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A new reality: Arenas talk reopening challenges

As arenas across Europe wrestle with capacity limits, what alternatives to physical distancing measures might allow them to reopen?

By IQ on 10 Jun 2020

ARA partner Rotterdam Ahoy hosted the Eurovision test event

Arenas across Europe are preparing to open to a changed reality

image © Rotterdam Ahoy

Strict hygiene protocols, contactless technology and fewer queues are likely to form the future of Europe’s arenas, as venue operators shun social distancing but nonetheless prepare to open to a changed reality.

Venue owners and event organisers across the continent have been grappling with new restrictions as many major markets around Europe begin to reopen, striving to strike the balance between providing a safe environment, maintaining financial viability and keeping their business alive.

Strict capacity limits and social distancing regulations have meant many venues have kept their doors closed, even if they are technically allowed to reopen.

With a current upper limit of 30 people at indoor events in the Netherlands, there is really “no model” for shows, Jurgen Hoekstra, manager of entertainment and sports at Rotterdam Ahoy tells IQ.

Hoekstra calculates that the Rotterdam Ahoy team could make an “attractive venue” operating at 30% capacity, maintaining 1.5 metres between guests, with a seating plan on the floor. But, really, “in our field of business, the aim is to let people enjoy experiences with a lot of others – the more people there are, the more special it is.

“We’re really dying to go back to the old normal.”

AEG Europe COO and Europe Arenas Association (EAA) president John Langford agrees that socially distanced shows are “financially and practically challenging – and in many cases impossible – for both venues and promoters”, although the early phase of recovery offers little other possibility than hosting events with lower capacities.

“We’re really dying to go back to the old normal”

“This scenario is however not viable or sustainable beyond just a handful of events.”

In the UK, Lucy Noble, artistic and commercial director of the Royal Albert Hall and chair of the National Arenas Association (NAA), says none of the venues she works with “can viably reopen while social distancing measures remain in place.”

Two-metre distancing would require using only 15% of the Hall’s full 8,000-person capacity, with a capacity of around 85% needed to make events financially viable.

So, what is the answer for venues? And how can they reopen while both keeping staff, artists and audience safe, and generating enough money to keep going?

A focus on a contactless customer journey, the use of protective gear, air filtering and upgraded hygiene protocols are among options listed by AEG Germany COO and VP Uwe Frommhold.

The allocation of time slots will also be important for “avoiding unnecessary mingling”, says Frommhold, whereas “tools to track down infection chains” are vital in case infection does spread at an event.

“It will be a combination of a lot of measures that will bring us back in business. There won’t be the sole game changer – not even a vaccine will do it alone.”

“It will be a combination of a lot of measures that will bring us back in business. There won’t be the sole game changer”

The AEG Europe team has also been working closely with ASM Global in the development of the VenueShield programme, a toolkit comprising best practice solutions that can be employed in response to public health guidance.

For Noble, a permanent move towards contactless payments and ticket scanning, as well as pre-booked food and drinks, will characterise the gig of the future.

The NAA has put together a proposal for the UK government which would allow venues to reopen at full capacity, including procedures such as heightened entrance and exit controls, increased sanitisation, the use of protective equipment and contactless service processes.

Noble gives the example of a production of the Phantom of the Opera, which has been running in Seoul, South Korea, throughout the Covid-19 crisis. The theatre used disinfectant mists, temperature checks and questionnaires to ensure safety standards were met.

“If we are to find a solution, it is going to be a combination of numerous measures, from increased access points to hand sanitisers, Perspex screens and PPE for staff,” says Noble.

Rotterdam Ahoy’s Hoekstra speaks of the possibility of repurposing space to allow for a wider variety of events in the short term.

With a variety of spaces at their disposal, including a 16,500-cap. arena, conference centre and exhibition halls, there is the possibility to host trade fairs and exhibitions at the venue, event formats which have seen some success in reopening so far.

“One thing we have to work really hard to preserve is the electric atmosphere when thousands of people experience live music together”

Even though restrictions in the Netherlands remain stringent – capacity limits are set at 30 until July, when they may be increased to 100 – Hoekstra hopes that signs of success in other markets, such as Switzerland, Denmark and Finland, may lead to a further lifting of measures.

“I am convinced that in the end that people will enjoy a show in a full arena again, as long as we can guarantee a safe place, and I really think this will be the case.”

For Noble, reassuring staff, artists, crew and audiences that it is safe to attend events will be “the biggest challenge” for venues wishing to reopen fully.

“People will understandably be nervous, and it’s our job to not only find a way for events to take place safely, but also to instil confidence that we’ve done so. That’s going to be a question of transparency and communication.”

Safety is, of course, at the forefront of everybody’s minds at the moment, and will continue to be for a long time in the future. However, it is important to remember that the very essence of the live show is also at risk, and this is something that has to be factored in while considering the best ways to reopen.

“One thing we have to work really hard to preserve is the electric atmosphere when thousands of people experience live music together,” says Noble.

“We are all missing that.”


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