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feature

Operation Phoenix: How arenas are getting back to business

In the first part of this serialised feature, executives from the European arena business share some of their strategies for reopening venues

By Gordon Masson on 16 Dec 2021

O2 Arena Prague is a member of the EAA

O2 Arena Prague is a member of the EAA


Scientists and epidemiologists predict that the winter months will see another peak in cases of Covid-19, so as arena management around the world draw up plans to cope with their busiest year ever, Gordon Masson, with the help of the European Arenas Association, learns about some of the strategies to reopen venues – and keep them open. In the first part of this serialised feature, executives from the European arena business discuss how they’re getting back to business.

Major concerts and tours are taking place throughout North America and Europe, but scratch the surface and it’s obvious that the coronavirus pandemic is far from over, as many territories still have social distancing restrictions in place, or outright bans on mass gatherings.

In the UK, meanwhile, the entire business is awaiting the findings of the Manchester Arena Inquiry, although the ramifications of that will doubtless have an international impact, too.

Nevertheless, a cursory chat with anyone in the arenas sector yields similar responses: venues are massively oversubscribed for 2022 and 2023, and the volume of shows and tours in the diary mostly surpasses the levels of business enjoyed in 2019.

European Arenas Association (EAA) president Olivier Toth notes that, as the restrictions change on a regular basis, the association’s recent survey of its members only captures a moment in time – in this case, 25 November. Given that the survey was conducted before the omicron variant became an issue, the data is certain to change in the coming days and weeks.

“With capacity restrictions, we see strong differences between the northern part of Europe and the southern part of Europe”

“I was hoping that things would change and everybody would be able to reopen, go to full capacity and all of that good stuff. Yeah. But unfortunately, it’s the other way round. So it remains complicated,” says Toth.

Nevertheless, Toth believes the EAA survey was important to gauge the disparity of restrictions throughout the organisation’s membership – and indeed, all 36 members of the EAA submitted data to help in that regard.

“With capacity restrictions, we see strong differences between the northern part of Europe and the southern part of Europe,” he reports. “In northern venues and western venues, nobody has restrictions. In the south, however, we see no restrictions for 56% of our colleagues, while 44% do have to work with restrictions. In central Europe, it’s 75% working with restrictions, while in eastern Europe, it’s similar with 71% having to deal with capacity restrictions.”

“Those restrictions will, again, be variable, and there it becomes very complex because they change between countries, but they also change between regions. One example that struck me: we were talking to friends [at an arena in southern Europe] and whereas in my part of Europe everybody thinks and believes that Covid digital certificates are the way out for our sector, this particular venue doesn’t use them.

“[The focus has evolved through the intervening 18 months, and reopening is more about vaccines, tests, face masks, crowd size

“They’re not going to check [certificates] at the entrance, at least not at a time when they participated in the survey. But, on the other hand, they need to keep the bars closed. They need to keep wearing masks and seated shows are mandatory. So no standing.”

Such disparities mean that coming up with an overarching guideline to help arenas across the continent to reopen is – at present – an impossible task. That’s certainly the case for some of the major venue operators, internationally.

Ron Bension, president and CEO of ASM Global, notes that while there is no set plan to cover every arena in the company’s portfolio, that network of venues provides its own cumulative strength. “When [the pandemic] initially happened, the focus was on cleanliness, containing the air and those kinds of things to ensure that people were safe and that people didn’t get [the virus]. That’s evolved through the intervening 18 months, and reopening is more about vaccines, tests, face masks, crowd size.

“The good thing about ASM Global is we’ve got more than 300 buildings around the world. The advantage we have, and our clients have, is that we’re giving them global data on a real-time basis as to what’s happening in the marketplace, and what to be prepared for: it’s rich, more narrative data, about what happened, what we did, how did it work, and what does that mean for you? And if we can provide that to our clients and customers and act upon it in a proactive way, then we and our clients are winners.”

“[OVG] is in a very good position with the new buildings because of all the technology we’ve been able to deploy”

At Oak View Group, executive vice president Brian Kabatznick notes that the company is in a unique situation, given that it is able to integrate Covid mitigation measures into the construction of its properties.

“We’re fortunate with the ten new arenas we’re opening because there are two methods of Covid mitigation – retrofitting existing buildings or opening new buildings where you’ve got the touchless systems, the HEPA filters, the ability to take fresh air from the outside and run that through the arenas on a much more efficient level. So from an arena perspective, we’re in a very good position with the new buildings because of all the technology we’ve been able to deploy, effectively and efficiently,” says Kabatznick.

“We’re the largest developer of arenas in the world, we’ve invested $5.5billion (€4.9bn) in deployed capital. For Oak View Group (OVG), we’re able to move very quickly and efficiently as an investor, operator, developer, builder, financer. But the first ten arenas are the tip of the iceberg. The next tranche will be similar, major markets, OVG coming in as investor operator, usually with a local partner.”

Quizzed on what steps ASM has taken to ensure the safe reopening of its buildings, Bension points to the collaboration with Drexel College of Medicine to create VenueShield, which he describes as “the number one safety protocol for coming back to business.”

He continues, “It’s not rocket science: it’s just very detailed protocols for backstage, offices, front of house, artist areas, convention centres, meeting rooms, front desk, ticket taking. We take each area and figure out: What are the touchpoints? What are the interface points? And what do we need to do to ensure guests’ safety at those points, ensure cleanliness at those points? What do we need to do at the end of the day, and before opening, to ensure that we can get the venue up for the next day’s business? It’s extremely detailed.”

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