What It Takes to Run a Successful Event During COVID-19
March marks the anniversary of the initial COVID-19 outbreak, and with it, the global lockdown that has since strained almost every aspect of the live entertainment industry.
This past year has taught us a lot. We now have a better understanding of the virus and can continue living our lives despite it. From this, gathering restrictions across the country have loosened to varying degrees, providing promoters and producers with the opportunity to experiment with and create new profitable methods of organizing worthwhile events during this pandemic.
As it turns out, there are several ways you can run a successful event during COVID, but no matter how you go about it, there are three critical challenges unique to the times that must be overcome.
1.Ensuring the safety of everyone involved
2.Effectively communicating new safety protocols
3.Making the whole thing make sense financially
Safety of Everyone Involved
Safety has always been a top concern for event producers, even before the pandemic. But now, there is an even greater importance on having robust safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus and adhere to state and local guidelines. Peter Gross, founder of Coalition Entertainment and Entertainment Director for Unknown Ventures, has been in the live entertainment industry for years and has managed to organize a handful of events this past year successfully. He echoes this sentiment.
“The biggest challenge first and foremost is making sure that if you are going to be producing an event, that you are producing it in a safe and responsible manner. That’s the biggest challenge whether you’re talking about doing a drive-in show or a TV talk show,” Gross said.
Promoters need to be flexible to make events like drive-in shows and limited-capacity concerts work. Because venues are also navigating fluctuating rules and regulations, each event requires a unique approach formed in collaboration with the hosting venues. Having the ability to plan on your toes allows promoters to produce safety-compliant events anywhere in the country.
When it comes to enforcing the procedures set in place by the promoter or venue, Gross says how that’s done on the day of the show varies based on the venue's discretion.
"I’ve seen venues and different events take different stances. Certainly, when someone walks into an event, you’ve got to be following the right protocol. Temperature checks and wearing a mask when you walk in, having hand sanitizer available, and all that. But once you’re in the event, people are doing their thing," Gross said. "Some venues that we work with are like, 'Yeah, we will very strictly and very bluntly tell people that if they are not following the protocol, they need to or they will be kicked out.' Other places that we work with are like, 'Hey, we have security around, and we’ll tell people, but it’s not our place ultimately to step in and forcefully remove people if they don’t want to follow the rules.’"
How safety regulations are enforced is mainly up to the state government and mayor. It’s important to keep in mind that event managers may risk their reputation if things end up going bad. Last year, organizers in the New York state faced immense backlash for an outdoor Chainsmokers concert in the Hamptons, where patrons failed to adhere to social distancing guidelines. The organizers were hit with a fat fine of $20,000.
While the CDC recommends that no events take place at all, as they of course raise the risk of transmission, they still offer great advice on what can be done to host a public gathering or event that is as safe as possible. Fully understanding what risks are associated with throwing an event can make all the difference when it comes to making it as safe as possible.
So moral of the story, make a plan and do what you can.
Effectively Communicating New Safety Protocols
Ensuring that information regarding these safety protocols is communicated to all parties involved is one way event promoters can directly impact their success and adherence.
Getting the word out about how the show will go down has always been an essential task for any event. Still, since we're all writing our pandemic-proof event playbook from scratch, everyone involved with production is looking to the organizers to call the shots.
"Whether it be the artist, the manager, to the agent, everyone wants to understand how this event is occurring and what precautions we are taking," Gross said.
(Needless to say, your email and phone may be a little busier than usual. Although, we know that can be hard to believe.)
In addition to keeping staff in the loop, informing event attendees in advance is a different task on its own. Even when organizing a large event or festival in normal times, attendee communications had their challenges. It's essential to keep in mind that only a percentage of recipients will open a message from an email blast. And even then, a fraction of those who open actually absorb the information.
According to Gross, the proper workaround for this is to employ a thorough messaging strategy to ensure the message gets in front of them.
"I think the key to it is certainly over-communication, whether that is through emails, or text, or on the website or on materials that get sent out. It’s really just over-communicating it and drilling it into their heads."
Making the Whole Thing Make Sense Financially
At the end of the day, no one wants to invest a hefty amount of time and money for a project not to pay off like they are hoping to. Despite the extra work needed to make an event happen at this time, the same amount of people need to get paid, in addition to any additional cost required for what precautions are taken.
What seems to make the most sense is raising prices for in-person events to offset limited capacities and cover those extra costs. While this can work for boutique festival-goers, much of the live event market is not willing (or even in a place to) spend the extra coin.
However, Gross says that there is a solution that allows promoters to dodge the additional costs of producing a live event; Just throw it online.
"The majority of states are limited and can't produce in-person live experience events, but everyone has the capability to produce a virtual event, which makes it a very tangible thing for everyone," Gross said.
The virtual share of the entertainment market is only expected to grow. In 2019, the virtual event industry was valued at 77.98 billion USD, and according to Grand View Research, this amount is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 23.2% from 2020 to 2027.
With more attention and money being invested into producing virtual events, the space is developing into an art form of its own. Virtual production companies such as Headliner (one of many that Gross and Coalition often partner with) specialize in creating unique virtual entertainment experiences. The results of these high production events are promising. Gross explains this point with an anecdote from a recent stream put on by Headliner and Coalition, featuring Melanie Martinez as the main act.
"For Melanie Martinez’s show, Headliner rented a space, and there was a whole set design and costume design, and choreography, and dancers and just a whole production. It did about $1 million in gross revenue through ticket sales and had about 30,000 tickets that were bought. That was certainly a really successful one." Gross said.
So Should Promoters Stop Producing Live Events Altogether?
Oh no, even with today's circumstances, it is more than possible to organize in-person events; you just have to get a little creative to pull it off.
During the summer of 2020, Coalition Entertainment, in collaborations with their partners, managed to produce an overwhelmingly successful series of in-person events dubbed as ‘contained retreats.’ The In My Elements series took the place of Elements Music Festival, which was among the scores of festivals and large gatherings canceled in light of the lockdown.
Taking place amid the pandemic, Gross and other organizers devised a robust safety procedure that followed the guidelines issued by the Pennsylvania state government, in addition to adding their own extra precautions.
Being confined to a 250 person limit, the organizers employed a higher price point per ticket as mentioned above. Whereas tickets for such an event would usually cost about $200, a ticket to attend In My Elements came out to around $600. Not only did this heftier price tag help to offset the low capacity, but it also provided enough cash to fund all other safety precautions necessary for a completely safe experience. Tickets included entrance to the event, lodging onsite, and COVID testing before, during, and after the event.
The result, three successful iterations of the event over the year, with no cases of the virus reported among any of the event's participants.
"They all were really smooth from a COVID standpoint because there were no reported cases," Gross said. "Even after the event, no one came back positive. The event was polling people multiple weeks after asking if anyone had symptoms or were testing positive, and nothing."
And It’s Only Going to Get Easier
Now, we’re not going to pretend we have a magic crystal ball, and can be sure that things will be back to normal by the end of 2021, but we can tell you that there are some encouraging signs that the situation will drastically improve.
Vaccines are already making their way into people’s arms, with the expectation being that by June, they will be available for the general public. This is excellent news, as having the vaccine in enough arms is essential for Fauci’s prediction of a return to normalcy by the end of 2021 to come to fruition.
Either way, with the right planning and action, live entertainment events can still go on. And if trends continue to as they do, we’re sure they will be back in full swing in no time.