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NEC Group’s Guy Dunstan’s 2023 arenas forecast

NEC Group’s ticketing and arenas MD Guy Dunstan has reflected on the past 12 months for the business and offered his forecast for the year ahead in a new interview with IQ.

Birmingham-based NEC Group manages five of the UK’s leading business, leisure, and entertainment venues including the 15,700-cap Resorts World Arena and 16,118-cap Utilita Arena Birmingham, as well as national ticketing agency The Ticket Factory.

The arenas have welcomed acts including Kasabian, Kendrick Lamar, Biffy Clyro, N-Dubz, Kaiser Chiefs, Nightwish and Evanescence this month alone, with the likes of Iron Maiden, Olly Murs, Blink 182, Michael Bublé, Lewis Capaldi, Lizzo and Paramore lined up for 2023.

Overall, however, Dunstan describes the arena sector’s first full year since returning from the pandemic as “decent” rather than “stellar”, and expects 2023 to provide a similar story.

“We all thought 18 months ago that when we got the green light, we were going to have record breaking years”

“When we get to November, you have a good feel for how things are going to look next year and – in terms of what we’ve got confirmed, on sale and pencilled – I’m hoping we’re going to be where we’ve been this year,” he says. “We’ve hit the level of business that we expected. It’s not been a stellar year, but it’s been a decent year in terms of getting back to business. We’ve been hit hard in terms of increased costs right across the board, which obviously then snowballs into costs for consumers and playing venues in the arena market.

“We all thought 18 months ago that when we got the green light, we were going to have record breaking years. It hasn’t been as positive as that but it’s been good enough from a level of shows point of view and I think that will continue next year. I think it’s going to be good, but not spectacular.

Nevertheless, the venues have seen “unprecedented” demand for tickets for British comedian Peter Kay’s first stand-up arena tour in over a decade. The tour, which currently includes 16 Birmingham dates, begins next month and is scheduled to run until July 2025.

“It’s the highest demand we’ve ever seen for an onsale on our website, it was just through the roof,” says Dunstan. “We knew from previous experience with him that it would be really strong, but this was off the chart, absolutely amazing.”

Dunstan is further buoyed by the strong sales performances of recent and upcoming first-time arena headliners such as Billie Eilish, Lewis Capaldi, Machine Gun Kelly, Dave, Yungblud and Tom Grennan, as well as non-music productions like The Masked Singer Live, Disney on Ice, Ru Paul’s Drag Race and Cirque du Soleil.

“People are still wanting to go to shows, which is encouraging”

“People are still wanting to go to shows, which is encouraging,” he adds. “The last month was a real litmus test based on the doom and gloom that we’d been hearing throughout the media. We get it that people’s incomes and costs have been squeezed on utilities and the last couple of months are where people were seeing their energy costs jump up significantly. But we’ve seen in previous recessions that people still want to come out and be entertained and hopefully that will continue.”

The former National Arenas Association chair also weighs in on the current volatility of the pound to dollar exchange rate and its impact on US acts coming to the UK.

“We might see a reduction in international acts over the next couple of years,” he surmises. “We’ve had some decent onsales with those acts from across the Atlantic, so I’m hoping that drives confidence but if we do see a slowdown, hopefully that gap can be filled by domestic acts and we still see the same levels of business.

“It is something we’re keeping an eye on, but right now the level of business is in line with what we were forecasting when we came back to business 12 months ago, so hopefully we’ll get to where we need to be.”

 


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The Great Refund Debate

With fans still sitting on event tickets that they bought as long ago as 2019, the industry is facing a dilemma when it comes to who merits a refund and who does not. And as Covid becomes endemic, should refunds remain obligatory for ticketholders who test positive? James Hanley investigates.

The race to contain Covid-19 outbreaks and variants over the last 24 months has been likened to a game of Whac-A-Mole. But as the international live music business begins to emerge from the horror of the pandemic, it will need its own mallet at the ready to combat the litany of fresh problems popping up day-to-day.

One of the more mundane but contentious debates to be sparked in recent months surrounds the matter of refunds. The issue was brought to the fore by Dead & Company and promoter CID Presents’ Playing in the Sand destination festival, which was set for Mexico’s Riviera Cancún over two weekends in January this year.

Amid the omicron surge of late 2021, organisers opened a 48-hour refund window for fans having second thoughts about attending (all ticketholders were ultimately refunded when the event was pulled at the 11th hour due to a spike in infections). However, CID declined to repeat the offer for its other January festivals: Crash My Playa and HootieFest: The Big Splash.

“If, at any point during the two weeks leading up to a particular event, the CDC Risk Assess- ment Level for Covid-19 for the Quintana Roo (Cancún) region of Mexico rises to a Level 4 or Mexico designates the area unsafe to hold an event, we will be offering full refunds to those not wishing to attend the particular event,” said a statement by the promoter. “We continue to recommend buying travel insurance, which may help protect against the risks of Covid-19 and travelling internationally during the pandemic.”

It was a similar situation at Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky “concert vacation” in Mexico, also in Janu- ary, produced by Cloud 9, The Bowery Presents, and Higher Ground Presents, which stressed its no-refund policy and encouraged festivalgoers to purchase travel insurance. “A refund, or the ability to hold one’s spot for a rescheduled date, will be available to purchasers if the event were to be postponed,” Cloud 9 told Billboard.

But far from limited to sun-drenched getaways, the refund question is pertinent at all levels of the industry, in every market across the globe. “There is a set Live Nation policy across the board,” explains Barnaby Harrod of Mercury Wheels, part of Live Nation Spain. “When an event is cancelled, you get an automatic refund. With reprogramming, the original tickets are, of course, valid for the new dates. However, if some- body can’t make the new show, or doesn’t want to, they have 21 days to ask for a refund, and that has been applied across the pandemic.”

Certain events and promoters also offer refunds or a voucher for anyone who is unable to attend due to testing positive. Harrod advises that every claim is assessed on its own merits.

“For exceptional refunds, which are requested outside the established timeframe, we work on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “So in the current climate, where the government has restrictions in place for people who have Covid, if somebody can certify that they have Covid, then they should be entitled to a refund.”

Elsewhere in Europe, AEG Presents France GM Arnaud Meersseman points to France’s “very protective” consumer laws, which allow customers to claim refunds up to five years after the event.

“Obviously, if a show is rescheduled or can- celled, it’s an automatic refund and there’s no discussion there whatsoever,” he tells IQ. “As for no-shows, as of today, they can warrant a refund. But we’ve seen in practice that it’s not really the case, as a lot of people don’t ask for them.

“The last big show I did was December at the Zenith Paris, and out of 6,000 tickets, we had 20% no-shows. The only other big shows I had be- tween September and December were two nights of Nick Cave, but they were seated shows at 2,000- cap each, and we had almost zero no-shows.

“Over here, what most people have done in practice is wait out a month in terms of refund requests, and if those refund requests haven’t come in during that time, we settle off the show basically. But that’s not really the law, I mean, people can ask for refunds after five years. But we’ve noticed that essentially, past one month, there’ll be the odd refund request here and there, but it’s really rare.”

DEAG executive Detlef Kornett says it is difficult to make general statements due to the fragmented nature of the German market but suggests most promoters have maintained a flexible approach to refunds.

“We have demonstrated a lot of flexibility and offered customers the opportunity to re-book their ticket if and when possible, use it for a different show, get a voucher, or in certain instances, even reimburse the ticket value,” he says. “That was true also if they were unable to attend due to Covid.”

DEAG’s UK subsidiary Kilimanjaro Live returned to action in August 2021, staging two arena dates by Gorillaz at The O2 in London. Kili CEO Stuart Galbraith attempts to sum-up the story so far.

“We never get 100% attendance – between 3% and 5% of people indoors and up to 10% outdoors buy tickets and then just don’t come – but we were back up at 95-97% attendance rates all the way through September, October, and November,” he says. “Then as omicron started to come into play and we headed into Christmas, those rates started to drop again to as little as 70% on some occasions.

“When we came back after Christmas, almost instantly, those attendance rates went back up to 95-97%, and that’s where they’ve been ever since. But what was very interesting is that virtually none of the customers who didn’t attend the shows before Christmas asked us for refunds. They’d just decided they weren’t going out and would take it on the chin.”

He continues: “The analogy I’ve used over the last couple of years is that, if you had an EasyJet flight booked that cost you £20 to £40, in my personal experience, I haven’t bothered to ask for a refund on that because I can’t be bothered. It’s just one of those things. However, if I’ve got a transatlantic flight, which is worth several hundred quid or thousands of pounds, I do want a refund on it. And I think that tickets and concert tickets fall into that EasyJet category – I don’t think people can be bothered to ask for the refund, to be quite frank.”

“People have almost been treating a ticket like something they bought off Amazon and saying, ‘Oh, we don’t really fancy that now,’ the day before. And at that point, what do you want the festival organiser to do about it?”

Paul Reed, CEO of the UK’s Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), reveals the organisation took legal advice with regards to refunds last year on behalf of its 90 members – and reached a definitive conclusion.

“The fact is a consumer is not legally entitled to a refund if they’re isolating and not allowed to travel, in the same way as if they were unable to travel for any other reason,” asserts Reed. “The view was that, ultimately, the customer is not due a refund, but I think it’s a decision that has to be up to the individual event. It is entirely at their discretion and there is no obligation. But from speaking to others in the industry, my sense is that it is being assessed on a case-by-case basis, irrespective of the legal situation.”

Reed adds that some AIF members have ex- pressed concerns that a “refund culture” has seeped in among punters.

“Perhaps it’s understandable, but people have almost been treating a ticket like something they bought off Amazon and saying, ‘Oh, we don’t really fancy that now,’ the day before. And at that point, what do you want the festival organiser to do about it?” he sighs. “You’re not due a refund, but I think that mindset has permeated a little bit more throughout festivals and live experiences – customer expectation shifting – and people feeling more entitled to a refund when it is more complicated than that.

“When you buy a ticket, it is binding, and that is all very clear in the Ts and Cs. I think customers need to understand a little bit more about what they’re committed to when they buy a ticket, so I don’t know whether some education is needed around that.”

Fans no longer able or willing to attend events are encouraged to sell on their tickets via face-value resale sites.

“Specific insurance is also available to the customer as a voluntary upsell, and I believe some travel insurance policies also cover it,” says Reed.

Guy Dunstan is MD, ticketing and arenas for Birmingham-based NEC Group, which manages five of the UK’s leading indoor venues including Birmingham’s Resorts World Arena and Utilita Arena, as well as national ticketing agency The Ticket Factory. He tells IQ the company has been proactive on the issue by offering ticket insurance with Covid cover included.

“I know that some venues and ticketing companies have been hit harder than others with regards to the refund situation,” says Dunstan. “We’ve been offering ticket protection insurance to customers for a significant period of time, so the refunds we’ve given have been pretty minimal because we’ve been able to point customers to the fact that they were offered the insurance at the time when they purchased the tickets.

“We were able to get that as cover quite early on in the pandemic through the ticket insurance provider that we work with, and it’s been of real benefit to us. So our sense is that we’re well protected from that moving forward.”

Down under, Live Performance Australia (LPA) administers the ticketing code of practice for the entertainment industry that outlines consumers’ rights to a refund. First released in 2001, the trade body reviewed and updated the code in 2020.

“While the impetus for the most recent changes was the Covid-19 pandemic, LPA was conscious to ensure any updates have a life beyond Covid-19,” says the group’s CEO Evelyn Richardson. “The ticketing code was widely used by the industry pre-Covid and will continue to be the go-to resource about refunds as Covid-19 moves to becoming endemic and beyond.”

Richardson says the LPA expects its members to treat ticketholders fairly if shows are forced to can- cel or are postponed due to government mandates.

“Whether ticketholders are entitled to a refund, exchange or other remedy will depend upon the ticket terms and conditions applicable when tickets were purchased,” she states. “Many companies have a Covid refund and exchanges policy, which sets out if ticketholders will get a refund, exchange or credit note if they are un- well with Covid symptoms, unable to attend the event due to contracting Covid, awaiting test results, [have been] in close contact, or [due to] border closure.”

With the world slowly emerging from the pandemic, the conversation turns to how flexible the live industry will be as things return to something like normal. Richardson indicates there could still be room for a little leeway.

“Ordinarily, if a ticketholder is unable to attend the event because they are unwell or other personal circumstance, they are not entitled to an automatic refund under Australian consumer law,” she says. “However, event organisers always have discretion to provide a refund or other remedy, if they wish, even though there may not be a legal requirement to do so.”

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has already announced the ‘Living with Covid-19’ plan, which has put an end to the legal requirement in England to self-isolate after a positive Covid test. Free testing has also been scrapped, although that isn’t an issue everywhere.

“They’ve never had free Covid tests in Spain,” testifies Madrid-based Harrod. “You would always have to go to the chemist to buy one.”

For Galbraith, however, the ramifications for the sector’s refund policy are obvious.

“Realistically, now that Covid has no legal status over and above any other disease, then that’s it, life is back to normal from an event organiser’s point of view,” he offers. “If somebody has flu, chickenpox, mumps, or whatever, and they can’t go to the show, then, unfortunately, that’s just part of life, and I think the same will be true of Covid.

“In the last two years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of customers taking out personal insurance on their tickets. For a very small percentage of the ticket cost, you can insure your ticket in the way that you can a holiday or anything else. That insurance, in many cases, does actually give you illness cover. So I think that is an easy customer solution going forward.”

“Now the isolation rules have changed, and you don’t have to isolate, then I think it just becomes like any other illness,” agrees Dunstan. “We all have to take a sense of responsibility to make sure that we’re healthy and well [enough] to be going to events. But as for venues and companies that have been offering refunds if you can demonstrate you are Covid positive, I can just see that going away.”

On that point, there appears to be something approaching a consensus.

“Once it is endemic, Covid would most likely not be a reason that entitles you to a refund as such anymore,” muses DEAG’s Kornett.

“At the end of the day, if somebody has gastroenteritis or common flu, or gets grounded by their parents because they have bad grades, do you refund them?” concludes Paris-based Meersseman. “At some point, there is no law in this, it’s going to be commercial practice. Once this virus becomes endemic and breaks out of the pandemic stage, I don’t see us offering refunds for people who have Covid.”

 


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NEC Group’s Guy Dunstan on the UK arena business

NEC Group’s Guy Dunstan says the high rate of no-shows at concerts is continuing to cause uncertainty for the UK’s arena business.

Promoters reported the typical level of no-shows to be around 25-35% – rising up to 50% in extreme cases – when touring first returned from the Covid-19 shutdown last autumn. While numbers have stabilised to nearer 15%, the knock-on effects remain significant.

Dunstan is MD, ticketing and arenas for the Birmingham-based NEC Group, which manages five of the UK’s leading business, leisure, and entertainment venues including the 15,685-cap Resorts World Arena and 15,800-cap Utilita Arena Birmingham, plus national ticketing agency The Ticket Factory.

“No-shows have been a big issue for us since coming back to business late last summer,” Dunstan tells IQ. “We’ve seen good levels of attendance and minimal no-shows for events that have gone on sale more recently, but we’re seeing a bigger impact on shows that have rescheduled two or three times. It tends to increase the more times the show has been rescheduled, and the longer ago the show was originally scheduled to be.”

Dunstan points out that, pre-pandemic, no-show rates at the venues hovered closer to 5%.

“It was always within that range,” he adds. “But we’re now measuring it on a show-by-show basis and trying to build up as much insight and looking at the trends to see whether it is mainly linked to the shows that have moved dates, rather than to do with customer confidence, because we’ve had shows that have gone on sale since last summer where both the attendance and the level of no-shows have been back to normal levels.

“We’re seeing on average, around about 15% no-shows on rescheduled dates and that has a big impact for venues because our business model’s based on food and beverage spend, merchandise spend, car parking spend… And so 15% of customers not coming into a venue is a significant hit on our expected revenues.

“The level of business is looking good over the next 12 to 18 months”

“We have to be prepared for every ticket holder turning up. We can’t start thinking, ‘We’ll reduce our costs by 15% and reduce our staff by 15%’ because we’ve got to make sure we are geared up for everybody turning up. So it’s a real challenge for us in this current climate, but I think as we start getting through all those rescheduled shows, it will get back to normal levels.”

Utilita Arena has concerts coming up with the likes of Stormzy, Royal Blood, Sam Fender, Dua Lipa, Celine Dion, The Script, Alicia Keys and Billie Eilish, while Resorts World Arena will welcome Stereophonics, Little Mix, Years & Years, Alice Cooper + The Cult, Frankie Valli + The Four Seasons, Pet Shop Boys and Kings of Leon, among others.

“There are shows that are not selling as well as we would expect them to, but others are absolutely flying,” notes Dunstan, a former National Arenas Association chair. “From December into early January, some shows lost momentum in ticket sales because of Omicron. The A-list artists are all selling out and doing really well, but the mid-tier isn’t selling that well, although we have seen some mid-tier artists doing better than they’ve done before, and others not as well. We’re all trying to work out what the level of business is going to be and it’s almost like starting again, because there have been some very strange trends.

“In December, January and even into February we saw a much lower level of on-sales than we would normally see in that period and I think that is because of Omicron. When we got into December, the industry sat tight and waited to see how Omicron was going to play out, so a lot of tour plans were put on hold. But we’re starting to see a lot of shows now planned to go on sale in March, which is encouraging and hopefully starts getting us back on track.”

He concludes: “Like other venues,  we’re doing our budgeting and planning strategy for the next three years and it’s quite a difficult exercise, with so many anomalies being thrown at us. But positively, the level of business is looking good over the next 12 to 18 months so I think the bounce back is going be prolonged as everybody catches up. There are a lot of pencils going in for ’23 and even for ’24 as well, so a lot of promoters and artists are looking longer term in terms of their touring plans because it is going to be very busy over the next couple of years.”

 


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West Midlands Music Board launches in UK

The West Midlands Music Board (WMMB), a new body designed to serve as a collective voice for the music industry in the West Midlands region, has launched in England.

Led by Nick Reed of B:Music (formerly THSH), the charity which runs Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (2,262-seat) and Town Hall (1,086-seat) venues, WMMB also counts NEC Group’s Guy Dunstan, promoter Danni Brownsill, Birmingham Pride organiser Lawrence Barton and Academy Music Group’s Louise Stamp as board members.

Created in response to the prolonged shutdown due to the pandemic, the West Midlands Music Board will advocate for, compile data on, and lead the local music sector, which supports more than 3,500 jobs.

Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, along with Lady Leshurr and Joan Armatrading one of several local artists supporting the WMMB, comments: “The West Midlands has an incredible musical history, and it is still bursting with new talent. I’m pleased to see this new board come together to make sure that music is recognised as a key part of the economy and gets the chance to thrive.”

The WMMB will cover the whole of the West Midlands, including Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Herefordshire, Sandwell, Shropshire, Solihull, Staffordshire, Stoke on Trent, Telford and Wrekin, Walsall, Warwickshire, Wolverhampton and Worcestershire.

“There has never been a more important time to unite”

In alphabetical order, WMMB board members are:

“The board aims to represent a unique identity, by placing music and the wider night-time economy in the West Midlands at the heart of national and regional strategy,” comments Reed. “We will work to ensure that decisions around investment, training, planning and skills allow our incredible music sector to flourish and grow, creating jobs and sustainable careers here in the West Midlands.

“A key part of our work will be ensuring that these careers are open and inclusive to all. From the national levelling-up agenda to local transport policy, the WMMB will speak with a unified voice for music in the region. […] There has never been a more important time to unite, and I am delighted to chair the board, and to be working with such a talented group of people.”

 


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Birmingham arenas launch anti-homophobia campaign

NEC Group-owned Arena Birmingham (15,800-cap.) and Resorts World Arena (15,685-cap.) have become the first in the UK to tackle homophobic acts through the ‘Ask for Clive’ campaign.

The campaign encourages venues to show solidarity against discriminatory behaviour. Posters on display let customers know that if they see any abuse of LGBTQ people they can report it to staff by “asking for Clive”.

Those affected can then access a safe space whilst the incident is investigated and the appropriate action is taken.

The campaign is named after the organiser of the annual Herts Pride event and advocate for sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust, Clive Duffey.

Similar code-word safety initiatives are already used within the live event space, including FKP Scorpio’s anti-harassment scheme Which way to Panama? and Ask for Angela, which is used by those experiencing sexual violence or feeling unsafe in venues across UK and the world.

“I am delighted to have two of the UK’s leading live entertainment venues on board in Resorts World Arena and Arena Birmingham,” says Ask for Clive founder Danny Clare.

“Ask for Clive’s message will now be seen by millions of live-event fans, which will play a big part towards eradicating unacceptable behaviour

“Ask for Clive’s message will now be seen by millions of live-event fans, which will play a big part towards the ultimate goal of eradicating unacceptable behaviour and building a visible support network for everyone in the wider community.”

Guy Dunstan, who was promoted to director of arenas at NEC Group in January, says assuring the safety of all guests is “important” to the venue operator.

“Ask For Clive is such an important initiative in the stand against homophobia and transphobia,” comments Dunstan. “We hope that we can encourage both other venues in Birmingham and other arenas across the UK to follow suit and take a stand too.”

The NEC Group was acquired by US private-equity giant the Blackstone Group in October 2018, in a deal believed to exceed £800 million.

The group’s portfolio includes Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre, the International Convention Centre and the Vox Conference Centre, as well as ticket agency the Ticket Factory.

 


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