200-capacity Paisley club, The Bungalow, will disappear from the gig circuit in April
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With a depleted workforce, one of the biggest challenges facing companies across the board is having sufficient staff to meet demand when shows return. IQ investigates
By Gordon Masson on 23 Jun 2021
As promoters, venues and production companies in the UK make plans for full-capacity, non-restricted events from July, their peers elsewhere are watching with interest as the industry in Britain plots its way back to normality, or the ‘new normal’ as many people are calling it.
A number of test events, without restrictions, have already been held, boosting confidence among politicians and medical experts and setting the scene nicely for the reintroduction of full-capacity shows. But with thousands of professionals no longer working in live events, because of a combination of redundancies, furlough measures, or, as is the case with many freelancers, finding employment elsewhere to pay the bills, the industry finds itself in a precarious position.
“Catch-22 is a good way of describing it,” says Catrin Lee, ASM Global’s human resources director for Europe. “It’s about trying to find that right balance between hoping for the best but planning for the worst.”
That sentiment is echoed throughout the industry, with people remaining understandably cautious as the pandemic has provided a number of false dawns and surprise setbacks.
In rare cases, such as in Sweden, where the government approach to the pandemic has been very different, venues have not closed their doors. That allowed tenant sports teams to continue activities, but bookings still took a hit due to the lack of international touring. As a result, the UK’s roadmap is being keenly followed by professional bodies around the world, who are hopeful that its success may lead to an expedited return for touring.
European Arenas Association president John Langford tells IQ that the subject of restaffing and recruitment is a major talking point between the association’s venues. “EAA members are closely monitoring how operations in the UK are going to handle the restaffing dilemma, given that country’s progress in the battle with Covid means that venues could fully reopen within the next month,” he says.
Those charged with creating those restaffing policies in the UK are rising to the challenge. “The first few months of this was just me writing spreadsheets to work out what we need to do and what levels we work to, and then tearing it all up and starting again,” recalls Zac Fox, chief operating officer of London-based promoter Kilimanjaro Live. “It’s been really hard to decide what to do, because sometimes by the time it comes to carry things out, everything changes and you don’t do the thing that you had planned.”
Nonetheless, the dilemma that the live entertainment sector finds itself in has called for some brave decisions, with senior management at firms large and small in the supply chain acknowledging that they need to take on an element of risk to ensure they are ready to restart operations, hopefully from July onwards.
That’s certainly the case at AEG Europe, where Kirstie Loveridge, senior vice-president of human resources, explains that existing staff have been given return-to-work dates, while a significant recruitment programme is under way. “The key for us was trying to give our employees who are still on furlough some certainty, so we did that and made all the changes effective 1 April,” Loveridge tells IQ. “Some people are already back, but the people who are on furlough know when they are coming back, and that was the biggest challenge in this. Some were in April, others are May, June or July, but basically we committed that by the start of August everybody will be back on full-time and full pay.”
She continues, “When that was clear, we said to department heads that they could recruit back for any people they had lost – replacement hires – but a lot of those jobs won’t be needed to start immediately, so a lot will be August starts. We have a lot of recruitment out and under way, but it’s not as if everybody is hiring for roles to start on 1 June or anything – it’s all quite staggered at the moment.”
“We’re giving people the choice of where they work from and the hours they work, outside of a core set”
While thousands of company employees found themselves furloughed or redundant as a result of the pandemic shutting down activities, the situation for freelancers who relied on live events for their income has been dire, with many finding themselves ineligible for government assistance.
That dilemma has been nowhere more evident than in the production sector, although as Production Services Association (PSA) general manager Andy Lenthall observes, some operations have been able to provide alternative work related to the battle against Covid. However, that isn’t without its problems either.
“It’s not just the people, it’s the companies who have had to pivot, and they’ve found that there are some industries where they don’t have to stand their people in a muddy field, they don’t need to make them sleep in a tent for a week, and they don’t need to stand them in front of speakers. And they can go home at night,” Lenthall says. “Some of those companies are actually pulling out of the live sector, and that’s a wholesale move, so in terms of crowd management there are big issues there.”
Lenthall refers to recent research carried out by the UK Crowd Management Association that warns of shortages of stewards for events, noting that many workers have found employment elsewhere in the knowledge that live events will be one of the last sectors to resume operations.
“On the production side, obviously you’ve got the 80/20 split between freelance and employed, so it’s not so much about recruitment as it is testing whether your freelance database is populated with people who are available,” continues Lenthall. “From our point of view, one crew company I know is operating a red, amber, green system with freelancers: red is for people who have said they are out and not doing it anymore; amber is for those who have gone out and got another temporary job but will stop doing that as long as they can see enough work in live to replace what they are currently doing; and green is those people who are on the doorstep lacing up their boots, asking ‘When do we go?’”
And Lenthall is optimistic that, in the UK, the 19 July deadline will be the catalyst for many of those crew members to get back to the jobs they love. “The promoters are at the sharp end and they’re the ones who are writing the cheques to everyone else. So if they’re feeling confident, hopefully that confidence will start to work its way down the market,” he says.
Indeed, Lenthall points to PSA data to back up reasons for confidence. “We have access to the numbers of people that are buying public liability insurance, and we can use that as a bellwether for the health of the business,” he explains. “In normal times, if someone’s public liability insurance policy ends in March but their next gig isn’t until April, they will renew it the day before that gig, because it’s an annual policy.
“In April 2020, renewals for public liability cover were down by 95% over the previous year. But April 2021 was about 60% of what it was in April 2019 – so you’ve got people buying cover because they have shows. That doesn’t mean to say they have work to the same level of 2019, but they do have some work that they require insurance for.”
He adds, “The [UK’s] cultural recovery fund has allowed some companies to organise the socially distanced gigs that we’re seeing, and every gig needs at least one button pushed, and that’s our [production crew] boys and girls – and they might break it, so they buy their public liability cover…” But, although there is definite light at the end of the tunnel, Lenthall adds a caveat that applies to the industry across every territory.
“If you have people who want to do a bit of stewarding through the summer, they are going to be leaping into the hospitality trade first, because they [hospitality] are back before live events.”
“There is a huge amount of talent out there, so there is definitely going to be competition”
A jobseeker’s market
With job vacancies on the increase as restrictions ease, those in charge of recruitment are finding themselves in unchartered waters.
ASM Global’s Lee, who is overseeing the company’s restaffing policy across Europe, says, “We have a number of roles that we are looking to recruit, so we are going out and actively searching for people, and that recruiting process will continue over the next several months, for sure. But it’s a tough call about when you start that and press ‘go’ on that button, as you have to think about the candidate experience throughout that as well.”
With the ever-present danger of a surge in Covid infections, those in charge of human resources are having to gamble somewhat. “It’s really complicated as we have no precedent for this situation,” says Lee. “Every business should have a degree of agility in its ability to be flexible, but this is just on a whole different scale.”
Fox tells IQ that Kilimanjaro – like many of Deutsche Entertainment AG’s companies – has been able to keep almost all of its employees. “The flexi-furlough really helped because we still had a lot of work to do – moving concerts, dealing with customer services for all the cancelled ones – and flexi-furlough allowed us to have a lot of the team just working reduced hours,” she says.
However, the company still finds itself in a situation where it is looking for new staff. “The reality is that we have a record-breaking number of shows on sale at the moment, and they all need services – we need the marketing teams to be working on them, the ticketing team needs to keep up to date with all those ticketing figures, and they’re often working with venues that are short staffed, so it’s been hard work for them.
“Ultimately, we need to be in a strong position for when [the restart] happens because we’re not a company that needs to recover; we just need day one to happen and then we’re laughing.”
Competition is going to be fierce, though, across the entire live entertainment business, as many experienced and well-connected live events professionals find themselves in demand.
“A lot of promoters are worried that they cut too deep and I’m sure the same is true across agencies and production companies, we well,” states Lenthall, noting that live music has always relied on personal relationships. “If you have promoter X versus promoter Y, who are always competing for band A, band B and band C, they have made people redundant who they didn’t want to make redundant, but they had to.
“Bands don’t perceive a company as their agent – it’s an individual that just happens to work at this company,” says Lenthall. “The same is true for the account managers for lighting, for freight, for sound – all of those things. If that talented, affable person who gets on with a roster of clients is no longer there, people want to know where they are going to be. So whoever picks up that talent first will win out. It’s not a race to get the band to promote; it’s a race to get the talent that lands you the band.”
That point is not lost on the human resources experts.
“We’re recruiting at the moment and the calibre of applicants because of redundancies elsewhere is just off the scale,” reports Fox. “We’re interviewing ten people per vacancy, rather than two, because they are all great candidates. It’s a great time to recruit if you are in this industry because there are some real stars out there looking for work again.”
ASM’s Lee agrees. “We know that there is a huge amount of talent out there, so there is definitely going to be competition between us, meaning people can, to some degree, consciously choose where they want to take their careers, where they want to be located, and what are they prepared to consider in their next career step.”
And AEG’s Loveridge adds, “We’re recruiting now and we’re not finding any shortage of talent. We’ve found that people are really doing their homework before they accept offers now.”
“This could be the most exciting time to come into live music, while everything is up in the air”
The new deal
One positive to come out of the pandemic is that very few organisations seem to expect their employees to return to their office desks for set eight-hour shifts, five days a week. That’s allowing HR execs to become creative by devising new guidelines for company employees – and new hires.
“We’ve decided to trial a flexible working policy when we go back, as we want to keep all the positives that people have experienced through this,” reveals Kilimanjaro’s Fox. “We’re basically going to just give people the choice of where they work from and the hours they work, outside of a core set. We’re so used to being away from each other now, but we’ve still proven we can be really effective. So, if we can have a regime where people can arrange their lives a bit more easily, rather than being forced to spend their time on commuting at the same time as hordes of other people, then why not?”
AEG is trialling a working week that should see most people back in the office at least three days a week. Loveridge comments, “People just want something different. There’s the flexible of ‘I just want to drop my kids off at school and go to their sports day,’ and there’s the flexible of ‘I want to work at home one or two days a week,’ so we’re trying to accommodate everyone.”
Lee, meanwhile, acknowledges that every employee in every country has different needs, and some of them may require retraining to refresh memories about tasks they haven’t performed for more than a year. “We have one master overview that we are using as a foundation for each venue to look at and work out what is needed for Fred or Bill or Jane to come in,” Lee explains. “If you have not done your normal day-to-day job for 14 months then your motor skills might be a little rusty. They may also feel a little bit nervous about being back in and having that whole integration with lots of different people again. Communication is going to be key.”
“We’ve done masses of work around the diverse recruitment charter and hiring, because if there is ever a chance to make a change in a business, it is now”
While familiarising existing employees with their old roles will be a crucial part of the restart, bringing new hires up to speed is also a major consideration, especially while social distancing remains an element of day-to-day life.
“Training is an issue, particularly because we are all still working from home,” admits Fox. “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how it’s going to go – there’s going to be a lot of ‘suck it and see’ and a bit of ‘hoping for the best,’ but we’re hopefully choosing resilient people.”
Looking across ASM’s massive portfolio of venues, as well as its extensive catering business, Lee tells IQ, “We have people who have worked constantly throughout the pandemic; others have been on furlough throughout the whole period; and we’ve also had people working on a flexible basis. We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all necessarily in the same boat.
“So we have a suite of interventions that we’re looking at, such as online training, pre-reading that we can send out to people, there’s Zoom stuff we can do with people, as well as face to face. But we need to look at each role and what is the appropriate content for their training programme, and then, how do we best deliver it.”
AEG’s Loveridge tells a similar tale, “We’ve pulled together a programme, which we are calling Stronger Together, which started with ‘learning at work week’ and continues through to the beginning of August when everybody, in the UK at least, is back,” she says.
“For new employees, training is going to be a bit more virtual at the moment, but in the same way that we’re approaching diverse hiring, we’ve pulled apart our on-boarding programme to make it more experiential – we’re looking at letter box gifts and we’re scrapping all things like probation periods. But if you pass your on-boarding, we’re going to plant trees and things for employees and have our own forest.”
Indeed, with the reset button firmly pressed, Loveridge sums up the opportunities that she and her peers have to improve the live event industry landscape in terms of diversity and equality.
“We’ve done masses of work around the diverse recruitment charter and hiring, because if there is ever a chance to make a change in a business, it is now,” she states, adding that AEG has formed partnerships with different job boards in different locations to meet those aspirations.
And although the past 15 months have undoubtedly been the worst in live music business history, PSA’s Lenthall is also concentrating on the positives. “There are a lot of people coming out of degree courses without any experience whatsoever but with new ideas and with their hands on new technology,” he says.
“There’s all this new technology that can be applied to what was there before to help expand the industry through new channels and across different media – just look at live-streaming, for instance. So, from that point of view, any new entrants are going to have their hands on that technology more than anyone who has been furloughed or is relying on self-employment income support.
“This could be the most exciting time to come into live music, while everything is up in the air.”
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