Leadership / 10.06.21
Australia’s Ticketing Pros Weigh in on Getting Over the COVID-19 Hump
Back in my schoolyard days, my friends and I used to get involved in that age-old debate: “My dad can beat your dad!” In the pandemic era, too often the debate in grown-up circles has unfortunately been: “My country’s lockdowns will beat your country’s lockdowns!”
Australia hasn’t been messing around when it comes to COVID-19, and it’s taken a toll on the ticketing and live events industry. In Australia, COVID-19 restrictions are imposed by the government in each state and territory, which means that different parts of the nation have been and are currently subject to different restrictions. For example, concerts, sports and performing arts are presently running in South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania, as these states remain relatively COVID-19-free. But other parts of the country are subject to capacity limits and full-on lockdowns.
Angela Higgins, Managing Director of Antix Management, says, “We seem to be a little out of sync with the rest of the world in relation to the impact of COVID-19. The common feeling here in Sydney is that we did the hard part easy, and now we are doing the easy part hard. We were fortunate to experience very low infection rates across the country for most of 2020, which allowed us to recommence major events from late 2020 to early 2021, with productions of “Frozen,” “Come From Away,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and “Hamilton,” among others hitting the stage in Sydney and Melbourne. Sadly, the Delta variant outbreak in June 2021 saw all major events in Sydney and Melbourne paused as both cities were placed back into lockdown.”
Amy Maiden, Managing Partner of Anthem (formerly AKA Australia), says, “I’ve had multiple clients delay and/or cancel seasons not because the state isn’t allowing performances, but because they can’t get their casts into the state due to closed borders and interstate quarantine laws making things cost prohibitive.”
Jo Michel, Client Relationship and Venue Hire Manager at Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, says, “Australia is reliant on touring product to make events possible. Promoters need to be able to play across the country to achieve profitability. The situation in Australia is that each state regulates their own rules around reopening. And Queensland has been very strict about keeping the border closed to other states where there are higher infection rates and have set rules about quarantine if entering Queensland from designated hotspots, which are currently all of New South Wales and Victoria. This makes it very difficult to maintain a tour as, without Sydney and Melbourne venues in consideration, it isn’t viable.”
She continues, “With international borders closed, we are completely reliant on local product, most of which originates in Sydney and Melbourne for music, comedy, large-scale musicals and theatre. We’ve been relying on local product for 18 months supplemented with artists who have been granted exemptions to enter Queensland [provided they first] stay in 14 days’ quarantine. This, of course, adds a huge cost to the tour.”
Sydney, New South Wales, and Melbourne, Victoria, are Australia’s two largest markets, and both are indeed currently in lockdown. This means no live events are currently being presented at all. “Once certain vaccination targets are met, the New South Wales and Victorian governments have flagged live events [as being allowed to] resume with restricted capacity,” says Kim Tran, Director of Policy and Governance for Live Performance Australia. “Greater capacity will be permitted once a higher proportion of the population is vaccinated.”
All four professionals interviewed for this article concur that removing capacity limits are imperative for live events to return. But other steps need to be taken. “Removing capacity restrictions for live events would provide producers and promoters with immense confidence to resume activities,” Tran says. “At the same time, it’s really important that interstate and international border restrictions are lifted. Many live events are only viable if they can tour nationally, and some states/territories are highly dependent upon product or talent from other Australian jurisdictions. Therefore, the current international and interstate border restrictions make national touring challenging. The live entertainment industry will only be able to recover when there is free movement between borders.
In Australia, geography alone makes it extremely expensive to present a tour. Higgins, who is also co-producer of the Ticketing Professionals Conference Australia, says, “When you need to absorb additional costs associated with quarantine and other COVID-19 safety measures, together with an Aussie dollar that currently converts to US$0.72, the high costs and low margins put enormous pressure on ticket prices. We have already seen several clients postpone major events by months — and, in some cases, years — to avoid the possibility of having capacity restrictions imposed on their events.”
Events that also receive revenue from broadcast rights have proven to be less vulnerable. Consequently, many sporting events have been able to push forward with limited capacities or, in some cases, without live audiences entirely.
All four interviewees have had to deal with challenges over the last year and a half that none of them ever dreamed they’d have to face when starting out in this business. The pandemic months have taken their toll, for sure, but each has remained resilient.
“There’s no one challenge that has stood out,” Maiden says. “It’s the exhaustion of the compounding little battles we’ve all been facing. Not just the hundreds of canceled events and the rescheduling of thousands of tickets, but the hours of Zoom, the infinite layers of additional communication needed when you’re not in a room together, the extra energy and drive it takes to motivate a team who’ve presented hundreds of variations of plans, only to throw them out and start again … and again.”
She adds, “While there are definite lessons I’ve learned about working from home that I will want to retain as we move forward, I miss being with my team and my clients in a room together. I miss that kinetic energy that can only come when you’re throwing ideas around in person. And, of course, I miss that moment when you’re standing at a gig, waiting for your favorite artist to come on stage, the lights suddenly go down, and the crowd around you roars as one. I miss all of it.”
Michel, who also serves as Director of the Ticketing Professionals Conference Australia, called out the continued and often confounding government intervention that has kept her and her colleagues on their toes. “The most difficult aspect has been the constant changeability in regulations,” she says. “The snap lockdowns and ongoing border closures mean that, every day, we are faced with a potential cancellation or reschedule due to something that happens elsewhere. Even today [Note: This interview was conducted in late September], we were given five hours’ notice that Brisbane was going back to Stage 2 restrictions, which limits audience capacity at 75%, [and] customers must be seated to consume food or beverages.”
Tran agrees, saying, “It has been challenging getting government to understand what the live entertainment industry needs, whether it be removal of restrictions or financial support, to survive the pandemic and reactivate activities. In addition, it has been challenging keeping up to date with COVID-19 restrictions across all Australian states and territories, particularly given the frequency with which they keep changing.”
So, what steps would each interviewee like to see government take to help their business? Australia’s federal government has already injected more than A$200 million into the arts and entertainment sectors, funding the creation and development of projects and supporting events impacted by COVID-19. Tran, though, insists more can be done. “The industry really needs a government-backed live entertainment events insurance scheme. There is a serious lack of business confidence, particularly with presenting large-scale events, because of the risk that the event could be shut down at the last minute or restrictions are re-imposed. An insurance scheme would significantly boost industry confidence to plan and book tours and live events. It would offset risks associated with event cancellations or business interruption.”
Maiden agrees. “I’ve seen reports of government subsidized insurance schemes for live events in Europe,” she says, “and Australia absolutely needs to be looking in that direction if we are to return our industries to being able to operate with long term sustainability. Before COVID-19 hit, Australia’s live performance industry was annually generating A$2.2 billion in ticket sales and attracting more than 26 million people to shows in capital cities, regional centers and country towns.”
Higgins, for one, wants more credit and recognition: “I would really like to see a clearer path back to live events and an acknowledgement of the enormous contribution our industry makes to the economy and to the cultural fabric of our country. Just prior to COVID-19, our country was devastated by bushfires. It was the artists, venues, production crews and companies that dedicated their time and energy to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to provide support and relief. During lockdown, artists devoted time and energy to create and distribute content to keep us entertained and uplifted. We have invested enormous amounts of time, money and resources into developing COVID-19-safe practices for live events. We now need the opportunity to proceed.”
Perhaps Maiden sums it up best. “It is my sincere hope that we will be able to move to a more national approach with things opening up over the summer here,” she says. “It’s a boom time for events, tourism and live entertainment, and Australians are desperate to get out and about again. The live events industry has the potential to be at the heart of our nation’s economic and cultural recovery, but we will need some insurance and support to do so.”
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Tags: Venues , Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus