Clare Goodchild, director at events production company We Organise Chaos, considers the unprecedented challenges events professions have faced this season and what the future is likely to hold.
To put it lightly, 2020 was a challenging year for the outdoor event industry. We had to overcome being decimated by closures, unemployment, and cancelled shows; awaiting the return to normal we learnt words like ‘pivot’, and to earn our money in other places. The return to events has been far from a return to normal, we might be back in a field but we have faced some of the toughest challenges we have had to date.
After the ‘roadmap’ was announced in February, it was clear there was no cast-iron guarantee we would enjoy a summer of shows. The lack of clarity, guidance, guarantees, and financial support created an inordinately large risk for the sector. We are specialists in managing risk but some events would have been gambling their entire future to proceed, and the cost was justifiably too much. For those able to proceed, often organisers were understandably cautious to commit time and money without guidance or insurance. As a festival ops director, I work on planning shows for a least nine months of the year but in 2021 we delivered shows where our planning cycle was condensed to just a few months. The pressure on the sector was immense.
In cases where shows went ahead, our usual staffing pools were dry. On many occasions this year I was told that people had left the industry or taken on another role. Festivals are specialist; they are high risk and unique events demanding a mix of skills, experience, knowledge and people who can work in a temporary and changeable environment. However, in 2020, 77% of this workforce lost 100% of their income. In these conditions, we couldn’t have expected that people would be able to stick it out, and so we moved into 2021 being short-staffed and with skills gaps.
“Let’s not forget that we have awoken the government, the media, and the public to our cultural importance, our abilities, and our needs.”
This year hasn’t just been a struggle for organisers. The wider supply chain has been tested, with contractors also battling to find staff. The uncertainty surrounding the return of events cultivated lack of confidence in the supply chain, and the difficultly promoters faced with committing to costs only heightened these feelings. Contractors were unable to commit to shows, and organisers struggled to find replacements when competing with testing centres and building sites. Those who overcame these struggles were often hit with the well-publicised transport and trucking issues, causing unwelcomed unpredictability to complex builds.
Challenges were also felt by the individual. I wasn’t aware until recently that event management ranks fifth on the list of most stressful jobs. I’d debate it might be higher after the past few months. Returning to a job after such a long time compounded with the added challenges of this season, has been tough on the mental health of our workforce. Our staff have been prone to burnout, fatigue, and stress. We need to step-up and collectively address this as a priority before we lose more skilled people.
As the outdoor season is ending, I have reflected on the impact it has had. We have overcome some huge challenges, proved our resilience, demonstrated our flexibility, delivered a commitment to safety, and moved forward as a more collaborative sector. Let’s not forget that we have awoken the government, the media, and the public to our cultural importance, our abilities, and our needs. It has been a challenging 18 months that we can be proud of, and that will shape us moving forward; but the tough times are not over yet. Our supply chain is still shaken; shows are still cancelling; staff are still leaving the industry; and we have new challenges like mandatory health certification and Martyn’s law yet to come. We might have got through this season, but the battle continues to ensure that every show can happen, our staff and supply chain are protected, and 2022 is less challenging for all.