Ahead of 22,500 football fans ascending the new Olympic Steps at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, 13 June, for England’s first game of the Euro 2020 tournament, Access spoke to stadium director Liam Boylan about the venue’s key role in the Government’s Events Research Programme, preparations to stage seven Euro 2020 matches, and the move to significantly increasing the number of concerts at the venue.  

Synonymous with football and with a rich history of staging mass-attendance events ranging from boxing to concerts, it is fitting that London’s 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium was chosen to play a significant role in the Events Research Programme (ERP).

Having already hosted three football matches with audiences, including 21,000 people at the FA Cup final, Wembley is poised to host seven Euro 2022 matches in front of audiences. The first two of England’s Euro matches, against Croatia and Scotland, will see fans required to show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination or of a negative lateral flow test to gain entry. Some 22,500 people are due to attend each of those games but the audience capacity of the later games, which include the Euro 2022 final, remain unknown.

Owned by the Football Association and operated by Wembley National Stadium Ltd, the stadium was opened in 2007 after an £800m overhaul replacing the original building that was created in 1923.

Undoubtably one of the most famous and best technically equipped stadiums in Europe, Wembley Stadium is a remarkably versatile space that enables a swift turn around between events of different formats.

“The vaccination element has been added as a condition of entry on top of what we did previously, but it is not a huge change for us. We are prepared for it.”

A sound approach

Able to host concerts ranging in capacity from 40,00 to 80,000, Wembley Stadium has seen shows by some of the world’s best-selling acts including U2, Take That, Muse, Madonna and Roger Waters.

Non-sport activity is a major focus for stadium director Liam Boylan (pictured left), and under his watch the venue was recently granted permission by Brent Council to host nine additional non-sporting events per year. With promoters airing concern over what promises to be a packed concert schedule in the coming years, the expanded concert window is already proving beneficial.

We are the home of football but we are a multi-purpose venue, and 2022 will be one of the busiest years we have ever had with concerts because of the backlog,” says Boylan. “We were permitted to host 15 concerts but we are now able to accommodate 24 concerts a year.”

He says next year will see the stadium offer an August concert window for the first time: “We will have a window in June and August, and will do a pitch renovation between the two because we have the UEFA Women’s Euro final on 31 July. So we will do a concert run in June until the start of July, grow a new pitch, deliver the final, put a cover down for the August concerts and then regrow the pitch in September.”

The right shot

Boylan’s more immediate concern is hosting the Euro 2020 matches and the stadium’s continued important role in the Events Research Programme. Having already played a landmark role in accommodating the biggest audiences yet at ERP events, next week will see Covid-status certification used for the first time.

“The vaccination element has been added as a condition of entry on top of what we did previously, but it is not a huge change for us. We are prepared for it,” says Boylan.

With fans able to choose between showing a lateral flow test result or vaccination status via the NHS app, Boylan expects things to run smoothly and explains that the vaccination element has been added to monitor how the public adapt to using the technology.

“There will be questions of the public understanding of it, he says. It uses health records so you have to go through a processes for this to become active and for it to verify who you are. It’s about making sure the public understand that it is not like a lateral flow test, where you can get an email or text to show on entry. That will still be in play, but if you want to show your vaccination status you need to use the NHS app.

“If somebody hasn’t gone through that process, obviously they can still go away and get a lateral flow test done before and show that to gain entry so it’s not as if they fail without the proof of vaccination.”

Asked whether proof of Covid-19 vaccination or negative lateral flow test results will be required to gain entry to the remainder of the Euro 2022 games, Boylan says he doesn’t know: “We’re waiting for the announcement on Monday [14 June]. I think everybody is in our industry, a lot of people have put events on sale and are gambling a little bit hoping for a favourable result for our industry. We’re in the hands of Public Health England which to be honest we have been all along and that’s been the key factor in all this.”

“It’s about make the sacrifices and putting in the hard work in the hope that in the long run you can convince people that we are one of the safest environments that people will encounter.”

Audiences are the goal

At this stage it is also unclear what capacity the venue will be able to operate at for the matches.

“We have plans in place to deal with different scenarios, whether it means a 25% capacity or above, or different conditions of entry. If nothing changes we would run at 25% all the way to the end of the tournament but we’re hoping that we can increase that to 50%. We’ve laid out that that’s what we would like to get to.”

He points out that staging football matches in the stadium with Covid-safe measures in place, including reduced capacities, is a hugely costly exercise as a result of reduced income and increased planning costs.

“In terms of costs there is not much difference between putting an event on for 22,000 people and 90,000 but obviously you haven’t got the same profit coming in,” says Boylan. “It’s more difficult than planning a 90,000 sell-out because with the 90,000 sell out you’ve got historical data, you’ve got muscle memory of what you’re doing and how you’re delivering it.

“So with a Covid-safe overlay, whilst the numbers of people are reduced, the number of complexities are increased. Even the matches behind closed doors involved a lot of cost, but it’s not about profit making, it is about starting to get your head above water – getting the sector back alive and playing the long game. That is why we wanted to be involved in the ERP.”

He says the response from the authorities Wembley has worked with while delivering the ERP events has been hugely positive: “It’s about making the sacrifices and putting in the hard work in the hope that in the long run you can convince people that we are one of the safest environments that people will encounter. My view is that were safer in our structure and our processes then anything you will see in any shopping centre or supermarket.

“We are better equipped because we are used to having the safety pressure on us the whole time. Bringing in Covid safety measures, we were able to adapt quite quickly and show Public Health England, especially, that we are a highly professional and expert industry.

“They were surprised how good we are because they’ve never really looked closely at our operations before, and then when they watched it in play they were amazed by the delivery on the days.”

New opportunities for events

As a result of the residential property company Quintain’s transformation of an 85-acre area outside the venue, branded Wembley Park, the renowned Wembley Way access route has been transformed and is now as wide as Regent Street, while the creation of the Olympic Steps (pictured) has liberated more than 12,150sqm of new public space at ground level that could potentially be used for event activations.

Says Boylan, “It is such a shame the space outside cannot be used for these Euros because we’re still under Covid restrictions. With the new steps coming in, it’s opened up this huge area outside our front door. Underneath the steps there is a gorgeous area suitable for many kinds of activations.

“Quintain is creating 15,000 residence and there will be green spaces and lots of places for activations. We will not see much in 2021 but going forward I think the activation space out there will be huge. The whole area feels like a destination now and we’re really delighted to be a part of it.”