For our latest webinar we spoke to the people behind the planning as we ready for the return of in-person events. Sharing the big challenges from the last year were Cheltenham Festival’s PR and communications manager Bairbre Lloyd and ME Travel founder Hannah Mursal, who have successfully battled through cancellations, changing restrictions and internationally-inconsistent rules on travel and event attendance.
Part of the relaxation of social-distancing rules in the UK is the uncertainty over what is to come over the next few months. Read on for practical advice on how to prepare for every eventuality regarding events.
Challenges of the last 18 months
‘It’s been tricky!’ said Hannah. Looking after every element of booking for ME Travel’s entertainment clients, their bands and their crew has required increased flexibility as well as patience.
‘In the UK and across Europe, it’s been quiet – people have been doing music videos and virtual performances instead of touring. In the US, it’s been more focused on domestic travel. They haven’t really stopped; people were still travelling to do gigs. We’re looking at the bulk of events coming back in September. It’s been a waiting game to book tours in and find new venue dates.
‘Restrictions are changing constantly, but it all depends on who’s going where. I’ve got Jamaican artists, but their crews are American, English, German. There are times where you could only get half of the crew there.
‘You have to know what every country is allowing in. Do they need forms, vaccination – you can’t really book in advance, either. You can’t book today to fly next week, because it will change by mid-week.’
Plus points of the pandemic (there have been a few)
For Bairbre, juggling different priorities has brought positives as well as challenges.
‘When you’re a location putting on a festival, you can make your own decisions but you have to think about the audience if you want people to come.
‘Some of our speakers were delighted to get out of where they were, and others were… not so keen. What it has opened up to us is the idea of dialling in. Our Literature Festival was a hybrid of a socially-distanced audience and streaming online. There were people on stage while guests from the US were able to join digitally. That will have repercussions in the future – when this all finally lifts. It’s another string to our bow. It worked for us.
‘Like a lot of our fellow cultural organisations found, there was a huge appetite for us to provide support for the community. Our Science Festival was a godsend to lots of parents schooling from home. Our audience has increased enormously and that’s something we want to develop.
‘It has been difficult, but it’s jump-started our digital ambitions. We had to do all of this in five weeks – it would otherwise have probably taken us about five years.’
‘We were making decisions as late as possible to have maximum flexibility – we were on tenterhooks waiting for the go-head for things,’ said Bairbre.
‘While we brought in lots of technology, there wasn’t really time to test it. We could have done with more user experience for next time. It worked, but it was hairy.’
For Hannah, the importance of communication and relationships has been a main takeaway:
‘We were all in it together, we became a family – I know how my clients’ mums are doing, their dads. It was panic stations in the beginning, so it was good to keep that communication going. In terms of hotels, the entertainment reps were the first to lose their jobs. My contacts all got made redundant. It was important to keep in the loop of what everyone was doing.
‘It was useful to know when someone was in the studio recording – it tells me when things lift, they have an album to tour. Building these relationships lets me know when are going back to work.’
‘We’re planning for a full capacity without social distancing for our next Literature Festival in October – we made that call fairly early on,’ shared Bairbre.
‘I think if restrictions are put back in place, however, we will go back to what we’ve done before. This will be the eighth festival we’ve done in lockdown – we can bring in distancing and Covid-secure measures. Our senior management team will be in HQ cooking up plans. We were lucky last year because we slipped in between lockdowns. And I think we were the first literary festival to do a hybrid version.’
‘Not to sound complacent, but I’ve done so many cancellation announcements that we have our contingency plan for if it’s needed. If you’ve got a plan written and ready to go, you roll that out; you know that it works. Having those comms ready to run, is the key for me.
‘People are still going to be a bit insecure with events. One of the things we were conscious of were that some people were going to be really gung-ho and ready to come out, some would be more cautious. You need to be really clear with everybody with how you’re managing your event. If the audience knows what to expert – that they’ve got to sit in bubbles, wash their hands, have e-tickets and wear masks – they will accept it. It’s the not-knowing that makes people angry.’
Practical tips for planning events during COVID-19
‘Have your communications plan ready in advance,’ advises Bairbre.
‘We went through looking at scenarios, what negative reactions we could potentially have to safety onsite. We thought about all the things that could be picked up on and made sure we were proactive with our safety measures. And with sending comms out, make sure your stakeholders are onboard and informed – artists, staff and suppliers.’
‘Insurance has been huge in my world,’ Hannah added. ‘It’s hard to get event insurance that covers COVID now. Make sure you’re covered with your suppliers.’
‘Be prepared; have that contingency plan. The rug may be pulled from under you at any moment.’
For more trends to prepare for when it comes to getting back outside, download our white paper PR & Media Travel Trends 2021.