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Inside The O2’s ‘year of two halves’

The O2’s Steve Sayer has reflected on a “year of two halves” for the London venue in a new interview with IQ.

The 21,000-cap arena is finishing 2022 strongly following a difficult first few months, initially due to the spread of the Omicron variant and then damage caused by Storm Eunice, which caused it to close for a week in February.

“Overall, we’re really happy with the year and we’re ending on a high,” notes Sayer, The O2’s VP and general manager. “We’ve had some incredible shows but it was only 10 months ago that we were dealing with the storm ripping into the tent. We were just coming out of Covid wave number four or five with a lot of new team members and contractors, so it was a challenging start to the year.”

The venue, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this year, recovered to host a string of triumphant shows by the likes of Dua Lipa, Kendrick Lamar, Billie Eilish, Rod Stewart, Lewis Capaldi, Travis Scott, Diana Ross, Little Mix and a 10-night stint by Queen + Adam Lambert.

“I think the recovery from Covid is going to take a little bit longer than we all anticipated… It’s just the aftermath that we’re now dealing with”

“By the time we got to Queen + Adam Lambert for those 10 shows in June, Diana Ross, which was another highlight, and Billie Eilish and the Overheated climate conference, I said to the team that it felt like we were getting back into our groove – and we’ve kicked on since that point,” adds Sayer.

“I don’t think anyone anticipated coming out of the global pandemic into the economic environment that we find ourselves in, so there are plenty of headwinds. We have some challenges around the cost base that are no different to any other venue and we’re working hard to figure out how we can mitigate that, so there’s still a little bit of uncertainty ahead. But then when I look at the diary, I think it’s going to be a solid year.”

Shows lined up for 2023 include Panic! at the Disco, George Ezra, Lizzo, Tom Grennan, Michael Buble, Elton John, Sam Smith, Paramore, Maroon 5, Kiss and Iron Maiden, among others, along with a monthly residency by comedian Peter Kay that stretches all the way to 2025.

“In terms of the number of shows that are already confirmed or strong pencils, we’re exactly where we need to be,” says Sayer. “I think the recovery from Covid is going to take a little bit longer than we all anticipated. I think the C-word is pretty much done, it’s just the aftermath that we’re now dealing with.

“We know that there is still a lot of pent-up demand from the fan for tickets. Some shows are doing incredibly well and there are one or two shows that perhaps aren’t doing quite as well as they would have done in normal times, but that might be a function of ticket price and cost of living, but what we have seen is that when fans are coming into The O2, they’re still spending money.

“What I take confidence from is that at times of recession, in recent memory, it tends to be that sport and music is the stuff that people don’t want to give up on. So I feel reasonably confident, but of course we have questions about how next year will play out.”

“We’re planning to deliver a net zero show. If we can prove the model for a single night, I’m pretty sure we can scale it up and replicate it over the medium and long term”

Sayer also discusses the knock-on effects of Eilish’s multi-day climate festival Overheated, which coincided with the singer’s six-night residency at the venue. The O2 implemented various changes within the arena to reduce single use plastic, promote a plant-based menu, and better enable customers to make informed and responsible choices.

“It’s been a real catalyst for us and has stimulated at least one if not two conversations with artist management about shows next year where the act has a particular leaning towards climate activism and the climate agenda,” reveals Sayer. “Whilst we probably won’t repeat the Overheated model, we’re planning to deliver a net zero show. If we can prove the model for a single night, I’m pretty sure we can scale it up and replicate it over the medium and long term.”

Last week, The O2 became the first arena in England to achieve its Greener Arena certification thanks to its sustainability practices and commitments.

“We’ve reduced the amount of meat we’re serving around the campus with out catering partner Levy UK & Ireland, and have been developing a Green Rider,” adds Sayer. “We appointed Jamal [Chalabi] and A Greener Festival to work with us on that and turn all of those learnings from the shows we’ve been running where the artist had a real leaning towards doing the right thing when it comes to sustainability.

“We’ve brought in an energy manager and AEG Europe is soon to be appointing a director of sustainability, who will support The O2 in 2023 and give us some additional expertise in terms of building our plans. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I think both of those hires are going to be key for us.”

“We’re going to be improving our premium spaces… Our new super-club lounge concept on level 3 is going to be the best place to watch a show”

Having served as a transformative force in the venues sector ever since opening in 2007, Sayer is adamant The O2 is not about to rest on its laurels.

“It’s just about not being complacent,” he explains. “We’re going to be improving our premium spaces; we’re removing 12 suites and putting a new super-club lounge concept on level 3, which will have an incredible view of stage and is going to be the best place to watch a show.

“We’re planning a number of investments to ensure that our back of house areas are renovated and brought up to an even better standard. We’re investing in the fan experience – introducing kiosk ordering in some of our busy bar areas to try and reduce the queues – and are also planning to introduce  frictionless payment kiosks in a couple of areas. We invested in Evolv Express security scanning technology earlier this year, which continues to keep everybody safe but also ensures that fans get into the building a lot quicker.”

Sayer continues: “We’re also upgrading our Wi-Fi over the next six months and rolling out 5G across the venue because, while we don’t want fans to spend all their time on their phones, we know they want to put stuff on their social media channels and we want to give them the best experience to do that.”

 


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The O2’s Steve Sayer on the K-pop boom

The O2’s VP and general manager Steve Sayer has spoken to IQ about the global K-pop boom after the London venue was lit up pink in honour of Blackpink’s two headline shows.

The 21,000-cap venue’s iconic white tent, and entrance sign were transformed to bright pink for the South Korean girl group’s AEG-promoted concerts on 30 November and 1 December.

The O2 was an early adopter of the K-pop craze, having welcomed BTS in October 2019, who smashed a merchandise sales record previously held by the Rolling Stones. The seven-piece band went on to make history the following year by playing to 120,000 people over two nights at Wembley Stadium, promoted by Live Nation.

“We hosted BTS before most people in the UK mainstream even knew who they were,” Sayer tells IQ. “They had this phenomenal fan base, but it was still relatively cult, and when we had those two shows I remember walking into the venue that morning – it was midweek and it wasn’t a school holiday – and there was this huge queue on the square outside The O2.

“We’ve had a lot of smaller K-pop artists and Asian artists play The O2 over the last 10 years, but that event really set the standard. You now have major artists – Blackpink’s a great example – that have the capability of selling out huge venues.”

“It’s a genre that is clearly only going to grow”

Europe’s largest K-pop festival, Kpop.Flex, sold more than 70,000 tickets in 84 countries for its inaugural edition at Deutsche Bank Park in Frankfurt, Germany, in May.

Staged by K-Pop Europa in partnership with PK Events, K.Flex was due to make its UK debut at The O2 last month with acts including Winner, Pentagon and AB6IX, alongside the first-ever Kpop.Flex Awards For Emerging Artists. But the event was cancelled following the Halloween crowd crush in Itaewon, Seoul that killed 158 people. The festival, which returns to Germany from 17-18 June, will now launch in the UK from 22-24 September 2023.

“It was sad that we had to cancel the event recently, but I think everybody understood why,” notes Sayer. “But next year’s K. Flex is going to be brilliant, because there will be big headliners but it will also be an event that breaks some of the up-and-coming K-pop artists.

“In addition to K.Flex, we’ve have a number of other pencils for K-pop artists next year. It’s a genre that is clearly only going to grow and our partners on that event are very much connected with the Korean equivalent of our DCMS, which is actively using it as a way to promote Korean culture globally.”

“To mark Blackpink being the first female K-pop band to headline The O2, it was only right that the whole venue should be turned pink for the first time ever in their honour”

Blackpink recently became the first girl group to gross US$3 million (€2.9m) from a single arena concert in North America, generating $3.297m per night from their two 23,928-cap sellout shows at the Prudential Center in Newark from 14-15 November. The quartet will return to London in 2023 for their UK festival debut at BST Hyde Park on Sunday 2 July.

“We were very excited and proud to start Blackpink’s European arena tour with two historic nights at The O2 – a mere sneak peek into what they have planned for their colossal BST Hyde Park show in July 2023,” adds Simon Jones, SVP of International Touring at AEG Presents. “To mark Blackpink being the first female K-pop band to headline The O2, it was only right that the whole venue should be turned pink for the first time ever in their honour. Iconic!”

Meanwhile, Billboard‘s newly published Year in Touring places BTS as the 27th highest-grossing tour of 2022, generating US$75,489,240 from 458,144 ticket sales for just 11 shows.

BTS’ record label Big Hit Music announced in October that the K-pop superstars were moving forward with plans to fulfil their mandatory military service, ending a long-running debate in Korea over whether they should receive an exemption due to their artistic accomplishments.

 


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The O2 enhances sustainability measures

The O2 in London has announced a series of new sustainability measures as it prepares to host multi-day climate festival Overheated.

Overheated is set to take place across six days  – 10-12, 16 and 25-26 June – during Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever, The World Tour dates at the AEG-operated venue.

The O2 will be implementing various changes within the arena to reduce single use plastic, promote a plant-based menu, and better enable customers to make informed and responsible choices. Working with the singer and her tour team on their Green Rider, it has committed to going 100% vegan on all available food items for the six shows,

Following Eilish’s residency, The O2 will continue with a plant-forward philosophy, which will see the concession stand staple ‘beef burger’ being removed from the menu permanently.

“We’re proud to be leading the charge as a company”

“Finding ways to make both our venues across Europe and worldwide, as well as the wider live entertainment industry, more sustainable has never been more important,” says AEG Europe COO John Langford. “We’re proud to be leading the charge as a company to help find and trial innovative solutions and help reduce our impact on the planet.”

Throughout The O2 arena, the venue will be installing several water dispensers for fans to easily access on their visit, thereby reducing the need for plastic water bottles. Visitors to the arena will be encouraged to bring soft, reusable water bottles which will need to be emptied prior to entry and fully collapsible.

The O2 is also taking strides to reduce the amount of single-use plastic used in the arena moving forwards and has committed to using recyclable paper cups in all areas of the arena, including backstage. It has also removed all plastic bags from merchandise units and is implementing fabric wristbands made from 100% recycled PET plastic for standing arena attendees for the first time this month.

“As one of the world’s leading venues, it’s important that we help drive industry change in the space of sustainability”

“We’re so proud to be taking real strides this month to becoming an even more sustainable venue here at The O2,” says Steve Sayer, the 21,000-cap venue’s VP & general manager. “Going fully vegan in the arena for six sold out show dates with Billie Eilish is no small task and is something that we know will really resonate with fans attending the shows.

“The reduction in single use plastic in The O2 arena is another huge step forward for us, as we work towards our A Greener Arena accreditation, and ultimately one day towards becoming net zero as a venue. As one of the world’s leading venues, it’s important that we help drive industry change in the space of sustainability and show that we can all make a difference, whilst continuing to still provide a best-in-class experience for the fans and artists.”

Through its partnership with catering partner Levy, The O2 is also working with Klimato to calculate, communicate and report the climate impact of the food available for fans to purchase. Levy has committed to reaching net zero at the arena by 2025 – an integral part of The O2’s overall strategy to hit net zero.

The O2 and AEG Europe are currently working with A Greener Festival on establishing an accurate scientific baseline for scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions before publishing its full plan for net zero later this year.

 


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The O2’s Steve Sayer on arena’s ‘fantastic’ return

The O2’s Steve Sayer is tipping 2023 to be an even bigger year for live music as the business edges back towards normality following the Covid shutdown.

The 20,000-cap, AEG-operated London venue, which hosted the UK’s annual BRIT Awards on 8 February, reopened last Friday with a concert by UB40 featuring Ali Campbell after being closed for a week due to damage caused by Storm Eunice.

And despite the industry enduring a slightly slow start to Q1 due to the spread of the Omicron variant, the arena’s VP and GM tells IQ it is now all systems go.

“The BRITs was really the kickstart for us at The O2,” says Sayer, who succeeded John Langford in the role in 2018. “A week or so later, we were naturally concerned about whether the impact [of the storm damage] was going to go on longer than we thought, but it’s just getting busier and busier from here on in.

“We’re getting back to what The O2 has done for many years, which is six or seven shows a week, back-to-back, for the next few weeks. Dave doing two shows this week has been fantastic – a London artist coming through and headlining his first two shows at The O2 was a major milestone – but we’ve got many more to come.”

Superstar artists set to play the venue in the coming months include Stormzy, Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa, Queen + Adam Lambert and Alicia Keys, while Justin Bieber, Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne and Shawn Mendes are already announced for next year.

“A lot of rescheduled events from the last couple of years have dropped into this year, but we’ve got new shows getting announced all the time and Q4 looks strong,” says Sayer. “It’s been difficult getting dates, not just at The O2, but across the board, and we’ve also got a lot of content already lined up for 2023.

“I think 2023 is probably going to be a bigger year than 2022. We all thought that ’22 would be the record year and the recovery year, and I still think it’ll be a really strong year in terms of the event count and the calibre of the artists playing. But hopefully, from here on in, we’re looking at 18 to 24 months of really strong, bumper content.”

On 18 February, an estimated 1,000 people were evacuated from the Greenwich complex, which also boasts the Up at The O2 attraction, the Icon Outlet shopping centre, a cinema and the 2,800-cap Indigo at The O2, after one of the worst storms to hit the UK in decades ripped a hole in the venue’s iconic roof.

Two shows by Dave set for 21-22 February were rescheduled for the following week but, despite initial concerns, all other gigs in the main arena have been able to proceed as planned.

“We’re in the events business and the one thing we’re great at is keeping the show on the road”

“It was a huge relief to be back up and running after various lockdowns and the impact of that on the arena for the best part of two years,” reflects Sayer. “So to then get the call that part of the tent had torn in the wind wasn’t the best news to get on a Friday,” says Sayer. “At that point, we really didn’t know how long it was going to take, but it was a monumental team effort.

“We had to move on our feet for the first 24 to 36 hours to really understand what it was we were dealing with. But by the Sunday, we were confident that we would be at least partially open within a week if we could create a safe passage for fans using Entrance H, because it was around that area where the roof has been damaged.”

He continues: “We brought in a number of construction experts and structural engineer expertise right away and worked to make the site safe and get back open within just under a week, which was an incredible achievement and a massive tonic for us all.

“There was always going to be speculation that it could be longer and we took a lot of calls from a number of very worried promoters and agents asking, ‘What’s happening with our show? Can you confirm it’s definitely going ahead?’ And we were able to reassure all of those clients quite quickly that it wouldn’t be a long closure, because the arena hasn’t been impacted at all, we just needed to create that safe passage. Fans coming to the Dave shows on Monday and Tuesday experienced that for the first time and it worked pretty well.

“We got a lot of messages of support from across the industry – and some practical support from Dave’s team, who actually had to move two other shows to accommodate moving the two shows at The O2, so I’d like to place on record my thanks to everybody involved in that.”

Other upcoming events over the next couple of weeks include Simply Red (2-3 March), The Lumineers (4 March), Davido (5 March) and the return of the Country to Country festival (11-13 March).

“Fundamentally, we’re in the events business and the one thing we’re great at is keeping the show on the road,” adds Sayer. “After the past couple of years, it was imperative that we did that and everybody at The O2 pulled together to make happen.”

 


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Steve Sayer succeeds John Langford as the O2 GM

The O2, the world’s most popular live entertainment venue, will enter 2019 with a new general manager.

Steve Sayer, formerly the O2’s commercial director, will become its GM and vice-president from January, succeeding former GM/VP John Langford, who was recently named COO of AEG Europe.

Sayer’s promotion is accompanied by two other appointments: The O2 operations director Danielle Kennedy-Clark is promoted to deputy GM, while Gavin Brind becomes finance director, replacing AEG Europe’s new CFO, Paul Reeve.

“I’m delighted to be announcing that Steve, Danielle and Gavin will be leading the O2 from January,” comments Langford. “Their combined experience in managing this incredible venue, working alongside the senior leadership team, means that the world’s busiest arena will continue to flourish.”

“I’m excited to be leading the venue as we further develop the customer experience and our programme”

Sayer joined the O2 in 2014 as commercial director, overseeing ticketing operations, merchandising, food and beverage, and corporate sales, along with exhibition content and overseeing roof-walk attraction Up at the O2.

Kennedy-Clark joined the O2 at venue manager in 2010, before being promoted to operations director in 2017. Brind, meanwhile, joined AEG in 2012 and has been deputy finance director since 2017.

“The O2 continues to set the benchmark for the music and entertainment industry in every respect,” adds Sayer. “I’m excited to be leading the venue as we further develop the customer experience and our programme, finding new ways to delight the millions of fans who visit the O2 every year”.

The O2 was once again the world’s top arena by ticket sales in 2017, selling more than 1.44 million tickets compared to Madison Square Garden’s 1.17m.

 


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