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P&J Live head discusses first full year of trading

Louise Stewart reflects on Aberdeen's place in the international touring circuit, the challenges arenas are currently facing, and how the nature of booking is changing

By Lisa Henderson on 06 Jul 2023

Louise Stewart, head of entertainment, exhibitions & marketing at P&J Live

Louise Stewart, head of entertainment, exhibitions & marketing at P&J Live


When Aberdeen’s brand new £333 million P&J Live arena opened in September 2019, no one could have predicted it closing just seven months later.

The ASM Global-operated venue, which replaced the former 8,500-capacity Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC), opened in the northeast of Scotland with much fanfare.

At 15,000-capacity, the purpose-built venue became the biggest indoor arena in Scotland, boasting the largest standing floor in the UK.

In addition to the arena, the 480-square-metre site comprises conference spaces, exhibition halls, restaurants and two on-site hotels, and is located minutes from the international airport.

With the stage set, P&J Live got off to a roaring trade, hosting concerts from the likes of Alice Cooper, Lewis Capaldi, Stereophonics and the Script. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the venue closed its doors and became a vaccination centre.

Four years later, the arena has only just completed its first full year of trading. P&J Live’s head of entertainment, exhibitions & marketing Louise Stewart tells IQ how her team got the business off the ground again.

 


IQ: Last month you hosted two of Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road shows. How did they go?
LS: It was such a buzz. The city is still talking about it, which is amazing. In a small city like Aberdeen, something like that dominates so much and there’s a spotlight on the venue. Around 55% of the audience wasn’t from the city – the highest we’ve had – and given that both concerts were midweek, that was great. There were people from Inverness, Perth, Dundee, loads of European countries and even America. The feedback was that it was so easy to access, with the airport around the corner and hotels on site. It was our largest seated music act, with 10,000 at each of his two sold-out shows. It was a little compliment that Elton ended up staying for the two nights [in between his Aberdeen shows] as a pose to going home.

“The perception is that we’re off the beaten track but it is a good place to start a tour as we’ve got the availability”

With the opening of the arena, has Aberdeen become a more attractive tour stop for international artists?
Definitely. We would never have been able to get Elton indoors. We had him outdoors at the AECC with 14,000 people because we had land so we were lucky to be able to do that. We could do 8,500 standing at the old place and we can do 15,000 here so that’s a game changer. To be able to do shows like Michael Buble, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and to break records with Gerry Cinnamon and Lewis Capaldi is amazing. Another difference is the level of experience we can provide for top artists. The old venue was a bit of a shed – I don’t mind a shed, I love a black box-type venue – but this is just a completely different level and once our clients have been here, they grab it with both hands.

Given that P&J Live is now the largest indoor arena in Scotland, could Aberdeen become a higher priority for agents?
I wish it had that effect but I’ve got to be a realist: Glasgow will always be the must-play city, with how well-established it is and also the content that comes out of there. And that’s great for Scotland – we can’t take anything away from that. It also helps us because we do pick up stuff. The perception is that we’re off the beaten track but it is a good place to start a tour as we’ve got the availability and we could pass down to Glasgow, whereas Glasgow would have to be very conscious of what they were doing in terms of rehearsals and production days. So that’s how we try to pitch it. Various agents have said how brilliant the venue is and production teams are so complimentary because the venue is purpose-built so it’s easy to get around and load in and it’s safe which goes a long way.

“I think the perception has always been that venues make all this money but margins are tight”

How was P&J Live’s first full year of trading?
This year is a tough year for us, compared to last year, with energy costs and price hikes. People are definitely more cautious. Aberdeen’s a small market and it’s a big venue, so for us, it’s about trying to be flexible and creative with our content. We have 280 events this year – 50 are entertainment – but we have a mix of business that keeps us going and makes us a profitable business. In terms of energy, costs have probably doubled and not yet stabilised. It’s great that we’re part of ASM Global which can help us and we can benchmark against other venues and other cities. I think the perception has always been that venues make all this money but margins are tight. Also, stadium shows, outdoor stuff and festivals do affect business but hopefully, we’ve got a place in the market somewhere and we can keep pushing away.

How are you diversifying content to keep business going?
In Hall C, for example, we’re doing a lot more smaller shows which have gone down really well. We’re about to announce a standing show with DF Concerts, which we’re really pleased about. The city doesn’t have a 2,000 cap. standing venue so we’re hoping to fill that space. Also, our conference, exhibition and banqueting businesses do really well. And we’ve done a lot with our premium and moved into more ad hoc inventory which is working really well. We’re really fortunate that our premium is popular. We’re always thinking about what other opportunities that we can find.

“The business has changed a lot from what we can see; there’s a lot more short-lead stuff”

ASM Global recently pledged its support to grassroots venues in the UK via Music Venue Trust. How is P&J Live embracing this?
Promoters work so hard on the early part of artists’ careers and some of those acts might reach us one day. I don’t want to muscle in on the stuff that the Lemon Tree or the Music Hall do because that’s their business and without those venues, artists won’t get to the arena level. It’s about that journey. It’s easy to think “Oh, I need to get this, I need to fill that space” but what does that mean to your business in the future? I think that’s really important to look at. In a small city, there’s not a huge number of venues and clubs so it’s about keeping the scene going especially for the big student population. If people can be in the world of live entertainment from a young age and carry that on, it benefits us in the end. So it’s definitely something that we’re passionate about.

Looking to 2024, how is the diary shaping up and how do you see business developing?
Next year the diary is really strong, a lot of pencils in there and a lot of good content. The business has changed a lot from what we can see; there’s a lot more short-lead stuff. We literally announced Jack Whitehall two weeks ago and it’s in October. That [trend] has done a bit of a full circle because it was like that years ago but then we were booking things 18 months in advance. Although, we’ve actually got pencils for entertainment in the diary into 2027 which is unusual but I think there are definitely more short leads because the world we live in is very on-demand now. It’s about whether someone wants to buy a ticket now for 18 months time or if they want to buy a ticket now, for next month or the next six months.

 


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