Leadership / 06.22.22
O Canada, Thy Ticketing Professionals Still Stand on Guard for COVID-19
Back in November, we reported here on Canada’s slow, methodical reopening with the first COVID-19 vaccines being made available and restrictions being lifted on live events and the overall movement of the masses. On Aug. 9, 2021, Canada began permitting fully vaccinated Americans to enter the country again. Nearly a month later on Sept. 7, 2021, Canada expanded that reopening to include fully vaccinated visitors from other nations. Two months later, on Nov. 8, 2021, the United States started permitting fully vaccinated foreign nationals to cross the land border from Canada for nonessential purposes. That meant concerts, sporting events and so forth.
So months later and halfway through 2022, how has the Canadian reopening gone? We talked to several people interviewed for that first article and others to get the lowdown. Among them is Alan Moffat, Ticket Operations and Customer Relations Manager for The Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.
“I can only speak to what has happened in Ontario since things have varied in each province,” he says. “In Ontario, we had an initial reopening in the fall of 2021. However, we were shut down in December due to the rise in the omicron variant. We were able to return to live events by mid-March, with vaccine and mask requirements in place. Since mid-March, live events have come back with a bang! Our venues, Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall, have been extremely busy with a mix of shows postponed during the pandemic and newly booked events.”
Hayley Chapman, Senior Director — Ticket Operations & Administration for Toronto-based Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE), is equally optimistic. But she struck a note of caution, saying, “It has been incredible to have restrictions lifted and to welcome our fans back. While exciting news, it was/is paramount that we continue to do everything to keep our staff and fans safe and because of that, we continue to lean on local health guidelines. We had a gradual opening. We went from socially distanced; to 25%; then 50%; and, finally, back to full capacity.
Alison O’Keefe Wiebe, head of Ticket Sales, Marketing and Sponsorship for the Cavalry Football Club in Calgary, has been heartened to see that “the consumer appetite is definitely still there. I have seen a flood of events coming through Calgary now that the going is good. NHL playoffs, Calgary Stampede, live shows and concerts are or were all at full capacity. Now, it’s up to us as promoters to cut through the noise and gain new fans. We are lucky in sports to have season ticket holders as our base. The biggest challenge we face is bringing in the casual fan when there are so many options now to spend entertainment dollars.”
One challenge that she and many of her colleagues have embraced is how to use technology to fill gaps where staff were used before. Online RSVP systems, scanning pedestals and migrating most, if not all, previously printed material to the web have all been the product of the last two years.
Another challenge has been getting people comfortable with attending events in person again and feeling safe to do so. Alan Forsyth, Director of Sales & Audience Services at Mirvish Productions, says, “In Toronto, I'd say 95% of venues are at full capacity. Most have done away with vaccine requirements, and some have dropped masks but do strongly suggested them. Our venues are still asking for masks to be worn at all times — for the time being — which the vast majority of patrons appreciate.”
And just as the pandemic has changed attending live sports, concerts and other entertainments possibly forever, it has also changed the people involved. Among them is Moffat, who concedes that the biggest challenge for him personally has been “managing the volume of work everyone on my team has had to deal with over the past few months. We have had a tremendous amount of show activity and on-sales. The volume of customer service has also been much greater than normal, especially with lots of questions and concerns regarding COVID-19. While it’s been exciting to finally get back to having live events, ensuring everyone has balanced workload and managing stress levels has been very challenging.”
Forsyth agrees, adding that his greatest test has been “getting used to being more flexible with everything — staff, patrons, cancellations, exchange rules. Being flexible has made things a lot easier to navigate our new reality.”
Melissa O'Shea, Box Office Manager for the Royal and McPherson Theatres Society, says one major before-and-after difference “has been navigating the different mindset of customers and event organizers. When you are in an established industry with some pretty clear-cut rules and policies, it is tough to pivot to a softer approach. It can be a concern that people are taking advantage of COVID-19 rules to get something they would normally not be allowed.”
Back to sports, Chapman notes that employee training and leading new staff through a major shift in responsibilities have been among her biggest challenges. “As I alluded to in the original interview, the pandemic has resulted in many people shifting to new industries,” she says. “We onboarded new staff during a pandemic, which allowed us to train in a meaningful way. But once we got capacity confirmed, our worlds changed significantly. Adapting [and] learning on the fly at a high speed is never ideal, but the team has done a phenomenal job.”
Linda Poulton, Box Office Manager at Ticket Atlantic in Nova Scotia, says her hope is that all concerned will be successful in keeping COVID-19 “in the background” as much as possible, while still respecting the virus’s potential harm. Looking ahead, she says, “We have already seen many people wanting to go back to a less restricted world with more life, fun and entertainment, so I think there is the potential for a boom!”
Fortunately, we have the benefit of interviewing each of these professionals near the end of 2022’s first half. So, like Poulton, do they have any predictions for ticketing and live events in the second half of this year?
Chapman was quick to answer: “Buckle up! I think the next few years in the event industry are going to be busy. Fans want to be back watching their teams and dancing to their favorite artist. Coming out of the pandemic, I predict we will see a shift in fan preferences, wanting more purchase flexibility and committing last minute to events. Our technology landscape is changing, as well. In general, fans have adapted well to a more mobile-driven experience as the world shifted to virtual. There are more solutions and opportunities to create a more enhanced fan journey.”
Wiebe struck a note of vigilance. Speaking from experience, she says, “Preparing for uncertainty will keep you up at night. Even though things seem to be on the upward swing, we as ticketers still need to have Plans A, B and C ready to go. Working more with less seems to be fairly consistent among my peers nationwide. We use interns to help throughout the season. Delegating while maintaining control can be challenging. But learning to trust and letting go is now required!”
O’Shea says, “I think the amount of events going on sale will slow down. I think event organizers are realizing that there is still a bit of uncertainty about events being able to happen, and that they need to take a bit of a breath. We are still seeing events postpone or cancel because a band member has COVID. But I am really encouraged by the enthusiasm with which the audiences are enjoying the events and feel confident in our ability to manage anything that comes our way.”
Forsyth perhaps spoke for all in concluding, “I am hoping the rest of 2022 is more openings [and] no more closing or restrictions. But as we've learned over the past two-plus years, it’s hard to predict the future. So, fingers crossed!”
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Tags: Leadership , Canada