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Having been helicoptered in at a turbulent time to get Co-op Live up and running, highly experienced venue exec Rebecca Kane Burton is poised to take on a new role at Oak View Group that could see her manage a new London arena along with a portfolio of European venues.

In April, Kane Burton, The O2 arena’s former VP & GM, stepped in as interim GM at Oak View Group’s (OVG) Co-op Live arena (cap. 23,500) following the resignation of Gary Roden after a week that had seen a test event reduced in capacity and the postponement of the official launch event at the Manchester venue involving a show by Peter Kay. The delays and difficulties getting Co-op Live open didn’t stop there.

Since taking her first step into the events industry with English Heritage when she was aged 21, Kane Burton has forged an impressive career path that as well as a leadership role at The O2, has included being Alexandra Palace MD, CEO at LW Theatres, and prior to joining OVG she was UK&I CEO at events and venues catering giant Sodexo Live!.

Here she reflects on the challenges involved in opening the doors at Co-op Live, and the impact and benefits the difficulties have had on the business, while also providing an insight into her future with OVG.

So after some delay, the lights at Co-op Live are on, and the bands are playing. You must be relieved?

Yes. It’s brilliant. We are in a good place now.

You were helicoptered in at a really difficult time as interim general manager, it must have been quite a stressful month or so for you. What’s your plan longer term within the Oak View Group?

I was due to join OVG on 1 July. I was on gardening leave when I got the call from Jess [Koravos] and Tim [Leiweke]. I was coming to work for the company to help grow OVG’s business here in the UK, and in Europe. So, I was waiting in the wings for that role, and at the point where there was a need for some leadership, some extra arms to come and help the team here, the call came in and I said ‘okay, I’ll help as much as I can’. I’m here to get Co-op Live open, to drive the events we’ve got in, and look after the team. We’ll be appointing a GM imminently who can take over the building full time. It’s a phenomenal facility, it’s going to be real jewel in the OVG crown, and I will always keep an eye on, and my arms around, it.

What’s the role you were originally due to start on 1 July?

VP of venues internationally. I will be looking at the footprint OVG has in the UK and across Europe. There are opportunities across the business. There’s the owner-operator element, which of course includes Co-op Live – that’s our first one here in the UK, then there are also contracts; opportunities for us to come in and support teams at existing venues. But, there are also opportunities for us to create new venues.

There’s been a lot of talk about OVG opening an arena in West London, is that still on the cards?

We’re looking at London, it is ripe for another arena. There are development opportunities there. I know Tim and the team are very much looking at all the opportunities across the UK and Europe. London is definitely on the agenda.

“We’re definitely looking at London, it is ripe for another arena.”

How beneficial was your time at Sodexo Live!

 I learned an awful lot at Sodexo Live!. We own Rhubarb, which provides all the f&b here, so it’s been nice for me to start exploring how you knit the f&b piece in with the venue management side. I can see what I learnt at Sodexo becoming very relevant and very useful in this role. Rhubarb appreciates that that I have an understanding of what it looks like on their side of the desk, and that will help bring the teams together as one.

In terms of the Co-op Live team, you’ve probably had a year’s worth of experience in a few weeks and established very quickly who’s able to go above and beyond the call of duty under pressure. That must be of some benefit.

We have an amazing team here that has seen some very strong relationships and alliances built up in the short six weeks since I started. It’s been quite the ride. Every venue when it opens, or stages a major event – and I think back to the Olympics 2012 when I was at The O2, those events are very formative in that you go deep, you go hard, there are struggles and challenges but you do see amazing abilities become apparent in the team. You also see where some people struggle, but you form these very tight knit collaborative experiences. Where we are now as a team, it could have taken two years to form these sorts of allegiances. We’ve had everything that you could imagine happen in a building over a five-year period happen in just two months. That’s highly unusual, and highly stressful, and there’s been a heightened sense of anxiety but also determination overall. On that night when we opened for Elbow, my goodness was that a celebration. We have just built on that every night.

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What has the feedback been like from clients and fans since it opened?

It’s been great. Everybody’s commenting on the sound. When you have that lovely feedback coming in, it makes it all worthwhile.

“You’ve got two of the worst impacted industries coming together and trying to do something new, bold and brilliant.”

Tim has mentioned that one of the core issues behind the delayed opening of the venue was a difficulty securing construction workers.

I don’t envy anybody who’s got a major construction project in this country. It’s tough. You’ve got this weird meeting of the two industries, you’ve got a really tough construction industry for all the reasons we know post-Covid, Brexit, steel manufacturing challenges, wars in areas where we take supplies from, you’ve got all of that going on in construction, and then you have hospitality. That’s the bit I know most about; you have the impact of Covid, Brexit and the drain we’ve experienced of people leaving our industry and so you’ve got two of the worst impacted industries coming together and trying to do something new, bold and brilliant. So that was challenging, Co-op Live was a hard project, it had lots of setbacks. I think the team were right to have faith and confidence and put that stake in the ground and say we’re going to open in April, that we will drag and push and pull and get this building to a state where we can get ourselves open. That’s the level of determination and spirit that someone like Tim has, and one of the reasons I’ve come to work for him again after working with him at The O2.

In the end we opened with Elbow and that was the right moment for the building and the right band. Everything came together on that night and now we can build on that.

As you say, you worked with Tim at The O2, which he was involved in creating. That venue was groundbreaking for the UK arena market, do you feel Co-op Live will have the same level of impact?

Yes. Manchester is the only city in this country where you can effectively do a lift and shift. When we were experiencing issues, Take That could literally take five of their shows across town to the AO Arena. Now I’m not in the business of handing shows over but it’s an amazing testament to Manchester and how important music is in the city.

Going forward, if I was running any other arena what I’d be looking at very carefully is the sound quality in my building. That is something Tim and the team absolutely nailed, which is a result of his complete and absolute fixation on making sure the sound was phenomenal. When you stand on that stage at Co-op Live as an artist you have as good as experience as the people attending. What Tim has managed to achieve here is not only the best sound of any room of its size worldwide, but he’s also achieved an intimacy between the artist and the person coming to the show, because there’s no distraction in the bowl from anything like suites or LED ribbons that you get in other arenas including The O2.

“Where we are now as a team, it could have taken two years to form these allegiances.”

Has the delayed opening had any impact on customer confidence, and therefore ticket sales and artist bookings?

No. It’s obviously something we have had an eye on, particularly when we had Olivia Rodrigo and some of those very high profile artists being rescheduled. The loveliest thing was in that week when there was so much heavy lifting going on for the ticketing team, one of the pressures they had was they had to get new shows on sale at the same time. So that was a nice problem to have, because promoters weren’t shying away from this building.

Our two biggest promoters, who have the most dates in the diary, are Live Nation and SJM. June is pretty much an SJM month, [SJM Concerts co-founder] Simon Moran is passionate about this building. He is a Manchester boy, this is his city, and his passion, energy and commitment to us as a building is huge and we’re very grateful for that support. We’ve got 50 shows on sale now, and it’s a great testament to this building that it has been able to pull the UFC back up north to Manchester, where they haven’t been for 10 to 15 years. There’s a lot of things coming down the line, and it just tells us that the confidence and the belief in this building is there.

Are you confident now that there won’t be any more issues with the building?

It’s not possible for me to say nothing will ever happen but that’s the joy of working in live; everyone I’m surrounded by are solution orientated problem fixers. That’s what we do for a living, we love the drama and the adrenaline of live. With the strength of the team we have here, in terms of being equipped, the strength of understanding, knowing who can draw on when creating contingency plans, working with emergency services, licencing – all of that good work we’ve done in spades in a way that you wouldn’t usually do in such a short period of time. So, the relationships, the trust, the confidence that’s been built in the team is second to none.

Every building I’ve run has had issues. Things happen, but I know this team is well equipped to deal with anything that comes their way now. I’d like to think Co-op Live will get a nice clean run for a good few year now – I think we deserve that.