As the events industry waits to be given the green light to fully reopen, Paul Michael, Ricoh Arena’s commercial director, reveals how the venue is surviving the pandemic and considers what the new normal will look like for events, including the crucial role that venues have to play in the sector’s resurgence…

 

In late March, like a lot of other venues, we saw our scheduled events postponed virtually overnight, and had the task of mapping out a blueprint of how we were going to navigate a period of lockdown that had no obvious end.

We usually host around 1,500 conferences and exhibitions a year – and as the news of the first lockdown broke – there was a mass frenzy; a key priority was to adopt regular communications with our clients [event organisers] to review the situation on a monthly basis.

Flexible approach

A flexible approach to supporting event organisers during the pandemic sounds obvious, but it’s a vital ingredient to ensure that venues and events can remain viable in the long-term and have open and honest conversations with each other to understand what support will be effective.

We’ve had to adapt our commercial terms for event organisers to ensure they can weather this storm and come back stronger in the future. Historically, strict diary management has been crucial but having the flexibility to move dates and give organisers dates that they wanted, to make their show run, is something we’ve started to do.

We also have a number of multi-year deals, so over the last nine months, event organisers have moved their show to the same date for the following year and extended the last year of their deal. That flexibility has played a crucial part for us as a venue.

Rebuilding confidence

We’ve looked at every inch of space within the venue to try and diversify the business, and upon reflection, we are adapting our mindset on how we market the venue to demonstrate how it is possible for us to support the events industry safely during and after the COVID pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, we used to market the venue as having 6,000 square metres of indoor event space, when in reality when you take into account the car parks and offices, we actually have around 40,000 square metres of event space – which is perfect for socially-distanced events rather than having multiple events happening at once.

Between March and November we’ve had more than 20 different bookings of our space – all of which have either been behind closed doors or received backing from Government. This has played a crucial role alongside the furlough scheme in helping the venue to continue meeting Ricoh Arena’s operational costs.

The on-site hotel that we have means we have been able to provide a “bubble” for behind-closed-doors sports to continue. Since the start of October we have hosted BoyleSports World Grand Prix, The 2020 Unibet Premier League Play-Offs, BetVictor Weber Cup, BoyleSports Grand Slam of Darts and the party poker Mosconi Cup.

Our outdoor space has been the busiest it has ever been.

Since March we’ve hosted a NHS drive-in COVID testing centre on site, and a plasma donation centre has recently opened in some of Ricoh Arena’s office space. We also have a drive-in Christmas pantomime taking place in the car park in December, and other logistics businesses have been using our outdoor space to help with their operations to meet the boom in online shopping.

From a venue perspective, every inch of space is going to count in the future, and in an age where it’s likely that when events are allowed to resume, social distancing is going to be a priority for event organisers to help rebuild people’s confidence.

Hybrid

COVID-19 and the rise of video conferencing will undoubtedly change working practices too. Although our directors haven’t physically met in a room for nine months, it hasn’t affected productivity and has taught us that the office is now a virtual term that has no boundaries.

Technology will naturally impact the events industry, too, but not in a detrimental way as I think we will see the acceleration of hybrid events where digital channels will enable event organisers to expand their audience reach beyond physical attendees.

COVID mitigation sessions

I think the events industry will see a full recovery, but it’s going to take time because people need to build confidence, so I think it’s likely that the upward trajectory will be a gradual one.

Cost efficiency will also play a key part for event organisers post-pandemic, and using technology for certain aspects of their shows to reduce costs will no doubt become a rising trend – but I don’t believe we will see a wholesale shift to virtual events.

As soon as we come out of lockdown and emerge from this pandemic, venues are going to have to sell to their event organisers with a COVID strategy in place. Event organisers used to ask about the capacity of a room, now it’s about what space will be available to safely accommodate a set number of people. Venues will advise event organisers what COVID-secure protocols they will need to follow.

With one eye on the future, we will be introducing COVID mitigation sessions with organisers of all of our future events – where we will run them through what the latest guidelines are and how this will impact on their shows.

Reset button

Progress is already being made with the news that indoor and outdoor events are allowed with limited capacities December in Tier One and Tier Two areas. It’s also great that a vaccine has now been approved, and will undoubtedly give the events industry a morale boost – which will prompt venues and event organisers to start planning for events again in the medium to long term – but this needs to be done cautiously as the timings around any return to normality are still uncertain.

There will inevitably be a myriad of checks for event organisers to go through as we emerge out of the pandemic, and this is where venues can really play our part to ensure these events are delivered safely.

In the early days of a post-pandemic era, venues will also need to take a risk of making a nominal profit – or simply breaking even – on events that they are hosting, just to get the industry moving again. In many ways, the industry is going to have to hit the reset button and start from zero.

 

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