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Family entertainment in focus

While the live entertainment industry ponders when casual ticket buyers will regain the confidence to return to events, the family entertainment sector is confident the demand among its customers is stronger than ever. Gordon Masson reports.

Like other sectors in the live industry, the world of family entertainment has been hit hard over the past couple of years, removing a vital part of the overall jigsaw given that family shows often introduce children to their first taste of live events.

One major casualty of Covid-19 was Cirque du Soleil, which had been one of the world’s most successful live entertainment enterprises since it launched in 1984. But when the pandemic struck, the company had to suspend all 44 of its active shows around the world and temporarily lay off more than 4,600 staff. With debts of more than $1 billion (€0.9bn), it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection before a consortium including former MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren and Canadian investment group Catalyst Capital bought the business in November 2020.

Manu Braff of Belgium-based MB Presents has his own Cirque story. “When the first lockdown happened we were all set-up and ready for the opening night of Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo in Antwerp. The decision basically pulled the plug on everything from one day to another. Then, reality hit and the lockdown weeks turned into months… and years. However, slowly but surely we turned the business around. As museums were allowed to stay open, we promoted and produced six exhibitions over 18 months in Belgium and abroad.”

With markets gradually reopening, producers of family entertainment shows may have a slight advantage over their live music touring peers, as their ability to drop into markets for short periods, such as school holidays, allows them to take advantage of reopened venues, whereas the music side is still relying on multiple markets to lift restrictions to facilitate tour routings.

“During the pandemic, the family entertainment worked best of all – with seated family audiences this was the ‘safest’ way to enjoy entertainment even during these challenging times,” says Georg Leitner of Austria-based Georg Leitner Productions (GLP). “For instance, in December and February we had a sold-out three-week run with Cirque de Glace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.”

“Family entertainment is partially exempt from corona measures because there are very good concepts”

It’s a benefit that GLP’s new head of show acts and family entertainment, Birger Gaetjens, is looking to fully exploit. “The family entertainment sector has a clear advantage and will continue to do so in the coming months because it is scalable and can comply with country-specific corona rules,” he notes.

Steven Armstrong, vice president EMEA for Feld Entertainment, agrees, “Our Disney On Ice shows have been out there in the US since probably October or November of 2020, so pretty much all through Covid,” he tells IQ. “We started internationally back in September of 2021 when we visited Abu Dhabi, and since we’ve gone through the UK and parts of Europe.”

Nonetheless, there are challenges. While children have been the demographic least at risk from coronavirus, their grandparents (who often pay for tickets and accompany them to live events) remain among the highest risk members of society for Covid, presenting just another obstacle among the myriad that producers, and the promoters who hire their shows, are currently facing.

GLP’s Gaetjens opines, “Although children and young adults are least affected, the infection rate is highest in [that demographic]. What we notice is that children’s shows work better in some countries because the corona policy works better. Family entertainment is partially exempt from corona measures because there are very good concepts. What organisers should know is that during the pandemic and beyond, our concepts are safe, scalable, have a corona concept, and are still profitable.”

Kenneth Svoldgaard, co-CEO of Denmark -based CSB Entertainment, tells IQ, “I’m not worried about the family business at all. I have three kids of my own – aged 5, 11 and 14 – and none of them have been very ill. So I don’t really think that we have need to worry.”

However, he recognises that there are issues at the other end of the age range. “We are representing a couple of offers for the Christmas market where we have an older demographic, and that’s a little more problematic because they’re the most vulnerable in society,” he says.

And Svoldgaard has first-hand experience of dealing with the concerns of the older generations. “They’re the people who have asked the most questions, and that’s why we have had to have more staff at venues when the event is for an older demographic, to make sure people keep socially distanced, clean their hands, get to the seats, and all these kinds of things.”

“There’s definitely demand for product to come out”

Feld’s experience with the higher age groups of customers has been fascinating.

Looking at the grandparent segment of Feld’s patrons, he says, “Originally, they were a bit more cautious than the 20 year olds who wanted to go to a concert, but over time we’ve seen parents and grandparents come at the same rate, if not even more than they would have come pre-Covid. We were in Sheffield when it looked like the UK was going to shut down and the week of shows actually went really well, compared to pre-Covid times – it was almost the feeling of ‘this might be our last chance to do this for a while, so let’s go out and do it now.’

“But the silver lining is that there’s definitely demand for product to come out.”

That’s also been the experience of MB Presents. “We combined the extra time we suddenly had available with the creativity of our team and created new productions and exhibitions,” says Braff, naming Expo Dino World, the Middelkerke Sand Sculpture Festival, and Lanterna Magica among the company’s pandemic successes.

“We felt lucky that we could actually work and at the same time offer our clients a moment of distraction from all the negative stuff happening around them,” says Braff.

High demand

Despite the pandemic shutting down family shows around the world, the producer community has remained buoyant about the prospects of getting back to business because, like Armstrong, it can see that the demand is there.

Arnold Bernard, director of international booking for the Harlem Globetrotters, sums up the optimism. “One of the key indicators for us was the number of people who held on to their tickets from all the shows we had to postpone. We were one week into a four-month tour of Europe when we had to shut down in March of 2020. Two years later, we still have over 85% of those tickets out. This really is a testament to the strength of our brand.”

Corrado Canonici of World Touring Exhibitions tells IQ that demand remains high. “When Covid started, the few guys who decided to continue touring our exhibitions found a few difficulties because some people were worried and you had less audience. But then, when we brought our 3D exhibition to Germany in April or May last year, people were just assaulting the venue because they just couldn’t stay home anymore.”

But Canonici believes a new seasonal pattern has emerged during the pandemic years. “When we got to November last year, everything slowed down until February and then we will restart in March/April, so the general feeling is that we are all going towards a kind of a seasonal activity from March to October,” he says.

“We are all more open to understanding the promoters’ point of view. You can’t expect them to risk everything while you just behave like nothing has happened”

The Exhibitionist

Having made the decision to concentrate only on touring exhibitions a number of years ago, Canonici says that bold step paid dividends when the rest of the touring world ground to a halt in March 2020.

“Exhibitions started to work much earlier for obvious reasons,” he notes. “You can go to an exhibition with a mask; you can go to an exhibition while maintaining social distancing; you don’t need a 5,000-seater arena, you can do it in an exhibition space. So exhibitions never really completely stopped working during the pandemic.”

He adds, “The company has been concentrating on just exhibitions for a few years now be- cause we just found it more civilised, easier, nicer. Being independent in the exhibition world is still possible, so I like the idea that we can still have crazy ideas, pursue our ideas, finance our ideas, and all of this can be done. But with music, nobody would ever give me the new Adele. No way.”

And while the rest of the live entertainment business is scrambling to find venues for artists and shows, Canonici has none of that hassle. “Our venues are usually not really music venues. Arenas are just too busy anyway with concerts, so they would never ever give an exhibition two months of their time because they make far more money [with] 30 concerts in two months. So our venues are conference centres, exhibition centres, museums, malls. We know that there are many places you can go, which are usually not music places. So we don’t feel the pinch of that too much.”

“We used the downtime to really evaluate what we did, the why and the how”

Future Planning

Like many organisations crippled by the pandemic, the Harlem Globetrotters used the enforced pause to reinvigorate their strategy. “We used the downtime to really evaluate what we did, the why and the how,” says international booking director Bernard. “In the family entertainment world, we tour every month of every year. We don’t normally get to take some time out to reimagine our brand. To be able to get that time was refreshing and inspiring.”

Canonici also used the opportunity to expand the remit for World Touring Exhibitions. “When we saw that there were a few months of less work, we opened up to not just producing our own stuff but producing for people who want to have permanent exhibitions,” he reveals. “So now we also consult for the creation of, or directly produce, exhibitions for venues or institutions who want a permanent exhibition. So that’s been something positive coming from Covid, in the sense that we opened up to that which we wouldn’t have done otherwise.”

GLP’s Gaetjens believes that one of the biggest challenges facing the sector is to identify and develop new show formats that promoters can rely on, even while the pandemic continues. “Most organisers and countries have opted for safe formats,” he says. “We go one step further and will not only present new formats and projects but also go ‘corona-conform’ because that is safe and a guaranteed source of income for our customers. We still have to wait until ‘Freedom Day’ in some countries, and if the omicron and delta variants go together, we are prepared.”

Bernard says that there are two principle challenges facing organisations like the Harlem Globetrotters when it comes to getting back to business. “First, there are US State Department warnings recommending not to travel overseas, which affects our ability to travel,” he reports. “The second, is capacity limitations or vaccine requirements to enter public venues. This is a real challenge for families with young kids.”

That’s an aspect that’s not lost on Armstrong. “Only 6-8 months ago, no kids were really getting Covid, they weren’t getting tested, and they weren’t getting vaccinated. But all of a sudden, if the requirements are that everyone has to be vaccinated to go to events, what happens?” he asks.

“Luckily, so far, it hasn’t been mandated that kids who are under a certain age need to be vaccinated, so we’ve managed to be able to have shows. But if that changes going forward, we could run into problems.”

MB Presents boss Braff believes confidence will be key in reinvigorating the market. “Re-building the trust of people in small and large in- door events [is a major challenge],” he says. “People are weary of new measures and postpone buying tickets to events to the last minute. This makes it extremely difficult for event producers and promoters to plan ahead.”

“Deals need to be more flexible than before. We are all more open to understanding the promoters’ point of view”

The Year Ahead

Gaetjens believes the future is rosy for the family entertainment sector, albeit with a few challenging months ahead. “In 2022, many organisers will still be cautious, which is nonsense,” he states. “From April, everything will loosen up, and we are already noticing that.”

Continuing with a pitch, Gaetjens says, “We will be launching with new formats for 2022 and 2023 globally, expanding our roster, and giving all existing and new partners the opportunity to get what they want and are looking for.”

Canonici comments, “When in November [2021] Covid started to appear again and people started to postpone, we thought the worst. But, all of a sudden, around January, emails and phone calls started again because everybody wants to do everything from March. I have the feeling it’s going to be a lot of work from March to probably November. It really feels like it’s going to be a bit more seasonal than it was before.”

With the pandemic fostering unprecedented cooperation through the live entertainment business globally, Canonici believes the rule book is being rewritten for agreements in the family sector, too.

“Deals need to be a bit more flexible than before,” he says. “We all are more open to understanding the promoters’ point of view. You can’t expect them to risk everything while you just behave like nothing has happened. So we all have to be more flexible.”

Svoldgaard highlights the main issue that is hindering the entire live touring economy. “Many of the things that we do depend on what’s happening in the rest of the world or at least Europe, with the touring business. In principle, in Denmark, it’s not been so bad. Our sales have been pretty good, but when we talk about the tour business where we are going outside of Denmark, then we’re getting into problems as lockdown and restrictions have been harder elsewhere, and selling tickets is a huge challenge. We already had some tours that were supposed to start in February get postponed – and most of them for a whole year. So with many projects, we’re already looking into spring 2023.”

“I don’t think people are afraid of getting infected; they’re just sick and tired of having bought a ticket and then things keep getting postponed”

He adds, “It’s difficult to find availability in the venues on a shorter scale and also booking the artists on a shorter scale. So it’s been necessary to move things by a whole year in a number of instances.”

Looking at Feld’s bookings, Armstrong says, “We’ve been doing Monster Jam in the US and we’ve started to look at that internationally, too. We’ve got Ringling Brothers relaunching in 2023 in the US. And we’ll probably get Marvel Universe Live up and running in 2023. So we’re starting to get everything back. We’re not quite at the same scale – we had nine ice shows travelling around the world prior to Covid; we’ve got four or five out, as of now, but going into next season, we’ll probably get back to six, seven or eight. So it’s looking good.”

Citing CSB’s Whitney Houston tribute show, The Greatest Love of All, Svoldgaard sums up some of the frustrations that could hold back growth in the months to come. “The tour starts at the end of March and we have nearly 50 shows in eight countries across Europe,” he explains. “We start in Copenhagen, and the sales in Denmark are actually quite good for the most part, but the other countries are lacking.”

Indeed, because of the uncertainty that has been a significant Covid side effect, Svoldgaard confirms that consumers are leaving it till the 11th hour to buy tickets. “I don’t think people are afraid of getting infected; they’re just sick and tired of having bought a ticket and then things keep getting postponed.”

Nonetheless, he reports that longer term, confidence is building. “We have a lot of shows on sale for autumn this year, and sales have been incredible. So I think people expect that things will be back to normal for shows in September, October, November.”

In addition to tribute acts for the likes of Queen and Dire Straits, CSB has Lord of the Dance on sale for its 25th anniversary tour, among many other shows. “We are very optimistic looking forward,” says Svoldgaard. “I think people are, in general, excited about coming out to see shows again. The issue we have right now is shows that we have this  spring.”

Looking at his order book, Canonici reports, “We had Monsters of the Sea, which toured Ukraine for over a year. That’s now going to Russia for a year and probably more, fingers crossed. Our 3D exhibition is doing very well. Elsewhere, we have Dinosaurs in Belgium now; Science is going to go to Lithuania; and Lego always does very well.

He adds, “It’s all moving nicely, but it’s not the same. You can’t have the same sold-out shows you had before. It’s very difficult to get back to the 100,000 visitors in three months. But it’s still turning over decent numbers.”

“We have currently productions planned and presented in six new international markets”

New Productions?

While excitement among family ents producers and promoters is building, any expectations for new spectaculars might have to be put on the backburner for a year or so.

Canonici reveals, “At the time of Covid, we were supposed to go out with a new exhibition: The Art of Interactive Digital. We’d developed about 85% of this production when Covid arrived, so we just pulled back. Considering the ongoing situation, we think we’ll maybe delay another year going out with that one.”

Braff comments, “We still see a lot of tours being postponed to 2023. Luckily some tours are also restarting, like Corteo, which will finally happen in June 2022, two years after it was originally planned. We will continue to further develop our own productions and family entertainment brands, with eyes on the international markets. We have currently productions planned and presented in six new international markets, so we are positive.”

Armstrong surmises the situation well. “It’s very risky to launch a new product, especially one that doesn’t have a big brand behind it, because of the level of investment it takes to get them up and running,” he says.

“I would say it’s going to be the latter end of 2022 before we’re going to start seeing some of the bigger productions start touring again. But for newer brands, it’s a big risk. For us, the re-launch of Ringling Brothers is a calculated risk because it’s a brand that’s played for hundreds of years in the US. Whereas if you’re bringing out something that, perhaps, has been on TV for a couple of years but not really toured, I think that they’re going to hold off until 2023, at least.”

Ongoing challenges

The success of the family entertainment business getting back to work before other industry sectors has been an impressive achievement. But there is a bag full of spanners waiting to be thrown into the engine…

Svoldgaard, for example, says CSB is experiencing availability issues. “A lot of promoters are holding dates but not necessarily confirming venues. But it’s tricky to say ‘Okay, we are now ready to sign a contract and maybe even pay a deposit,’ especially when you have multiple artists and shows that have been moved four or five times.”

And underlining one massive dilemma that is becoming apparent throughout the touring world, he says the pandemic’s impact on crew and other essential personnel has been devastating.

“It’s a very big worry,” says Svoldgaard. “We have a tribute to Tina Turner coming in May, and I was hoping and expecting we could bring everything from the UK because I prefer to have the original production of it. But the UK producer cannot find a [crew] who can commit to being away for a couple of weeks. So we’re looking to source it locally, but it’s not easy – I’ve already had two production companies turn it down because it’s at the time of the year when the summer festivals start, so they don’t have enough equipment or manpower. I have found another production company in Denmark who can do it, but I’m a little bit worried about the pricing.”

“Even if the country itself is open, it doesn’t mean that infrastructure and the supply chain is ready”

“Challenges?” says Armstrong, citing a list. “There are weeks where you can’t make it work due to local legislation or state legislation or countries just shutting down before you can get there. And then there are the challenges of travelling people around with Covid tests, PCR, immigration, Brexit, transportation, and all that stuff.

“Even if the country itself is open, it doesn’t mean that infrastructure and the supply chain is ready. Take Australia, which hasn’t had events for a long time. Although you can get into Australia now, and you can potentially do the event and book the venue, are all your suppliers going to be ready? A lot of those suppliers have let people go, and they’re not rehiring people until events restart. If you’re one of those first events, you’re going to struggle. We know that casual staff at venues is an issue – we’ve ordered 30 vendors for our merchandise but only 12 would show up. But it’s all just part of slowly getting that big machine rolling again.”

Armstrong continues, “If you look back, there was a lot of hope this time last year. Now, it feels like there’s more than just hope: things are being put in place to enable us to move forward. So I think ‘22 will be better than ‘21. But I don’t think it’ll be fully back until mid-2023.”

“Slowly, the world will return to normal,” concurs Harlem Globetrotters’ exec Bernard. “We’re seeing it now, but it won’t be a full reopening overnight. There will be setbacks along the way but the setbacks will be shorter and less severe each time. We will get there.”


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