Festivals in freefall

Mark Laurie

Over the past few days both Shambala and Boomtown Fair have been forced to postpone until 2022 and Paul Reed, CEO of the Association of Independent Festivals has said 92% of our members will have to cancel without cancellation insurance.

There is understandably concern around the festival season and the industry has asked government to underwrite an insurance scheme that would ensure that they were compensated should the event be called off for Covid-19 safety reasons. Otherwise, they are shouldering all of the risk for an issue they can’t control, there has been continuous pressure put on Government around this issue and a further letter was sent to the prime minister at the beginning of this week. A similar scheme was provided to the TV and film industry last year to enable them to resume working and no claims were made, the government was therefore able to get that sector up and running again.

The government have said that insurance is not the whole piece with events, many of which, especially some music festivals, cannot operate feasibly or profitably with distancing and as such, they will need to know what the situation for trading is before the insurance is put in place.

The problem with this is timing. Festival suppliers are expecting deposits and payments, the events themselves are fast approaching a point where they have to gamble that distancing is removed on 21st June and that insurance will then be available. Boomtown noted that it would cost around £10,000,000 to put on the show and as such, they couldn’t risk it – they received just under £1million from the cultural recovery fund.

Restrictions are not due to end until late June and the governments events research programme, now under way, does not report back until late May, meaning events are being expected to hold off on decision making until at least the end of May – many will not. Every day they don’t postpone costs potentially more money.

What does that mean for event caterers?

There is a good chance that many event caterers have significant sums tied up in pitch fees. Caterers may choose to ask for their money back. But this will most likely come down to the contract and any updates to the contract from last year. Some events will no longer have the money and there is a risk that if caterers and others request their money back it could force businesses into liquidation – and then everyone loses their money. It may be that caterers decide its safer to keep their money in the event for another year.

It’s easy to confuse events and festivals in all of this, but music festivals make up less than 10% of all outdoor events and many are confident they will be able to operate with restrictions and certain measures in place. Even across music festivals, there is a range of experiences. Opera at Royal Glyndebourne, jazz and folk festivals country show’s and steam fairs do not rely on being able to cram lots of people into a space to get the most fun out of it. Dance floors and mosh pits could be petri dishes for Covid-19 compared to a literary festival or agricultural show. Will the government step up and reassure these events that they’ll be covered?

Outdoors is considerably safer than indoors in terms of Covid-19. The Events research project should give us an idea of how much safer and what that will mean for the summer. There is every chance that restrictions will be lifted either on 21st June or shortly after (the governments plan B is to slow down unlocking), this is the trajectory we are on, however, confirmation will likely come too late for some events, the question is how many and what then?

It may be time to pivot again. The government are looking to open up towns and cities with al fresco dining and low-density events and have included mobile catering and food stalls in that. Start making enquiries with local authorities about opening on private land. They have been asked to help you and to be flexible. Some local authorities are offering day rates, others aren’t charging at all – as long as you’ve got everything else in order (food & Covid-19 safety).

Also, apply for grants. If you were unable to trade last summer because of Covid-19, there is every chance you are now eligible for an LRG or ARG grant. NCASS have worked tirelessly to get you access to this money, so please apply and let us know if you can’t or if you get rejected.

If the events sector and possibly aviation are unable to re-open due to government restrictions, while the rest of the economy re-opens. There will be a strong argument for continued financial support – so get yourself on the system now, so you are eligible for this and future support if its required and becomes available.

A strong message from Government in the next few days would go a long way in restoring confidence in a shaken industry. Even with distancing much of the sector should be able to operate and as we move closer to summer more, smaller, local events are likely to start popping up as will opportunities to ‘street trade’.

One of NCASS Directors sits on the board of the Events Industry Forum and as such we have been in constant communication and co-ordination with all areas of the events industry. We are at the table in discussions with DCMS and BEIS and will continue to work towards the unlocking of the sector at the earliest opportunity. As more of the country becomes immunized against Covid-19 the overall risk drops significantly. Worried conversations about variants and localised surge testing should drop away. The sooner the government moves to restore confidence with assurances on re-opening and insurance the less disruption we will face and the less support we will need to survive.

Some will inevitably have to postpone, however, we will have a summer, we will have events and you’ll be back out in the sun delighting people with food before long.

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