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Going local to meet demand

New Zealand, the “team of 5 million,” has pulled off a remarkable performance in response to [prime minister] Jacinda Ardern’s rugby vernacular, “we go hard, we go early.” A policy and practice of clear and simple messaging that succeeded; we have had no community cases or transmission of Covid-19 for over 70 days. The handful of recent cases caught at the border remain in quarantine.

When a rogue pair of Covid-positive sisters (they drove the eight hours to Wellington after arriving from the UK) were dubbed “Thelma and Disease” by one of the performers at The Tuning Fork last month, a full-capacity venue of shared laughter at shared outrage was a tonic for our collective soul after months of isolation.

Alone in our Kiwi bubble, we have to make the best of it with what we have. Having worked in promoting, venues and festivals through the incredible creative explosion of Scottish artists in the 90s, the scene here has always seemed relatively barren to me. But is it? Were we just in thrall to international artists and inhabiting the shadow of our Antipodean cousins?

From this side of Covid, we are waking up to what is under our nose, and it smells good! Lockdown was fully lifted in June, when the event and hospitality industries cautiously returned to “normal,” but under our “Level 2” in May, 400-cap venue The Tuning Fork, (reduced to 100 in tables of up to ten), began hosting an eclectic mix of local artists, bands and comedians, and NZ was in the lucky position of finding itself free to open for arena shows soon afterwards.

Event staff took time to interpret and design safety measures that worked, and still gave customers a welcoming and convivial experience. Early operations included full contact-tracing ability for every ticket holder, temperature checks on entry, cleaning bathroom stalls after every customer, on-app ordering of food and drinks, one server per group, and copious amounts of hand-sanitiser.

While there is still plenty of sanitiser on the go, and customers are asked to scan their Covid app on entry to keep a record of where they have been, relaxing the regulations and allowing crowds of thousands to mix and mingle has been embraced with enthusiasm. People feel safe, and are hungry for live entertainment.

Last Saturday night, NZ was fully back in the game: 6,000 people to see local artists L.A.B., and Troy Kingi at Spark Arena. The drink flowed, hit songs were sung along to, and the locally sourced production was amazing: PA, lights, digital video displays, the lot!

Perhaps we will see a future global touring model comprised of a network of locally managed productions

The calibre of that production owes a great deal to international touring, which has flourished here in the past decade or so, and the local industry would not be this well equipped without it, but having been a UK promoter in the 80s-2000s, when tours brought a handful of crew, I never cease to be amazed at today’s plethora of touring personnel.

Perhaps we will see a future global touring model comprised of a network of locally managed productions, the only moving parts being artists and backline? It would certainly contribute to a greener future for the industry.

So are we back to pre-Covid normal here? Nothing like. Right now we have a mandatory, supervised, 14-day quarantine at our border, only allowing New Zealanders in, with very few exceptions.

With Melbourne back in lockdown, our hoped-for trans-Tasman bubble looks a way off, and with it any hope of touring artists from further afield. Recent exemptions for cast and crew of the new Avatar and Lord of the Rings productions give hope that soon a handful of artists may be allowed in under similar circumstances.

Maybe it’s time for more communication, trust and respect for local talent? Eden Park, home of All Blacks internationals, is now regularly at capacity for regional rugby, and we are experiencing increased support for local artists as our nation becomes more proudly introspective.

Local girl Benee debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 under lockdown with platinum-selling Supalonely and, in October, will headline two sold-out nights at Spark Arena, a national tour, then festivals at New Year alongside Six60, Shihad and Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Emerging artists like Harper Finn and Daffodils are selling out at The Tuning Fork and coming to the notice of new audiences hungry for creative sustenance, and that can only be a good thing. Perhaps, just perhaps, our creatives will come bursting out of this bubble in better shape than they went in?


Judith Clumpas is the design strategist and special projects consultant at Spark Arena in Auckland, New Zealand

The Green Arena: How Spark went completely waste-free

Choose life. Choose a plant (preferably the waste product of agriculture); upcycle it into something we need (food and drink packaging); make our customers happy by serving their needs and delighting them with our attention to detail (quality products, ease of use); make it impossible for customers to stuff it up (take back control – sorry, you Brits!); make sure it gets composted (I said, make sure!); then send it back to the farms (or kiwi fruit orchards).

While deposit-scheme reusable cups and drink-bottle culture is on the rise in greenfield sites, in arenas we operate a different model in which hard objects are simply unacceptable. This has given rise to the proliferation of nasty plastic products, including polystyrene and laminated cartons, at indoor events, as well as the usual PET cups, polystyrene and soft plastic wrapping around foodstuffs.

Anyone remember Wall-E? Prophetic, huh?! The waste mountain is beginning to smother the Earth, and we need to do something. Now.

The good news is, the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle actually works. Here at Spark Arena we have been composting EVERYTHING since last August: that’s a million PLA cups, lids and straws, plus countless thousands of bagasse/bamboo/paper food cartons, cutlery, napkins, etc.

Cross-contamination was a huge problem, so rather than try to solve it, we completely removed it. No matter how hard we tried, however beautiful and well-labelled the bins, however persuasive our social media campaigns, the fact is that punters are distracted, unobservant, disinterested and ultimately just there for the gig. Meaning they will always do the mindless thing: either dropping stuff on the floor or in the totally wrong bin. We have stood there and watched them do it: chips in the paper recycling, ice cream in the plastics…

So rather than add more bins, more sorting, we flipped the problem on its head and went with just the one bin. For everything. And with just one final destination: the Earth.

Taking a systems approach rather than a piecemeal one to procurement, catering, cleaning and waste management, we have created a waste-free environment for all concerts at Spark Arena. System design means taking full responsibility for inventory, how it is handled and where it ends up, and it can only be done if the venue is in control and has absolute clarity.

Taking a systems approach … we have created a waste-free environment for all concerts at Spark Arena

Getting it right is called the circular economy, which is an oft-misused phrase. Circular means plant back to plant. Cradle to cradle, not cradle to grave. The system design took into account:

We have to stop kidding ourselves that recycling is good, when it is only very slightly less bad. According to National Geographic, only 9% of plastics globally are actually recycled. The rest ends up in landfill, gets burned or ends up in the ocean. While the figures may be better where you are, the reality is truly appalling. We can’t allow ourselves to be satisfied with a product that calls itself “recyclable”. And don’t even get me started on the disingenuous use of the word “biodegradable”…

Our local compost facility regard us as a trusted supplier, having monitored our compostable waste and found it to be below the contamination threshold they can accept. The resulting compost is top-grade stuff, and in high demand. There is always the chance of contamination, so we do have some landfill bins for rogue items that get into the building, but we have managed to source ice creams and crisps in compostable packets now, too, and we have bulk-bought sweet items and repackage them in-house, so we have barely anything to send to landfill these days.

We even have straws. They are not the devil. They go in the compost.

We rolled out this system following my master’s of design in 2016, and my next step will be to use an action research methodology to test its efficacy in different scenarios and locations as part of my future PhD study into sustainability design for music events.

If you want to be part of the study or would like more details, please email me at [email protected].


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The taming of the queue

Attempting to unravel the ‘curse of the queue’ at arenas has led me into broader territory, questioning a culture that treats customers like a herd, regarding long lines and customer disempowerment as a necessary evil, rather than a problem to be dealt with urgently. Service gamechangers Uber, Airbnb and Spotify have left the concert experience standing. I’m not talking about apps – there are plenty of those to go around – lack of a holistic approach to the customer experience journey sets us apart in a changing world, to our detriment.

Venues should participate in a co-created entertainment experience way beyond the generic provision of goods and services. Think of the airport experience: concertgoers merely submit in order to gain access to the thing they have actually paid for; the transformative experience that the ticket promises. Given the passion with which customers follow an artist (or yearn to lie on a Mediterranean beach), organisations should be strategically managing the experience, or risk losing repeat business for their territory. Sectors including banking, grocery and technology are successfully embracing service design thinking in order to reinvent the way people access goods and services, and it all begins with empathy for the user and a holistic approach to human-centred design.

In my opinion, the scale and fragmented nature of the customer journey is largely to blame, where management are disconnected and disempowered from playing out their true role as host. Reminiscing about our best concert experiences (and I’m not referring to the performance – we have little or no say in that sphere!), there was a vibe and anticipation in arriving at a truly cool music venue, be it bar, club or theatre. Usually, there would be a host character, a manager; the driving force behind the culture of the place. Contrast that to the soulless entertainment arenas we expect our audiences to embrace with similar passion. Such buildings have largely been created for sports or “entertainment” events, lacking the architectural features that allow for truly visceral pleasure and identity of purpose.

Combine that with the fragmented ticketing market and clamour of communication from artist, ticket agencies, promoter and media, and the customer is left wondering whose customer they are. In these days of naming rights deals, the true essence of the venue is trickier to demonstrate with any authenticity. Who has the duty of care? Who is the actual host? And what kind of host are they?

Step up to the plate, strip away your preconceptions and walk in customers’ shoes again, something those of us at the top-end of the venue profession may have not had to do for a long, long time

Concert arenas are typified by harsh lighting, industrial barricades, institutional-grade signage and subcontracted staffing with no real connection to the venue’s core purpose. There are a few notable exceptions, but generally our audiences are left to navigate their journey much as they would that airport. They are on their own. Addressing isolated issues is not the answer: I am calling for a multidisciplinary, human-centred and strategic approach to what is known in academic circles as a “wicked problem”.

Begin with empathy. Step up to the plate, strip away your preconceptions and walk in their shoes again; quite possibly something those of us at the top-end of the venue profession have not had to do for a long, long time.

Take your pass off; take public transport or try to park nearby; submit to processes over which you have no control; don’t pull favours, wait your turn; wonder what time the band starts; line up under fluorescent lighting to buy drinks in a queue that seems to be stationary; and try to have a great night out with your mates while you’re at it.

Work a few shifts on your own bar and door. Go incognito, wear the uniform… is it fun to work in your venue? If not, why not? Often these low-paid casual staff comprise the only human-to-human encounter in the customer experience journey, so it’s important. You might even enjoy it and remember why you came into this business in the first place!

Only then will you gain the true insights needed to foster the right culture within your organisation, and proactively design for the kind of future scenario and relationships we need to survive as an industry.

Solving queuing issues and associated disgruntlement are not simply a way of selling more beer; but a way of selling more concerts, and a means to business sustainability for us all. Let’s get some real results.


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