None of us could prepare for a global pandemic, and no industry was safe from its ripple effects, small or large. While it wasn’t the most successful time for the events industry particularly, Covid has completely transformed the accessibility of events.
SXSW, one of the most engaging physical festivals on creativity in the world, was able to flip their proposition digitally to great success. They created a bespoke platform, with multiple channels and ways to communicate with speakers and guests, all for under £200.
With this new format, it enabled access to a whole new audience, from people’s homes all over the world.
A new wealth of opportunities have been unlocked for us to harness the full potential of an innovative and constantly evolving industry. With change comes new challenges, and we need to meet the shifting demands with the right skills, attitudes and strategies, if the live events and experiences industry – and our careers within it – are to survive.
PRODUCTION COSTS AND THE TRICKLE DOWN EFFECT
Costs of production are steep. This has a trickle-down effect for the consumer across tickets, food and drinks in venues, travel and so on. Audiences will therefore be more selective as to what they attend. Young people who want to go to festivals perhaps now can’t afford it, which changes the profile of people attending festivals, and coming-of-age experiences become luxury fodder.
I believe festivals and other cultural events are massive rights of passage, a place to find your community and honour your sense of self which should be available for all. We can make events more accessible financially by considering the needs of those we want to attend. Inge Huijbrechts suggests ‘giving some access at a reduced fee, or free, to local youth or local colleges, or other groups of young people’ to combat this.
The increased costs of event production also means that business models remain extremely fragile and high risk. Those running events might not be considering how risky their business model is and corners can be cut to devastating and life-changing effect. One only has to watch Trainwreck: Woodstock 99 to know about that, let alone the recent atrocities of Fyre Festival and Astro World.
It’s worth considering that most of the ticket sales for a festival now go on production and line-up. Festivals make money from their bar sales primarily. Think of that when we know Gen Z are more into mushrooms than £12 rum and cokes. The number of festivals and events has excelled since the boom of the experience economy, making production, tools and labour harder to contract.
CREATING AN AUTHENTIC CULTURE OF ALLYSHIP AND ADVOCACY
Another key issue with events which is close to my heart is diversity, not just in festivals but in talks, panel discussions and any curated event. It’s unacceptable in 2022 to be an operating venue, community space or establishment without robust diversity, inclusion and accessibility requirements. To be frank, it’s lazy, which suggests to me a lack of diverse thinking in the teams building events and experiences in the first place and a severe lack of diversity in those teams.
I’m not the only one to think so. Research from Radisson Meetings found that 80% of event planners demonstrated that a policy of inclusivity is an important consideration when selecting a venue.
The kickback from not having such a policy is that we all get less global, less intersectional and less urgent storytelling, through music, dance, or theatre as well as the lack of representation that ultimately creates a barrier to entry for those wanting to work in the creative industries. Research by Beatportal found that 82% of artists at mainstream dance music festivals in 2019 were male, 76% were white, while 14% were Black and 18% were female. Only 0.5% were trans.
As a person of colour I’ve experienced years of suggestions and ideas being scrutinised under being too niche if they support people from minority groups, particularly pre-BLM. I’ve often had to almost hyper-defend decisions to prove that there is an audience and these conversations are relevant. Events folk, like everyone, need to feel fully empowered to embrace change, embrace wokeness, get on board with what feels like restless opinions, embrace anti-racism, and support their Queer, Trans and BIPOC communities and those with physical and neurodiverse considerations. Don’t guess, ask. And listen and inform your choices from there. Queer-led spaces unshockingly have embraced these issues with aplomb. The Queer Film festival announced several additions to its cinema programming to be more accessible and inclusive, including improved signed screenings, chill-out spaces for those feeling overwhelmed, greater wheelchair accessibility in its selected venues and much more. The same ideas and general thoughtfulness can be seen at Greenwich’s Queercircle space. All-day raves like Body Movements in Hackney and the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre in Bermondsey too. Sex positive parties like Crossbreed and Klub Verboten have worked tirelessly to forge anti-harassment community principles, rigorously upheld in venues to keep their scenes and those within it safe, even successfully campaigning against local council measures to keep their highly relevant spaces open to all.
I think, like many industries in the creative world, the events and experiences industry broadly speaking does not take criticism well. We are a sensitive bunch working tirelessly to (generally) create, awe, wonder, spectacle and memories and the art of creating a positive memory is a truly magical thing. However, we are so quickly and easily onto the next and we are all hooked on the adrenaline that events offer – you need to sell out your next event whilst the one you just planned is still happening. Without feedback and communication, there’s ultimately no growth and things will stay the same. Issues such as a lack of diversity and inclusion won’t have the space to be discussed and actioned on. Opening up communication and equal opportunities for feedback can lead to the development of an authentic and inclusive culture, as well as further development of skills and careers. Diversity and inclusion needs to be in every part of the project, absolutely not performative through advertising and content.
THE INDUSTRY AND INDIVIDUALS NEED TO EMBRACE DIGITAL
Digitisation has opened up the events industry, preventing events from being gatekept by logistics, financial accessibility and social barriers, but that’s not the only benefit. Technical producers will be the experience millionaires of the future as the main provocateurs executing increasingly complex creative visions while driving huge amounts of global traffic. We don’t all need to have a technical mindset, but having a macro-level understanding of the potential of digital events, live streaming, in-app propositions, VR and more, could be incredibly valuable for the future. We can already see a rise in ‘live video shopping’ in the retail space, for example.
Immersive theatre is also no longer niche, pushed along by Punchdrunk, Shunt, Secret Cinema, and other more experimental dance performers like Studio Wayne Mcgregor and most recently Ivan Michael Blackstock’s Traplord. Moving experiences from the passive viewing to the immersive pushed up the expectations for guests. Consumer expectations are increasing. Making a clay mug for half an hour with a Spotify playlist in the background is considered ‘immersive’ for some in the industry. It’s fun, it’s great for skill learning and community building, but is it immersive? I’m not sure.
If you want to be successful in events then I advise you make it personal. This is where events can learn from hospitality, a space known for making people feel special as standard. I feel the rise of community management roles across the industry is a way to support that gap between what’s happening within an experience, who might be involved and how everyone feels suitably cared for.
More brands, especially in the entertainment sector, are building experiences to keep fans happy in between seasons. I see Jurassic World and the new Stranger Things experience as event-come-theme park attractions being more and more commonplace as part of marketing strategies and campaigns, enjoyable by audiences young and old, plus lots of shareable content to boot.
TURN IDEAS TO ACTION
To be on the top of your game in any area, you need to actively engage with grassroots culture. Every year I go to as many BA and MA art shows as I can. I’m interested in seeing themes in the ideas that other people, mostly younger than me, are interested in talking about. I personally get a huge amount from talking to new people. Someone once called me a collector of interesting people and it’s a beautiful compliment. Other people are vastly more interesting than me. I want to listen to you – then use that thinking to shape something new or, even better, collaborate on building that thing together. Events and experience folk also need to constantly practise getting out of their comfort zone, because an event that’s fully in a comfort zone, is likely to be a bit dull.
Covid allowed us to reflect on the lifestyle we had become accustomed to, to the status and the glamour or security that it might have held to. It all suddenly evaporated. It became very clear how little government support was available to those working in events. This has carved out a call for change. The experience economy is worth billions to the global economy. Don’t believe me? It’s been projected to become a $12 billion dollar industry by 2023. Money talks. Events, though they may seem all about distraction and entertainment, bring a hell of a lot of joy to people’s lives. It’s time that was recognised in a cohesive way.
SO HOW DO WE FACE THE FUTURE?
Tell diverse and inclusive stories. Make them front page. Don’t be afraid to challenge audiences. Properly consider all of those enjoying your events. Make it accessible. Support the creatives you work with and pay them properly (and on time), so they can thrive and make new amazing things happen. Cultivate joy, bring people together.
Probably start the project about three weeks earlier than you think you should. If there’s not enough budget, run. Thrive off the adrenalin, but don’t get addicted to it. Have a rest, repeat the above until the last curtain call. The final sweep of that now sweat-and-glitter-soaked floor, and that pesky disco ball is back in its warehouse lock-up, where it belongs.