The management of large-scale music events over the past two years have been redefined by a critical new priority: to keep attendees safe and to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In 2020, this meant cancelling or postponing virtually every large event worldwide, because everyone agreed that the risks were simply too high.
However, organisers and governments have decided to return to hosting some of the world’s largest events, in the midst of the global pandemic. These decisions have been controversial and involve a balancing act between identifying and mitigating additional risks and accepting potential financial losses, with potentially life-threatening consequences.
Last year, one British music festival recently became linked to over 5000 cases of COVID-19, making it one of the largest super spreader events recorded in the UK.
Event managers of these large events have a huge social responsibility to manage them safely during a global pandemic. So, how are they doing that? And, most importantly: are they succeeding?
Glastonbury Festival features more than 100 stages, thousands of performers and nearly 200,000 attendees every year. When the pandemic arrived in the UK in March 2020, festival organisers cancelled the scheduled 2020 event immediately:
- Tickets were refunded
- Their deposit for the site was held for the following year, making it possible to postpone without an additional capital loss
- The festival lost an estimate of £5m from cancelling in 2020.
Last year, Glastonbury festival announced that they would again be cancelling the event, due to COVID-19 concerns.
Festival organisers were granted a license for a 50,000 person one-day event for September, without any camping or festival stay options. They were considering going ahead, however that was also cancelled due to fears about coronavirus containment.
Instead, they have focused on two, low-risk alternative streams of revenue as a means to recoup some losses from the previous years:
They have held several ticketed, weekend events called “Worthy Pastures” – small-scale family camping events featuring socially distant activities and food trucks but no live music.
They held an online ticketed livestream event in May last year with big-ticket performers on the bill, such as Coldplay, Damon Albarn and George Ezra. The event raised much needed revenue and was viewed as a success, however technical issues prevented some ticketholders from accessing it fully. This experiment demonstrates the need for event planners to ensure technical capability when running large scale online events, as a substitute for in-person concerts.
Corona impact: The cancellation of large music festivals has the obvious benefit of preventing any potential spread. The use of online and small, controlled events instead allows organisers to recuperate some losses in a safe manner.
Many event managers have pivoted to organising online concerts since the beginning of the pandemic, allowing viewers to support artists from the safety of their living rooms. One online concert streamed as part of the Leipzig Bach Festival and to date has been viewed over 500,000 times by viewers in 76 countries, demonstrating how the online format also allows organisers to reach new audiences.
Donauinselfest (Danube Island Festival)
This music festival held on the Danube River Island in Vienna may be the biggest festival you’ve never heard of. It sees a whopping average of three million visitors every year, making it the biggest free music event in the world by sheer numbers. The festival brings around 200 big name acts to audiences across 13 stages, which also makes it the largest open-air festival in a single place.
The festival is actually organised by the governing political party in Vienna, the SPÖ (Social Democratic Party Austria), so they were in the unusual position of being both the governing body responsible for coronavirus management in the city, and also the event organiser.
In 2020, they made the unusual decision not to cancel the event, but rather drastically change the offering to ensure social distancing, to align with the tightening of restrictions:
- Instead of a three-day event concentrated in one site, the 2020 festival was spread out over 80 days throughout Vienna.
- A double decker bus was used as a mobile stage, moving around each event location.
- The festival featured 200 brief, socially distanced performances in parks, tram depots and other open-air public spaces, with limited ticketing for smaller crowds.
Corona impact: No official complaints were lodged and the overall publicity and reviews were positive. No spike in infections or spreading have been linked to the event. The overall infection rate in Austria did rise in the October following the event, however there is no demonstrable connection to the festival.
Donauinselfest 2021 went ahead in September. Organisers reverted back to the centralised model of the typical island venue, with the event is being scaled down and restricted:
- The stages have been reduced to 4 from 13.
- Entry to the festival will only be permitted with a negative COVID test.
- Only local artists are going to be playing, to discourage international transmission of the virus.
- Tickets are limited and must be purchased in advance.
- Social distancing restrictions will be in place, in compliance with Austrian law.
Summerfest is the biggest live music festival in the United States, with around 800,000 attendees every year. In 2020, organisers made the decision to cancel the event for the first time ever amid the pandemic, with attendees able to get a refund or rollover their ticket to the following year.
In 2021, despite rising infection rates in the US, Summerfest went ahead in September, with restrictions in place:
- Attendees had to present a negative COVID test or proof of full vaccination to be permitted entry.
- Venues were renovated to allow for social distancing.
- Children under 12 were required to wear masks; however, for adults mask wearing is voluntary.
- New phrasing was added to tickets making attendees assume the risk of infection, in order to limit the legal liability of event organisers in case of injury, illness or death. Despite this, organisers are still legally liable if attendees do not follow guidelines, and only time will tell if there are any lawsuits following the event.
Corona impact: Prior to the 2021 event; the organisers came under criticism for placing attendees in potential danger. Two headline acts have cancelled citing COVID concerns, including the Pixies, who told the press, “"Pixies have determined that with the current surge in COVID cases made worse by the delta variant, this is the right decision for their fans, crew members and themselves, and ask that their fans stay safe and healthy."
If you make the decision to study event management with a university, you will research, discuss, and learn about the difficult decisions event organisers must face. Here at Torrens University our event management students get exposure to the strategic and operational challenges and how to develop the skills to manage and deliver in uncertain times.