The O2 arena general manager Steve Sayer (pictured) talks to Access about the return of live music to the AEG-owned, 23,000-capacity, venue.
What has been the reaction from the events industry to the announcement about the Squeeze concert at The O2 on 5 December?
It has been overwhelmingly positive because everybody can see it’s a small step in the right direction. We hope it helps open the doors to all events restarting with fans.
We are very much a part of the wider events ecosystem; we host sports, entertainment, music, business and corporate events. Some 30% of our content at The O2 is sports and business events.
We are in regular dialogue with many of the sports rights holders, both those that have events at the O2 and outside the O2 because this is an unprecedented period where we’ve all got to share best practise and we’ve all got to share intelligence.
How is it possible that you can stage a concert for 4,700 people yet business events cannot be accommodated at the venue?
Live music sits under the arts guidance and we’re at stage four of that, which permits venues to host events that are Covid-secure. There are a whole raft of measures that venues have to demonstrate they can deliver on.
I understand some of the frustrations because we share those frustrations. We’re focused on lobbying government hard for a complete return to full-capacity events of every type –that is our number one goal and we are talking regularly to government about that.
It’s very frustrating for the business events industry, can you understand why that decision has been made by government?
That is a question that we and many other stakeholders across the event sector are trying to understand. What we are trying to do with the Squeeze show, and staging concerts generally, is build confidence in the UK event sector in all its formats. I’m talking everything from arts and theatre to business events, massive exhibitions to festivals. Our industry is the envy of the world – we are world beaters.
Of course, we have our frustrations like everybody else but we’re trying to find a way through this and build confidence among all stakeholders including the government, Public Health England, the local authority, TfL, venue visitors and show promoters so we can start working back to full capacity events.
Have you had a lot of interest from concert promoters off the back of the Squeeze announcement?
Yes. There is a lot of pent up demand from artists that want to play live, and among people that want to go out and watch a live show. I can’t put a number on it specifically, but we are aiming to host a number of events in the early part of next year bridging back to the period when we anticipate that we can fully reopen.
We all know that the reduced capacity shows are not a viable business model long term but we have to build a bridge back to full capacity shows. We’ve got a responsibility for our employees, for the supply chain – we are part of an industry that’s trying to work its way through the issues the pandemic has created.
How confident are you that full-capacity shows can get back into buildings in a safe manner in the coming months, and are you seeing any signs at a governmental level that enabling that is being considered?
Full capacity shows are the Holy Grail for all of us. I’m definitely getting a sense now there is a convergence of ideas, requirements and technology, and a push from government to try and find a testing model that could be workable.
I don’t really have any specific detail that I can share with you but that is certainly the sense that I’m getting from briefings and meetings we’re either involved in directly or from working groups such as the government’s Sports Technology group. The Premier League are part of that and we talk regularly to the them.
We don’t just work closely with music venues and the National Arenas Association, we are also talking to sport organisations because sport, probably more so than music, gets the headlines and the attention of government.
Do you think the introduction of on-the-day testing to enable full-capacity shows is likely to happen in the near future?
It’s an area that we are focused on right now and on paper it’s a game changer, but it’s only a game changer if some key barriers can be overcome.
The challenge with testing is scalability, availability and the unit cost of the test. You have the example of the Heathrow initiative that is about to go live. If you’re booking a business class flight to New York you are probably going to be okay spending another £150 on a test if that test enables you to fly in and out without quarantining, but if you were going to a music show and the ticket is £45 you’re not going to spend another £150 and probably not even £35.00.
The challenges are not insurmountable. If the speed of the test, and the capacity and availability of testing can be significantly improved, and the unit cost comes down, I think there is a model that can run alongside all of the other work that is being carried out by venues to make them as safe as possible.
Can you give some examples of the measures you have taken to make The O2 Covid-safe?
We are focused on all aspects of the customer journey, and a lot of that is about process, so obviously we’re working with a reduced capacity, everybody will be wearing a face covering, we will manage ingress and egress more effectively, we have social distancing in the bowl, we’ve been able to redesign the flow of people around the venue and we’ve got one-way systems where required. We have invested in fogging machines, and we will definitely see our cleaning related costs go up considerably.
We’re going to use Squeeze to understand more about our staffing deployment in terms of what the right number of personnel is in order to manage social distancing and staggered entry.
We have also focused on our venue app to make sure all products can be purchased through the app and will then be available to collect. We won’t be doing an in-seat service because that isn’t practical with 4,500 people.
For the Squeeze show everything has been completely risk assessed; front of house, back of house, the customer journey, the ticket purchase process – we’ve got all of our risk mitigation plans in place.
Are you seeing much enthusiasm from fans to return to the venue?
The Squeeze show is on track to sell out. We have carried out studies that demonstrate fans want to come back to shows, under the current measures. More than 80% of our database, across all demographics, are looking to come back to shows in the current no-vaccine scenario.
Fans are also hanging on to their tickets. The refund rate for rescheduled shows is running at about 7%, which we’re really happy with. In the US it is significantly higher.
There is pent up demand for the product so our role is to create an environment where that product can happen. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to run a number of socially-distanced shows. Promoters are up for it.
Looking ahead, how confident are you that the industry will be able to bounce back?
It’s been a longer haul than we probably all thought it was going to be but I’m still incredibly optimistic about the future and that the live events industry will bounce back. I’m worried about the supply chain, I’m concerned about venues going over, I’m concerned about skills and talent being lost from our industry. They are all absolutely valid concerns that keep me awake at night but when we get through this, and we will get through this, we have got a bright future ahead. It’s just going to take longer than we all anticipated.