The New Normal — Festivals and Events Post-Covid

Empty Shop CIC
9 min readMay 11, 2020

By Paul Gudgin

Image by @davemullenjnr

None of us are likely to forget 2020 in a hurry. We’ve gone from an incredibly buoyant and fertile festival and event landscape to a wasteland in a matter of weeks as events from Glastonbury to Glyndebourne have cancelled in quick succession

It may be cold comfort for concerned culture and event managers wondering how on earth they are going to survive, but this crisis has underlined just how much we need culture and events in our lives.

Whether it’s Grayson Perry’s Art Club or Gareth Malone’s Great British Home Chorus, we have seen a huge hunger out there for culture. Interestingly it has been some of the initiatives where people are active participants in cultural activity during lockdown, rather than just spectators, which seem to have caught the imagination. We have seen a surge in online content, everything from the National Theatre Live to artists presenting concerts from their living rooms. I’m sure the growth in online content will sustain once the immediate crisis is over, while recognising people see it as a supplement to the live experience rather than a replacement.

A recent study had 75% of event attendees saying that online was no substitute for the real thing and most said they had no interest in pay-per view offerings.

For many people just now, access to culture online is a necessity rather than a choice. Sadly few of us are any closer to making online content a significant new stream of income, much of this new wave of content is free or undervalued. A Twitter post from a well-respected musician caught my eye recently; she has 750,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and has earned the princely sum of £12.34 in 6 months!

Amongst the gloom and despair however, there are heartening stories underlining how much our supporters value our work. The Hay Festival took the trouble to phone people who had booked tickets and a good number were happy to convert their ticket refunds into a donation. The Lexington, a music venue in London, launched a campaign to stay afloat with a target of £25,000; they raised it in a day. If there is ever a time to pass round the hat, it may well be now.

The Quietus — London’s The Lexington launches crowdfunder

It’s also been good to see cultural organisations able to put their skills to use in their communities whether it is artists providing help with home schooling or techs doing what they do best in creating temporary structures by helping set up testing stations, we’re nothing if not adaptable.

We are facing some big questions about the future of our industry. The first I suppose is when can we get going again? Like much else there is widely conflicting signals. Spain will allow open-air events for up to 800 people from June 10th (maybe I should have followed up my dream of opening a jazz bar on a Spanish beach after all) but conversely Cameron Mcintosh is predicting the West-End could be closed until next year.

I think it’s clear that events are going to be affected disproportionately either due to government restrictions or audience sentiment.

It was good to see an American study saying 76% of event attendees claim they are likely to return to events soon after they resume, but another report found only 27% of Americans will go back into a cinema before a vaccine is found, although more people were prepared to attend outside events. This is something venue-based events may need to consider, can they take part of what they do outside? People’s reasons for not returning were principally concern about the risk of contracting the virus or that distancing rules will make some events pointless, a socially distanced mosh-pit anyone? Around 75% of respondents were more likely to return if safety precautions were in place.

So will the pattern just return to ‘normal’, will there be a potential ‘bubble’ of pent up demand (which I recently saw referred to as ‘revenge attending’!), will it be an almighty bun-fight as postponed events pile in at the first available opportunity. The answer is we just don’t know.

However consistent and predictable your audience’s behaviour may have been over the past few years, the situation now will require us to be brave and fleet of foot as we adapt to the entirely new reality. It’s clear that dealing with shifting audience perceptions will be as important as dealing with changing official guidelines and restrictions, not just responding to audience needs and dealing with their concerns but being highly visible in doing so.

One way of considering how we may come out of this pandemic is to look at what has happened after previous catastrophes. I contacted a few colleagues that have been through some rough times and was heartened to learn that in many cases events not only survive but often thrive in a post-crisis environment.

Probably the closest to the current situation was the SARS epidemic when Toronto was one of the places most affected causing significant economic and reputational damage to tourism and entertainment. Toronto is now a thriving cultural destination with an amazing portfolio of excellent events and in a way, SARS turned out to be a transition point for the City and its festivals. Firstly, artists and event organisers were able to respond to changing circumstances more swiftly than most. It led to a plethora of partnerships as organisations large and small looked to each other to find a way out of the hole.

The Rolling Stones perform at ‘Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto’ (AKA ‘Stars for SARS’), July 2003

It helped develop the relationship between the key institutions and event organisers as the City recognised the role culture could play in a swift recovery. The Toront03 Alliance was formed to help promote travel to Toronto bringing together leaders from business, culture, entertainment, tourism, restaurants, accommodation, and government and it was credited with helping tourism recover much more quickly than expected.

Iceland saw their economy collapse spectacularly in 2008. Events and cultural attendance had been steadily growing from about 1990 but has boomed since 2008. Similar themes to Toronto emerge, the formation of a wide range of creative partnerships and strong political leadership, continuing to support cultural organisations, despite the extreme pressure on resources.

There was a strong communal feeling towards artists, they became a symbol of honesty and value at a difficult moment. There was also a growth in new events as cultural entrepreneurs saw gaps in the market they could fill. One lesson seems to be that coming out of a crisis we should pretty much consider it fresh start for events and a moment of opportunity.

Looking at the UK, the festival world in the post-war years provides some inspiration. The years 1945–1948 saw an amazing flowering of festivals with the likes of Bath, Cheltenham, Aldeburgh and Edinburgh all coming to life. They became some of the UK’s biggest cultural celebrations for decades and certainly in the case of Aldeburgh and Edinburgh have had a transformative effect on their host destinations.

It’s clear we are going to have to raise our voice over the coming months.
With the impending economic calamity there are going to be calls from just about every sector for crucial government assistance. We need to be making our case armed with powerful arguments, conviction and a unified voice, not just for our benefit but because of the impact we know we can deliver for retail, hospitality and tourism businesses in desperate need of support.

There is plenty of evidence out there to show that we can not only help revive but transform so many aspects of our towns and cities. Two heavily researched events in recent times, Liverpool’s Capital of Culture in 2008 and Hull’s City of Culture in 2017 returned some important results. Liverpool saw an investment of £1.5 billion in physical infrastructure during 2008, the majority from the private sector, becoming a catalyst for long-term economic and social change. They were also able to influence the narrative about their city with media representation of Liverpool becoming much less polarized.

Liverpool’s ‘Impacts 08’ research themes for European City of Culture

Hull, at the time the 3rd most deprived local authority in the UK, welcomed 1.3 million more visitors than before 2017 but more importantly saw a huge rise in volunteering, well-being and local participation with 95% of the local population attending at least one event. Everywhere you look there are examples of culture and events transforming places in a manner that will be needed now more than ever.

So, what do we need to do as an industry and individual events to survive and thrive in the current climate? Well to para-phrase Darwin ‘the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment’

The Coronavirus has brought into clearer focus the need to have a strong online relationship with our audiences. It will never replace the live experience but I can certainly see more hybrid events. For annual events we need to use online communications to maintain our visibility, marking the time our event should be happening and doubling efforts to stay in contact throughout the year. We should be bold, open and creative in seeking out new partnerships; situations like this tend to prove fertile ground for strong and often unlikely collaborations.

When the heavyweight and competitive film festivals of Tribeca, Sundance, and Cannes can come together to create the ‘We Are One’ online festival, you know we are operating in changed circumstances.

A real focus on local audiences and local communities will be key. It will be some time before the travel industry recovers and there will be resistance to public transport. We need to focus on very practical elements of the event experience, can we deliver a safe event and can we effectively communicate that fact. There is an important role in helping people make sense of what has happened. I remember the Edinburgh Fringe the year following the 9/11 attacks for example, there were so many shows tackling the issues and traumas of that event.

Getting the balance between celebration and reflection over the coming year will be important for all of us. Pressures on personal finances will impact our work. We need to be responsive in the way we price and discount events, accept people may become a bit risk-averse in choosing what to attend and recognize that booking later may become the norm.

I think there will be a shift in our relationship with artists. Their desire to perform and engage will be stronger than ever and I think we have a responsibility to be dynamic in helping them get back on stage. Dialogue with artists will become more vital than ever. It is important that we don’t take advantage as they seek to make up for months of lost work, trust developed now will reap dividends in the future.

The rest of 2020 is going to be tough, next year is very unlikely to be a breeze but a heady mix of co- operation, flexibility and sheer bloody-mindedness could see events not only survive but become standard-bearers as communities look to recover from this horrendous pandemic.

Paul Gudgin has spent 30 years working with festivals of all shapes and sizes. including the Aldeburgh Festival, City of London Festival, Durham International Brass Festival and 8 years as the Director of the world’s largest arts festival, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As well as working on events Paul now spends much of his time working with festival and event managers in several countries presenting workshops and programmes to pass on the benefit of his experience.

You can follow Paul on twitter @paulgudge

Commissioned by Empty Shop on behalf of Hartlepool Borough Council as part of the Tees Valley Great Place project.



Empty Shop CIC

Art // Regeneration // Collaboration. Empty Shop CIC is a not-for-profit arts organisation and practice-based consultancy from the North East of England.