Leading major live event operators provide their perspectives on one of the busiest and most demanding summer events seasons anyone can remember, and how next year a careful balance will have to be struck between meeting costs and maintaining affordable ticket prices.
In February, Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) CEO Paul Reed warned the festival season would see operators experience a ‘perfect storm’ created by the supply chain crisis, workforce shortages and the impact of Brexit, but while there have been casualties, other event operators have experienced record years.
“There’s no question the appetite for events is there but there are significant challenges in the economics.” – R&A executive director Johnnie Cole-Hamilton
In Scotland, Live Nation-owned DF Concerts sold more than 1 million tickets across 33 outdoor summer shows to generate around £72m for the country’s economy.
AEG Presents had a record year with an attendance of around 350,000 across six All Points East shows, while a 50% increase in the number of its BST Hyde Park dates led to 530,000 tickets being sold.
During Glastonbury festival weekend in June more than 1 million people attended major music shows across the UK, and over the August bank holiday weekend it was 3 million.
Meanwhile, the success of huge sporting events including the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 and The 150th Open at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews played a major role in helping the UK avoid recession.
Johnnie Cole-Hamilton (pictured), executive director championships at The R&A, who oversaw The 150th Open, says the event contributed around £200m to the UK economy. Understandably, he is proud of what was achieved.
“We handled a record crowd of 292,000, which was way beyond the previous record of 239,000 – we’re talking about having three times the population of St Andrews descending on a daily basis and having to look after them on a 450-acre site. So, it was clearly the largest infrastructure we’ve ever put together, and the most commercially successful event yet.”
Many independent festivals also fared well, with the likes of Green Man, Boomtown, End of the Road and Glastonbury selling out.
AEG Presents CEO of European festivals Jim King (pictured) says the company went from staging 12 festival show days in 2019 to 23 this year, as well as stadium dates. He says he was hugely impressed by the hard work achieved by a team that had seen its workflow cut off entirely during the pandemic.
“There was obviously the impact of the pandemic on the supply chain to deal with but also the challenges around our team returning full time after such a long break, and having to deal with a quantity of work that had increased substantially from pre pandemic,” says King. “It was a huge increase in shows, and obviously the calibre of artists we were working with meant the production requirements were at a very high level.”
Reed has found that despite the many challenges impacting independent festivals, a large number of AIF members had a very positive year: “I have heard from quite a few of them who had record attendances, record F&B, record sponsorship, and some very happy audiences out there.
“We’re facing one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever had.” – AEG Presents European Festivals CEO Jim King
A storm approaching
Deborah Shilling (pictured), co-founder of independent Americana and country music festival Black Deer, says the event was one of the best yet, despite its organisers having to deal with revenue from tickets sold at 2019 prices, and a very real storm hitting the event.
She says, “Cashflow was a challenge, we had so many roll-over customers stretching back two years, everything was tougher in general, topped off nicely with an electrical storm on the festival’s Saturday evening. Evacuating 12,000 people from the arena wasn’t ideal but had to be done for everyone’s safety.”
Reed says established festivals that have cultivated audience loyalty, in general, did well but it was an extremely challenging year for anyone who was launching a new show or for events in their infancy.
Among the many festivals to be cancelled this year were Gateways in Yorkshire, Leighton Live in Lancashire, Breakout in Fife, Bournemouth High Tide Festival, Northern Love in St Helens, Brainchild Festival in East Sussex, Festiva in Lancashire, and Newcastle’s Leazes Live and This is Tomorrow.
The outgoing AIF CEO says his predicted ‘perfect storm’ did materialise as expected but the cancellation of events lessened its impact on the supply chain for the events that stuck it out: “Some of the issues relented as we went deeper into the season, with cancellations seeing inventory released back into the market.”
Isle of Wight Festival promoter and Solo Agency MD John Giddings says that his summer was not just impacted by the lingering effects of Covid, but also Brexit: “I had Nick Mason on tour throughout Europe, we played 29 countries, and they kept changing the rules about getting in and getting out with visas, and importing and exporting equipment, but we did it.
“If there weren’t problems, our jobs wouldn’t exist, groups would book themselves. We’re not in nine to five jobs, we’re there to make it happen – the artist gets on stage, and we have to make sure they don’t need to worry about anything behind them.
“It wasn’t an easy summer but, looking back on it, it was a great summer, it was great to get people back out again.” – lsle of Wight Festival promoter John Giddings
“It wasn’t an easy summer but, looking back on it, it was a great summer, it was great to get people back out again.”
Yasmin Galletti (pictured above), director at live event production agencies We Are The Fair and We Are OPS, has worked on events throughout the UK this summer. While she was part of the team that helped launch the Otherlands festival in Scotland, in general the company took on fewer clients than usual this year.
“That meant our team could dedicate more time to the planning of fewer shows and also supporting promoters through really challenging times,” she says. “It has led to hugely positive feedback across all the shows we worked on, from audience and promoters alike, which I’m really proud of.”
Galletti says one of the biggest challenges across the festival sector this year was slower-than-usual ticket sales: “Many events struggled to break even this year because of increased costs of around 30% and slower ticket sales. It was a shock for promoters after the ‘ticket-rush’ of 2021, and it meant a lot of big ideas planned earlier in the year had to be scaled back. It also put a strain on the ability to deliver things to the highest possible spec because, understandably, budgets were tighter.”
Striking the balance
Event owners have reported cost increases of between 25% and 35% this year, and with inflation predicted to reach 14% in 2023 those costs show little sign of coming down any time soon. Meanwhile, the “cost of living crisis” is already seeing consumers struggle with the soaring costs of day-to-day essentials. One of the biggest concerns as event operators plan for next year is how to strike a balance between covering costs and keeping ticket prices at an affordable level.
“Something has to give,” says Reed. “Festival organisers are extremely aware that people are making very difficult decisions in their daily lives, let alone their entertainment options. So, you’ve got to price it sensitively. We are seeing more festivals adopting payment plans with small monthly payments.”
“We’re facing one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever had,” agrees King. “It is a crisis for many, many people and we need to be reflective of what our customers are saying. The cost of tickets is almost entirely driven by the cost of operation. We must make sure that we cut our cloth accordingly, so that a reasonable ticket price is created and promoted with great value for money attached to it.”
Reed suggests the industry work to raise awareness and educate audiences about what great value events such as festivals are: “On the face of it, festivals are high-cost tickets but it is important to illustrate to the audience the astronomical costs and risk involved in staging them, and what incredibly good value festivals are because you are paying for four days of non-stop entertainment. Once you start comparing that to other forms of live entertainment, whether it be high-end music stadium shows or theatre – festivals come out looking very good value.”
Despite the inflationary pressures, or perhaps because of them, many operators of events large and small are reporting strong early ticket sales for next year.
“We sold-out of super-early-bird tickets in record time and have seen people sign up to pre-register for early birds in their thousands,” says Shilling.
The ballot process is underway for the 151st Open Championship at Royal Liverpool in 2023, and Cole-Hamilton reports that tickets are selling extremely well.
“It will be sold out without question; sales are going faster initially than the St Andrews event. So, there’s no question the appetite for events among the general public is there but we recognise there are significant challenges in the economics.”
With the many challenges that lay ahead, including expected huge increases in cost, there remains a widespread feeling across the industry that the Government should increase its support.
James Ralls, co-founder and MD of Portsmouth’s 80,000-capacity Victorious festival, says despite costs being up by as much as 50% in some areas of the event’s production the festival was a success this year and he is particularly pleased with work to make the event experience available to all.
“We maintained our gold award from Attitude is Everything and increased the resources available to our accessible team. The progress really shows year on year, with the increased number of attendees with different needs that now attend,” he says.
As the industry prepares for next year, Ralls expects the uncertainty around costs to impact all event operators, especially smaller events. “I would like to see the Government introduce a lower VAT rate on event tickets for two years to let the industry supply chains re-form properly,” he adds.
Reed agrees, “We have to make the case loud and clear to Government and the new culture Secretary that we need a 5% VAT rate. That would alleviate some of the pressure.”
Cole-Hamilton is a member of Scotland’s Event Industry Advisory Group and sits on UK-wide event groups that are working with DCMS. He says, “There’s been a lot of discourse over the past few years with government both at a UK level, at devolved government level and also across not just sports but cultural events and business events. The challenges are still there in terms of staffing, skills and cost.
“There definitely needs to be a continuation from Scottish Government, UK Government, all the devolved governments, making sure they give the public confidence in the events industry, and that they give organisers, the confidence to actually go ahead and put these events on.”
The pandemic saw unprecedented levels of collaboration within the live events industry, not only in its lobbying of Government but also the sharing of knowledge and skills to get Covid-safe events off the ground.
“It’s one of the most competitive industries that exists, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change, but in terms of collaborative working and a collaborative outlook that’s changed substantially,” says King.
Among the ways in which the promoter has seen the industry work more harmoniously is the approach to artist exclusives and supply chain engagement: “Chasing after crazy exclusivities from artists has been part of the industry forever but we are certainly seeing more collaboration, be it indirectly, just by not enforcing unnecessary measures on the talent terms side. On the supply chain side, we’re also seeing less aggressive posturing from parts of the industry.”
With some festival operators struggling with soaring costs and major supply chain challenges to keep their events afloat, there have been calls for artists to reconsider their fees and help support a sector that is a major provider of their profits.
Giddings, whose company represents acts including Iggy Pop, Little Mix, Blondie and Genesis, is not convinced acts will be willing to slash their rates, not least following a two-year pandemic period during which they were almost entirely prevented from performing.
“It’s all down to what an artist is capable of getting, and what they’re worth,” he says. “The one decision a promoter has to make is whether they want to do it or not.”
Galletti says the spirit of collaboration remains alive and well among production personnel. She regularly phones competitors to get their advice and shares documents with them. She believes the next logical step is to create greater transparency with consumers about the challenges the festival industry faces: “People often see them as huge money-making machines, but the small independent promoters we work with are genuinely concerned first and foremost with audience satisfaction and experience.”
Formula E electric car racing returned to the streets of the city’s Royal Docks, and ExCeL London exhibition centre with the SABIC London E-Prix in July. With 40,000 spectators and 3,000 hospitality guests attending across the race weekend, the event’s organisers created the Allianz E-Village fan interactive zone, and a pre-race entertainment show, to help enhance the experience for attendees.
Formula E event delivery director Roger Hooker says that value for money and focus on customer experience is paramount: “Hosting fans, and guests of the Formula E ecosystem in significant numbers with so much care, attention and effort placed on how to positively engage them back at our races was a huge focus. We moved autograph sessions into the pit lane to bring the fans closer to the drivers and their garages, and entertainment post the podium celebrations was bigger and bolder.”
King says that while careful management of the supply and artist costs will be essential to ensure viability, equally important will be the focus on creating experiences that offer value for money: “The fan coming away from any of our events has to feel they had a great time and they want to come back. If we don’t achieve that we failed. Getting them through the door is not what this is about. It’s getting them back through the door.
Shilling adds that while lobbying Government, taking a more united approach to supply chain issues, and focusing on customer experience is vitally important, the industry is nothing without its workers and the year ahead is likely to put enormous strain on them.
“Working in this industry we need to remember to be kind to each other as individuals, we’re all just trying to do our best but sometimes that’s not enough,” she says. “Anxiety levels are going to go through the roof for some as their circumstances change in this crisis. We must also continue to invest our energies on the bigger issues which are always there in the background – sustainability and inclusivity.”
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE LATEST EDITION OF ACCESS ALL AREAS MAGAZINE – SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE HERE.