in place – I don’t want to be responsible for a fourth Covid wave. We have experts dealing with Covid health and safety within the organisation.”

Despite its size, Jones is confident Pride In London will be able to take place in September but he says organisers will work closely with agencies and public bodies to adapt to requirements as they emerge: “We work closely with the Greater London Authority, London Ambulance Service, Met Police, Westminster Council and the UK Government, and we’ll be led by their advice for the safety of the event.”

Supply Chain

There are considerable concerns across the events industry that the supply chain could be significantly weakened by the battering it has taken from the pandemic over the past year, and that with so many events having been moved to late summer it may not be possible to meet demand.

Says Wade, “The impact on the supply chain is yet to be fully understood. It all depends on if we get an announcement from the Government before the end of March regarding an insurance scheme because if that comes into play it shows the Government has confidence in events being able to go ahead this year. We can then go to suppliers and we can start moving and laying down financial commitments.”

Galbraith says his company’s festival, the 16,500-capacity Belladrum Tartan Heart in Inverness, which takes place 29-31 July, has already been impacted by the effect the changing festival landscape has had on suppliers: “We’ve already got two suppliers that are telling us that they won’t be able to give us what we normally have simply because so many events are getting squashed into the end of the summer.”

Since it was announced London’s Mighty Hoopla would be moved to September, the event has sold out. Co- founder and director Ally Wolf says he is confident the festival will be able to take place without social distancing but quite what the admission process will be remains to be seen.

He says, “We have seen fantastic ticket sales for festivals and Mighty Hoopla is no exception. It’s really great to be able to plan events again but we are waiting to find out what the conditions will be on us operating, specifically in relation to testing and potential implementation of some kind of vaccination card.”

Much also depends on the results of the Government’s Events Research Programme, which will include a series of pilot events starting next month to ascertain the impact of using safety and testing measures on the transmission of Covid-19 at events.

Wade says that despite the uncertainty still surrounding the festival season, there is much to be optimistic about: “The Event Research Programmes is going to be really helpful. At the moment we are playing a bit of a waiting game but when we see the results come back we will be able to understand exactly what events can go ahead and in what capacity.

“It is still a tricky time for us, but it definitely feels like we have much more to work with than we have had for a very long time.”

This article is an element of the cover feature of the March edition of Access All Areas. View the issue here, and subscribe for free here