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Wembley’s John Drury talks restaffing and no-shows

The European venues business has been battling a short-term talent shortage since emerging from the Covid-19 shutdown

By James Hanley on 03 Dec 2021

John Drury, Chris York, Liam Gallagher

(L-R): John Drury, Chris York, Liam Gallagher

The SSE Arena, Wembley’s VP and general manager John Drury has spoken to IQ about the challenges of restaffing the venues sector as it emerges from the Covid-19 shutdown.

With a number of seasoned backstage hands defecting to other industries during the pandemic to make ends-meet, the business is battling a short-term talent shortage.

Drury, who predicts the Covid-induced upheaval to the global touring calendar could last until at least 2024, suggests the issue is far from straightforward.

“On security, in particular, a lot of SIA licences haven’t been renewed, and some of that will be no doubt people just picking up different work elsewhere and moving out of the industry,” he says. “Some will be people moving back to a home country, there’s probably a bit of Brexit in there as well, so that’s made it a challenge.

We’re still seeing more of a drop-off in numbers than normal

“We’re not really seeing it so much on the F&B side, but we’re certainly seeing it on front of house, stewarding and security, where it’s harder. We’ve not got to the point where we haven’t been able to service a show, obviously, and I don’t think we will get to that point. But it’s a challenge.

“We had a show last weekend where it ended up that we needed to bring the riggers in a couple of days earlier because that’s when they could get them and not on the show day. It meant the rigging for this one event came in ahead of the show the following day, but it was all done very amicably and everybody worked together to get it achieved. But we’ll see those challenges for a little while, no doubt.”

As previously revealed by IQ, promoters have reported the rate of no-shows by ticket-holders at concerts has been far higher than usual since the restart. Drury describes Wembley’s no-show rate as “up and down”.

“The standard tends to be around about 10%,” he says. “We were only seeing 5% on comedy, which was really encouraging, but at other events we were seeing as much as 20%, or more.

“We were finding it depended partly on shows that had been rescheduled once or twice. So some people might have just forgotten they were on, even though we’d been emailing and sending them reminders, and there is a bit of uncertainty out there, for sure. We’re still seeing more of a drop off in numbers than we normally would.”

Because we’d had some activity, it allowed us to get back into the swing of things more quickly

The 12,500-capacity London venue, which is due to round off 2021 with dates by acts including Manic Street Preachers, James + Happy Mondays, The Human League, Nightwish, Il Divo and Madness, stayed busier than most, if not all, UK arenas during 2020/21 “partly because of our size and partly because of location,” according to Drury.

“We ended up doing some filming for the BBC series The Wall through summer last year, and then we did some behind closed doors boxing for another six weeks with Matchroom,” he says.

“That led to us hosting the Anthony Joshua fight in December, [2020] for a crowd of 1,000 people. It was in that very short, small window where you could post some events for a very limited number. You couldn’t normally make that work for arena but, because of the pay-per-view, it worked.

“It was strangely like opening a new venue and was an interesting taste of what we were going to have to go through.”

The arena also hosted a Culture Club livestream and was used for filming a Tesco Mobile advert, along with the Strictly Come Dancing and Masked Dancer British TV series, and was utilised for UEFA’s Euro 2020 international football tournament over the summer.

“It was good to have that activity in the building, not because it made money – it covered its costs to a certain extent – but what it did was help us give work to our regular full-timers,” notes Drury. “It allowed us to bring in some contractors and give some of the supply chain some work that they very badly needed. So it was a real motivation for us to do something in the building – to be able to give some work to people that desperately needed it.

“We opened up with boxing on 24 July, which was our first proper event with no social distancing. And then the first proper gig, was McFly in the middle of September. And because we’d had some activity, it allowed us to get back into the swing of things a little bit more quickly. It’s been really good to be back doing shows, and let’s hope we can carry on.”


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