Sector trends

Not going live: the impact of coronavirus on the events industry

The events industry is worth more than £39bn to the UK economy, yet business exhibitions, nightclubs and music and literature festivals have been hit hard by lockdown and face further struggles. Three events experts explain how the industry can get back on its feet.

“Over the past five months, we’ve been trying to ensure there is some sustainable support for the sector, essentially, the ecosystem of businesses that operate within the 6pm – 6am marketplace,” he says. “This means not just the front-end businesses but also the thousands of sole traders and skilled workers that support them.” 

Lockdown has been gradually reduced in stages for pubs and restaurants, and now theatres, arena spaces and sports venues are gradually being able to open, too – albeit in limited ways. Conferences and business events, for example, are expected to open up again from 1 October with restrictions on numbers.

It’s here that problems arise for the industry. “We gauged that most businesses were accommodating for about 40% capacity,” Kill says. “In many cases, the business will not break even on that figure. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme did benefit those venues that serve food, he says, adding: “They could use that to bolster their position, but it wasn’t a long-term solution and it didn’t apply to all events businesses.”

For Kill, that long-term solution is to understand how night-time venues can open safely. “We need some sort of financial package specifically for the sector, as hospitality elsewhere is now reopening. The largest challenge is nightclubs, which are excluded from any roadmap discussion. That’s a huge concern, especially considering that we’ll now see businesses having to contribute 10% to furlough and the return of commercial rents after the moratorium ends on 30 September.” 

That, Kill says, is likely to lead to “a swathe of businesses going to the wall and a huge number of redundancies”.  


Ian Stockley is CEO at Bath Festivals, which runs the music and literature-focused Bath Festival and the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, plus a year-round programme of music and literature events

“We’re in the middle of a six-year transition, from public funding of 40% of total revenues prior to 2017 to under 10% by 2022,” he says. “Philanthropic funding, trust income and corporate sponsorship, together with increased ticket sales is replacing public funding. But the plan has now been interrupted by Covid-19, with ticket sales totally drying up.” 

Furlough funding, has, he says, “provided time for applications to emergency and recovery funds, which are set up for arts organisations by trusts and the Government. But new creative thinking and innovation in artistic planning and commercial modelling has never been more important, with the situation remaining very challenging.”

In future, festivals may offer a blend of online and real-time events. “Literature events from the May festival have been re-scheduled to November – with themes running through the pandemic from education to environment, to mental health and diversity,” says Stockley. These will have a blended offer of small, socially distanced audiences and live streaming to online audiences. There’s also the Reading is Magic Festival, “a free digital schools programme of events, in conjunction with children’s laureate Cressida Cowell”, which will be launched in the first week of October.

Is Stockley concerned about finances going forward? “The organisation has been stabilised in the short term, but the challenges will become more acute if the uncertainty around the pandemic continues beyond the end of this financial year,” he says.

If the UK governments are of a mind that you can’t fully drop social distancing until we have a vaccine, then the only way for events to be viable is financial intervention, similar to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme

Geoff Ellis
CEO, DF Concerts & Events

Geoff Ellis is CEO of DF Concerts & Events, which organises concerts and festivals across Scotland, including T In The Park, which ran for 22 years, and TRANSMT, which will return in July 2021 with headline acts including Lewis Capaldi and Liam Gallagher

“We accept that public safety is paramount, but I’m hoping things will move on quickly in the next couple of weeks,” says Ellis. “We are really standing on a precipice – there are going to be tens of thousands of job losses throughout the UK as soon as the furlough scheme ends.” 

For Ellis, the events sector is currently not viable, with social-distancing measures still in place because the capacities of the venues are reduced so much. “You may be able to reopen, but you can’t afford to put on a show. You need the same equipment and the same trucks on the road. The costs to the industry are identical, but you only have a third of the income with the current capacity rules in place.”

However, he argues that there are ways of mitigating this. “First, you could open at 50% or 60% capacity and then the government makes up the shortfall in ticket sales. If the UK governments are of a mind that you can’t fully drop social distancing until we have a vaccine, then the only way for events to be viable is financial intervention, similar to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.” Ellis believes this solution would work at arena level, and adds: “It would definitely help smaller venues in particular survive.”

The second option is live testing of audience members. “The technological advances are moving quickly. You could test everyone who buys a ticket – most tickets are mobile anyway so the event organiser has the required information.” You then have “belt and braces” on the door, Ellis says, with “temperature checks at the venue”. None of this is 100% foolproof, he is careful to point out. “But the risks of not reopening are greater than the risks of starting carefully.”

Those who are vulnerable or shielding will make their own decisions not to go out, he says. “But most people will want to – the entertainments industry is economically and culturally essential for well-being,” he adds. There’s further reassurance from the fact that “even when events start again, it won’t be every venue seven nights a week”. Most shows, he says, have been rescheduled to 2021, “so the restart will be slow and steady”.

The situation is particularly concerning for festivals: the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) says that 92% of its members are facing potentially ruinous costs as a result of cancelled events, and only 1.5% are insured for Covid-19 related cancellation. At least 90% of 2020’s festivals will not take place this year, and refunds to customers are adding up to some £800m.

Reasons to be cheerful

“The one thing I have confidence in is our immense skill set,” says Michael Kill. “There will be future-proofing, in terms of a lot of digital and physical experiences that will be borne from this with streaming and AI, and I think next year will be immense. But it will take a few years to regain sound financial positions.”

Many of the businesses that are currently being pushed to the edge will have to regain not just financial stability, Kill adds. “The skill sets in their teams will have to be rebuilt. There’s much to do, but this industry is exceptionally driven, and the creative integrity is there – a real sense of purpose and pride in what we do.”

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