Commercial Director at Ricoh Arena talks about surviving the pendemic.

Date: 5 Jan 2021

As the events industry waits for the roll out of the vaccine programme, Ricoh Arena’s Commercial Director, Paul Michael reveals measures that have been put in place to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, considers what the new normal will look like for events, as well as the crucial role that venues have to play in the sector’s resurgence. 

Like a lot of other venues, we saw our scheduled events postponed virtually overnight in late March, and had the task of mapping out a blueprint of how we were going to navigate a period of lockdown that had no obvious end.

We usually host around 1,500 conferences and exhibitions a year - and as the news of the first lockdown broke - there was a mass frenzy and a key priority was to adopt regular communications with our event organisers to review the situation on a monthly basis.

A flexible approach to supporting event organisers during the pandemic sounds obvious, but it’s a vital ingredient to ensure that venues and events can remain viable in the long-term and have open and honest conversations with each other to understand what support will be effective.

We’ve had to adapt our commercial terms for event organisers to ensure they can weather this storm and come back stronger in the future. Historically, strict diary management has been crucial but having the flexibility to move dates and give organisers dates that they wanted to make their show run is something we’ve started to do.

We also have a number of multi-year deals, so what event organisers have done over the past nine months is to move it back into the same date for the following year and extended the last year. That flexibility has played a crucial part for us as a venue.

We’ve looked at every inch of space within the venue to try and diversify the business, and upon reflection, we are adapting our mindset on how we market the venue to demonstrate how it is possible for us to support the events industry safely during and after the Covid pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic we used to market the venue as having 6,000 square metres of indoor event space, when in reality when you take into account the car parks and offices, we actually have around 40,000 square metres of event space - which is perfect for socially-distanced events rather than having multiple events happening at once.

Between March and November we’ve had more than 20 different bookings of our space - all of which have either been behind closed doors or received backing from government. This has played a crucial role alongside the furlough scheme in helping the venue to continue meeting Ricoh Arena’s operational costs.

The on-site hotel that we have means we have been able to provide a bubble environment for behind-closed-doors sports to continue. Since the start of October we have hosted BoyleSports World Grand Prix, The 2020 Unibet Premier League Play-Offs, BetVictor Weber Cup, BoyleSports Grand Slam of Darts and the party poker Mosconi Cup. 

Our outdoor space has been the busiest it has ever been.

Since March there’s been an NHS drive-in Covid testing centre on site, and a plasma donation centre has recently opened in some of Ricoh Arena’s office space. We also hosted a drive-in Christmas pantomime in the car park in December, and other logistics businesses have been using our outdoor space to help with their operations to meet the boom in online shopping, which is being driven by more people staying at home for longer.

From a venue perspective, every inch of space is going to count in the future in an age where it’s likely that when events are allowed to resume, social distancing is going to be a priority for event organisers to help rebuild people’s confidence. 

Every venue is unique in what it can offer, and some will find it more difficult than others to bring revenue in, but it is about being creative. I know, for example, that some venues have gone down the route of hosting filming and production.

Covid and the rise of video conferencing will undoubtedly change working practices too. Although our directors haven’t physically met in a room for nine months, it hasn’t affected productivity and has taught us that the office is now a virtual term that has no boundaries.

Technology will naturally impact the events industry, too, but not in a detrimental way as I think we will see the acceleration of hybrid events where digital channels will enable event organisers to expand their audience reach beyond physical attendees. 

I think the events industry will see a full recovery, but it’s going to take time because people need to build confidence, so I think it’s likely that the upward trajectory will be a gradual one.

Cost efficiency will also play a key part for event organisers post pandemic, and using technology for certain aspects of their shows to reduce cost will no doubt become a rising trend in order for them to slowly recover - but I don’t believe we will see a wholesale shift to virtual events.

As soon as we come out of lockdown and emerge from this pandemic, venues are going to have to sell to their event organisers with a Covid strategy in place. Event organisers used to ask about the capacity of a room, now it’s about what space will be available to safely accommodate a set number of people, and venues advising event organisers what Covid-secure protocols they will need to follow.

With one eye on the future, we will be introducing Covid mitigation sessions with organisers of all of our future events - where we will run them through what the latest guidelines are and how this will impact on their show.

It’s great that the vaccine has now been approved, and will undoubtedly give the events industry a morale boost - which will prompt venues and event organisers to start planning for events again in the medium to long term - but this needs to be done cautiously as the timings around any return to normality are so uncertain.

There will inevitably be a myriad of checks for event organisers to go through as we emerge out of the pandemic, and this is where venues such as ourselves can really play our part to ensure these events are delivered safely so that this partial re-opening is something we as an events industry can build on.

Venues will also need to take a risk of making a nominal profit - or simply breaking even - on events that they are hosting in the early days of a post pandemic era, just to get the industry moving again. In many ways, the industry is going to have to hit the reset button and start from zero.