Tom Hall asks the industry what event planning looks like as we return to the ‘old normal’.
Whether initiated as a distraction from his political scandals, or because of the growing scientific consensus on Omnicron’s relative safety, PM Boris Johnson recently announced an end to his ‘Plan B’ Covid19 restrictions, signalling a green flag for event organisers whose livelihoods have been disproportionally affected in recent years.
The demise of the Plan B measures marked the end for mandatory NHS Covid passes for entry into nightclubs and venues, including unseated indoor venues with more than 500 people, and seated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people and any venue with more than 10,000 people. But is it time for the event industry to celebrate?
The news certainly came as a relief to Ben Street, director of Wild Paths & Wild Fields Festival, who is no stranger to local authority negotiation for both outdoor and indoor events, having founded a 23 venue, city-wide festival (Wild Paths) and sister event (Wild Fields).
“2022 is off to a flying start. We’ve been offered the opportunity to curate and aid in the delivery of a number of fledgling events, and that optimism seems to be shared by audiences as sales have really picked up across the board. I think event organisers should be far more confident, but there’s certainly still a necessity to work in contingency plans as the virus hasn’t disappeared and stricter regulations could still be around the corner.”
Event entrepreneur Jason Scott agrees, adding that a U-turn is not off the cards, should, for example, new variants arise: “Government officials must abide by many unique and complex legal and regulatory restrictions. It’s important to know what have they done in the past as, unlike with stock market predictions, the past is a great indicator of future performance when it comes to dealing with government and local authorities. I would avoid doing events with a large attendance. Look at the power of the people attending, versus the power of the number of people attending.”
Local authority attitudes
The last 24 months have changed the way events, local authorities and increasingly public health authorities interact and will continue to do so throughout 2023, according to Tom Clements, president, National Outdoor Events Association (NOEA). “The reality is that there is increased scrutiny around outdoor events, and the power remains in the hands of either the local authority, or the public health representative to ‘pull the plug’ at incredibly short notice: and that includes events put on by the local authority,” he adds.
“This leaves the industry highly exposed. We have to remember that both the organiser and the sizeable supply chain have been without significant income for 24 months. They have taken on large bail out debt and have kept their businesses alive through personal money. This needs to be paid back and planned for, and more disruption is the last thing they need.”
NOEA advocates for event decision making to be put back into the hands of those most qualified; event organisers. “These can be private businesses or the many outstanding professionals that work within local authorities. They can assess and mitigate risk through SAG meetings, and take pragmatic decisions that keep people safe, while still allowing people to come together and boost local businesses and commerce,” Clement concludes.
Street shares this caution: “I’m still a little wary when looking at prospective large indoor events, as these represent the highest risk and will be the first to be sanctioned should we return to a higher tier of restriction. It’s important to have a robust contingency plan in place should new regulations come in.”
He adds that it’s more ‘back to business’ than ‘business as usual’: “Working collaboratively to dampen risk and integrating a socially-distanced model into event management plans are two ways to ensure that you can press on regardless of conditions.”
For now then, at least, there’s a readiness to return to normal. Nick Morgan, group CEO, We Are The Fair says local SAGs have been receptive to his planning protocols for the 2022 season: “We are expecting the PM’s new plan imminently, which supports my view that the disease is endemic and we need to manage the disease rather than let it manage us. He has been very vocal in recent days supporting Sajjd Javid’s view that we must learn to live with Covid.”
Street recommends some practical safeguards for planners: “There’s far more companies offering contactless and Covid-safe services compared to 2020 and 2021, so organisers should have these relationships in place ready for any outcome. We’ve found local authorities are predominantly just after a water-tight Covid risk assessment document, and to see that the management of human traffic around festival sites is considered and avoids pinch points and herding.
“With venues, the focus seems to have shifted more toward good ventilation and, of course, there is still the feeling that LFT results should be provided for packed indoor events. Keeping an open dialogue with your council and local authorities is the best way to avoid being subjected to any draconian restrictions.
“Look to work on a series of events where you can share site, infrastructure and production costs with a number of other promoters, and also share the risk! Have alternative sites and contractors lined up if there is a need to adapt quickly, and for all your event locations and artists, have those 2023 dates in the calendar, so you can roll things over quickly should you need to. Onward and upward!”
Outdoor events are at an advantage, given their relative safety compared to enclosed spaces, Craig Mathie, managing director, Bournemouth 7s, says. His event got the go-ahead last year thanks to a ‘pro events’ local authority, and a host of safeguards, primarily aimed at protecting staff. “Our event was during a low Covid case period, and we produced a very detailed Covid plan with a lot of testing in place. However, it was a struggle turning it around in just under 42 days. ”
For Black Deer Festival co-founder and director Gill Tee, the stress of Covid restrictions are very much front of mind. Her festival, which attracts more than 10,000 people, survived two closures in 2020 and 2021, and is now coming back in 2022 with renewed confidence – partly due to the relationship the event has already forged with local authorities.
“We are very fortunate that there’s a lot of trust with our local authorities that we will produce a safe event and adhere to whatever restrictions are thrown at us,” she says. “We are optimistic that, by June, we will be relatively back to normal and be able to operate with our normal safety procedures in place. We will never, however, take anything for granted. We will be ready for any curve balls that could get thrown at us.”
Engaging with the local authorities, and having them on your side is vital, Tee adds. “They have a job to do, and as event organisers we have to respect that. It is invaluable to build up trust with the individuals who ultimately could shut your festival down if you’re not meeting all the licence conditions. I would never ordinarily dissuade anyone from dipping their toes in the water of getting involved in our industry, but I would say to anyone who is looking to start a festival or large event this year, to be very cautious.
Supply chain decimation
“Covid might seem like a distant memory during this summer, and the world is looking a lot brighter, but there has been a massive impact on the supply chain. This means that there is a general shortage on the basic infrastructure, and this is already having a big impact on event organisers.
These wider concerns are echoed by Morgan: “Supply chains have been decimated, in the main, over the last 24 months and many don’t have the funds or appetite to reinvest, which means stocks have been depleted further and this year we have some significant events which will pull on that supply chain and they didn’t operate in 2021, namely Glastonbury, Commonwealth and the Jubilee weekend. It’s a huge concern and little is being done to address it.”
Continental Drifts CEO DJ Chris Tofu agrees: “For all the celebrations over losing the Covid restrictions, the supply chain issue and Brexit is in some ways ‘the next Covid’. We’ve lost a heap of great stages we programme that are smaller and supply gigs for lesser than mainstage artists. Foreign acts will eternally be plagued by ridiculous laws that no one wants, and also again for the underground acts, creating impossible blocks to touring, in and out of the UK.
Despite this, Continental Drifts is taking a cautiously optimistic approach that still includes contingencies, should we have to return to restrictions. “The knowledge event teams have gained during the pandemic will prepare them for what’s to come, should things go awry. The events sector needs a joined-up approach and to share knowledge. It’s crucial that contracts still have cancellation clauses, but also – out of maybe 100 cancelled gigs – we only ever saw a tiny trickle of cash returning for all the work. Most events, as many of you will know, try to reschedule. It seems it’s going to be a case-by-case scenario.”
NOEA’s CEO Susan Tanner outlines some tips for managing risk. “Ask what is the risk to the audience? What is the risk to the event? What is the commercial risk to the organiser? This approach means more collaborative conversations with local authorities while demonstrating where the organiser sees their responsibilities lying.
“We shouldn’t see local authority event organisers as gatekeepers to events. They, as much as anyone, understand the value of events and want them to happen. It’s about us finding this common ground and looking to find reasons why they can happen, not just reasons why they can’t.”
2022 then is looking like a welcome return to ‘the old normal’, but careful planning and open dialogues will put planners in good stead.