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As operators around the world predict 2022 could be a record year, the scramble is on to get depleted staff numbers back to full strength
By Gordon Masson on 26 Nov 2021
As live entertainment operators around the world predict that 2022 could be a record-breaking year, the scramble is on to get depleted staff numbers back to full strength. Gordon Masson reports.
A recent report in the UK suggested that 90,000 jobs had been lost in the cultural sector because of the Covid-19 pandemic, suggesting that millions of people globally have experienced an impact on their livelihoods and many may have already taken the decision to work in a different sector.
That dilemma is just one of the challenges that human resources executives and recruiters are facing ahead of a year that many live entertainment experts are predicting will be the biggest ever for concerts, festivals, and other shows.
“Just before Covid we had about 110 employees; now we’re at somewhere between 85 and 90, but we want to be at 120 by the end of this year,” reveals TicketSwap corporate recruiter Ruben Pluimers.
Heather Papst, who is director of people, North America, for TAIT, tells IQ, “In terms of our employee population, at the end of September our headcounts were at 85% of our end-of- year target, so we are on track to meet the goals that we set out in terms of recovery, readiness, and mobilisation.
“We have recalled and rehired just about everybody from the group that was furloughed. We’ve also rehired people who actually left us and had to take another job in the interim, and then we have 100-plus brand-new hires to the organisation.”
Papst adds, “In the US, it’s a tight labour market. Our unemployment rate keeps dropping, which is obviously a good thing overall, but it means that there is more fierce competition for talent.”
Detlef Kornett, a member of the executive board of Deutsche Entertainment AG (DEAG), which has operations in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, the UK and Ireland, notes that each country has its own challenges and it may well be that business will not be up and running everywhere until Q2 or even Q3 of next year.
“Restaffing is, of course, different country to country, but with continental Europe we have been able to keep staff during the crisis because there have been much better support mechanisms on the part of the governments – more favourable furlough schemes and other systems – so the staff are all fully on board, even if they are not all working at this time,” says Kornett.
“So we still have people on furlough, but in terms of overall numbers we’ve actually got more people than pre-Covid because certain sectors, such as arts and exhibitions, have grown and needed to employ more people.
“When we look at the UK, we’re a little bit below staff numbers compared to pre-Covid, but that also has to do with changes in our makeup – we lost a theatre to renovation in the West End for Thriller, so the personnel that dealt with that production are gone. But overall, we’ve man- aged to keep the UK group together as much as possible, and they are all back at work. Our ticketing people at Gigantic were back before the promoters, for obvious reasons, but everyone is very busy now.
“With Ireland, it feels like we launched the company the day before Covid, so we’ve been struggling with that and our office set up there is still in crisis mode, and while people are floating in and out, the more formal business structures are a bit delayed.”
As the live entertainment business faces the task of filling thousands of employee roles, those involved in recruitment are pursuing different avenues to find candidates for those vacancies.
“In terms of recruitment, things have changed,” says Pluimers. “We’re doing some Face- book and Instagram campaigns now and what is different now is that we also have some local vacancies – in the UK and in Spain – whereas be- fore Covid everyone was in our Amsterdam HQ. Those local hires also entail a different approach: I don’t think we had used the IQ Jobs Board before Covid, for example, but for these local hires we need much more promotion, because al- though TicketSwap is very well known here in the Netherlands, in other countries we do not have that presence yet and therefore we need more visibility to tell people about the vacancies.”
It’s an indictment on our industry that a roadie can switch to being a delivery driver, make the same money and actually feel better about it
In line with everyone else in the business, HR executives have been using Zoom to streamline the interview process, while the video conferencing technology is also being utilised for training purposes.
Kirstie Loveridge, AEG’s SVP human resources, says that technology is proving invaluable.
“Absolutely everyone is back in the office now, but we’re still doing some of our training virtually because we realised that people were time poor even before Covid, and with the build up for 2022 being so busy, time constraints are even tougher, so it makes sense to keep our training programmes virtual at the moment. We’ve also found that we get better take-up that way,” she says.
Looking at TAIT’s long-term personnel strategy, Papst says, “At the end of the day, we are a manufacturer, so continuing to find a solid pipeline of skilled and entry-level manufacturing candidates is vital. By and large we’re not relocating those people, so continuing to find those skilled individuals to bring into our fabrication and manufacturing is something we are always focused on, because locally that is a very tight labour market.”
In addition to informing high school pupils about TAIT’s work, Papst reveals that the company has revitalised its employee incentive programme to help with recruitment, “because we know that the talent we already have also know the best talent that isn’t here yet,” she says. The company, she tells IQ, is implementing local community outreach to reignite connections with non-profit organisations and skilled trade institutions, while a virtual job fair is also upcoming.
Loveridge tells a similar tale. “In terms of our recruitment strategy, we’re doing everything that we did pre-Covid, but we did launch some partnerships with diverse job boards, which have been bearing fruit, while staff referrals have also been strong,” she says.
“Where we’re finding it hard is the hourly paid events staff. It’s maybe a bit arrogant to say that we’ve never struggled before, but it’s really tough. So we’re looking at all the ways we can approach that challenge: social [media] attracts quite a lot for us in terms of that space, for instance. We’re trying everything and hoping that, come the key time, we can keep getting the numbers.
That dilemma is a major concern for Sacha Lord, who is night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester. “We had Parklife recently and for that event we need about 900-1,000 people in security,” says Lord. “Previously, I’ve just taken it for granted and gone out to three security providers: one firm does the outside; another firm does the bars; and the third firm does the entry systems. But we had to beg, borrow and steal this year, from the whole of the UK, sourcing 20 people from here, 30 from there, etc.
“Luckily, our event was in September, so we could understand findings from other festivals that had taken place before us. As a result, we made the decision to over-staff by 35% to make sure we hit those numbers, which thankfully worked out for us. We were very fortunate because I know that quite a few festivals were understaffed – not through their [own] fault but purely because security providers dropped numbers at the very last minute.”
It’s a situation that Kornett believes will impact everyone internationally, as live events resume in earnest, noting that hourly paid staff for security and front-of-house roles have been hardest hit. “We have letters from our partners that state that they are more than happy to take on jobs, but they cannot guarantee that they will have enough staff,” he explains.
“The logistics industry has grown through the roof and lots of people from those hourly paid jobs went over there and now won’t even think about coming back as they realise they can be home at six o’clock.”
Nonetheless, Kornett is confident that DEAG and its peers will prevail. “We’re optimistic that these things will shake out over time,” he says. “Months ahead of time it may look bleak, but by the time the events come around it might be different, because everything around live events and music has a fascination, while UPS parcels lose their appeal after a short period. So, we may have lost a lot of people to logistics, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t come back once we’re fully up and running and everyone can see the excitement again. I’m confident that will happen and that we can also find other ways to integrate staff and recruit people from other areas.”
While Kornett sees the logistics sector as a competitor for hourly paid staff, the challenges facing recruiters are more wide ranging, given that nearly all industries, worldwide, have been forced to make redundancies or furlough staff during the pandemic.
“Here in Amsterdam we have a lot of fintech companies and they can definitely pay more money to new hires, so they are among our biggest competitors in the jobs market in the Netherlands,” says TicketSwap’s Pluimers. “In the UK, we see a lot of competition from some of the bigger music-related companies like Ticketmaster and AXS. And because the UK market has been reopened for a couple of months now, it’s also a bit tougher to fill roles. But on the other side, we are a start-up, in UK terms, so we’re looking for entrepreneurial people who are willing to go on this journey with us, rather than someone who is maybe looking for a safer, corporate job.”
I don’t think we had used the IQ jobs board before Covid… but for these local hires we need much more promotion
With her European lead on personnel for AEG, Loveridge reports, “Any vacancy in a CRM/digital/data space is a real challenge. Also, project management roles are proving interesting because they are industry wide.”
She continues, “We thought we’d struggle with finance and IT positions, but that hasn’t been the case with all of them, to be truthful. But we do have some really specific network infrastructure engineers where there weren’t many of them pre-Covid, let alone post-Covid, so that has been tricky.”
Speaking from his base in Manchester, Lord tells IQ that he believes the road to recovery could be a long one. “We’ve got a real job on our hands to persuade people to come back into this industry,” states Lord. “Speaking with my Greater Manchester hat on, we have found a pot of money to help develop skills within this industry, which I am hoping will pave the way for people to return. But it’s not just events, it’s restaurants, it’s bars, it’s hotels… across the board the night-time economy is really struggling.
“We’re a long way from recovery at the moment. I think it’s going to take us at least three years to get back to where we should be.”
Of course, the competition for candidates is also pushing up payroll costs, which in turn could also lead to ticket price hikes. But Kornett is not convinced that employees – especially hourly paid people – will benefit. “Staff costs are certainly going to increase,” he warns, “but the structure of our industry doesn’t necessarily mean that people will be paid better. It’s an indictment on our industry that a roadie can switch to being a delivery driver, make the same money, and actually feel better about it.”
Across the Atlantic, TAIT and its peers are some months ahead of their European counterparts, meaning that the priorities for Papst are also a bit further down the recovery timeline.
“The bulk of our hiring, by design, peaked in July and August, and while we have some hiring left to do, the challenges we’ve turned the corner on were either bringing all those people back, or bringing all those new people into our system,” she says. “We now have to make sure that everyone has onboarded well and successfully, that they are having the right conversations with their manager, and that they understand the scope of their responsibilities. So it’s really a kind of shift of focus to engagement.”
I’ve never seen calendars like it – there are arenas that will open Monday through to Sunday across the UK
She elaborates. “It’s about ensuring that those who are now here – even those that left us, whether for a brief time or a longer period of time – are coming back to an organisation that’s on the other side of a pandemic. In the back- ground, of course, we’re still dealing with the pandemic and ensuring that we have the right resources and the correct level of conversation with our employees about overall wellbeing to include mental health wellness, which is a topic that I’m glad to see has risen to the surface of a lot of conversations. So we need to make sure we have the right resources either within the company or by reaching out to outside vendors to ensure that employees know that they are heard and supported with everything that they are dealing with.”
That mental health theme has been one of the strongest to emerge throughout the live entertainment industry during the past 20 months, and making sure employees receive the appropriate levels of care has become a major part of the HR remit.
“We made such a stance and supported people through the last 20 months that it would be really remiss of us to just take that off the table now,” states Loveridge, “so we are continually investing in therapy sessions, coaching sessions and all sorts.
“We’re recruiting our first mental health first aider. We’d started down that process before Covid hit, but now we’re getting back on track to do some training for that crowd that want to volunteer and be mental health first aiders.”
Loveridge adds, “You cannot underestimate people’s resilience – it’s been a long hard 20 months, now followed by people being really, really busy and looking at a calendar in 2022 when they will potentially be even busier. We need to be there to support them.”
That’s a mantra that’s repeated in Pennsylvania, where Papst reveals, “Where we’re focussed now is employee safety, wellbeing, and overall health, and then making sure that people feel engaged and that they are building the right relationships, whether they are back after a year or whether they have never been here before, and this is their first job out of college. How do we focus on helping the organisation build that rapport? It’s really about laying the foundation between now and the end of the year so that we are as ready as we can be going into 2022.”
Kornett also believes a further recruitment drive will be needed as the volume of business increases. “We will undoubtedly have to add new staff to cope, but it’s all a matter of when business in 2022 will start, depending on each territory – will it be Q1 or Q2 or as long as Q3? That will determine whether we will need additional staff or not.”
And he observes, “We’re going to have new people ruling the world and they will be riggers. They are like gold dust. Everybody needs them and wants them and all at the same time. So, we foresee some real pinch points coming toward us on that front.”
For Lord, there are still some major hurdles to overcome as the night-time economy recovers.
“Next year, there are so many new tours taking place. But combine that with all of the tours that have been postponed and pushed back… I’ve never seen calendars like it – there are arenas that will be open Monday through to Sunday across the UK,” he says.
And Lord is one of a growing number of voices that is calling on government to delay its planned VAT rise, otherwise he fears the industry – and those who work in it – will just lunge from one crisis into another.
The UK government slashed VAT on tickets to 5% during the pandemic. That was recently increased to 12.5%, but ministers have revealed plans to go back to the full 20% in March 2022.
“The VAT hike that we’re going to see over such a short period of time I think will be another hammer blow to the industry,” says Lord. “When you are looking at a lack of staff, a lack of produce, and then this price hike, when we already know that things like fuel prices are soaring and other prices are being hit by inflation, it’s just a really, really bad idea.
“Considering all the debt that people have taken on, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for a VAT freeze at 12.5% until at least the end of March 2024. Otherwise, that 15% hike in the space of six months will be a lot for many businesses to handle.”
Having recruited nearly 300 people across Europe in recent months, Loveridge is keen to share some of the knowledge gained to help others in territories that are yet to kickstart their rehiring process.
She advocates using interview panels, utilising experts from a range of disciplines rather than relying on heads of a single department or division.
Looking ahead toward a packed 2022 schedule, she notes that operators are going to need their show partners to be up to full speed if they are going to stand any chance of coping with the hectic events calendar. “There’s definitely a concern around other companies and their staffing – suppliers, security, etc – but I think that until we actually see it and experience it, we won’t know,” she says. But at that hourly paid event- staff level, I think people will probably continue to staff over and above what they actually need, as a precaution.”
She concludes, “There’s an age-old adage: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’re always going to get what you’ve always got.’ But we’re now all in a time when you cannot do that. I’m really pleased with the work that we did pre-Covid for the diverse recruitment charter that we put in place, and actually getting people to work and recruit differently, because we will never have these numbers of job vacancies again. So, whether it’s been through diverse advertising, using different job boards, or even how people have been interviewed, it’s been a great exercise.”
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