A year ago, we were in the midst of a global pandemic. The 2021 outlook seemed promising for the entertainment industry, at least more promising than it was in 2020. Following the discovery and rollout of vaccines, it was believed that events would be coming back and people would be able to return to some sort of normalcy. One year later and the pandemic is still raging on, but we learned a lot from the last year of events as they started to make a comeback. Let’s take a look back at what we expected to see at the beginning of last year and compare it to where we are now as an industry.

An (almost) comeback for the ages

Shortly after the clock struck midnight and 2021 officially began, many industry leaders were hopeful about a summer / fall comeback for large outdoor shows. Others were still apprehensive about seeing a return to live so soon and slightly less optimistic, anticipating a return only by early 2022. Outdoor festivals were expected to see a quicker recovery than tours and indoor events, considering travel restrictions weren’t going anywhere and indoor gatherings were limited in most areas.

Although it was difficult to make confident and definitive predictions on reopening dates, things were looking up and the appetite to get back to live was growing. In early ‘21, 28% of fans in the UK and US claimed they'd be back in the arenas as soon as it was deemed safe to do so, compared to only 16% the previous summer, showing more optimism about seeing a live game or concert.

Various trial events were being carried out to test new strategies and protocols to safely bring back large crowds and the outcomes were looking rather positive. By spring, sporting events were welcoming back fans, some even playing in a full house, as states began lifting capacity restrictions. Relief funds were being distributed throughout the industry, which was a much needed lifeline.

Enter…variants.

How’d we do?

At the end of 2020 we discussed 6 central themes that would present significant challenges for the return of the live entertainment industry in the year to come. While our prediction that many large scale festivals would be back on track by Q2 of 2021 was…we’re just gonna say it…totally wrong, let’s revisit our other expectations and see how well they matched up.

1. Logistical Challenges

From pre-entry testing and verifying vaccination status to social distancing and limited capacity, anyone brave enough to attempt a live event had more to worry about than usual. Different safety protocols had to be implemented that would become a normal process at all kinds of events throughout the entire year. Air ventilation and sanitation stations were two new items to add to the pre-show checklist. Creativity was key when enforcing social distancing and mask wearing, with some filling empty seats with cardboard cutouts. The emphasis on touchless technology meant upgrades to outdated equipment. Digital tickets and cashless payments were king.

2. Demand

Off to a slow start in the early months of 2021, consumer demand began to improve as more events were added to the calendar. By June, data was predicting that the second half of the year would surpass 2019 attendance numbers. In fact, multi day festivals shattered records left and right by selling entire weekends of tickets in mere hours.

On the other hand, independent venues experienced a significant increase in no-shows, well above pre-covid averages. Ticket sales may have gone up, but people haven’t been showing up to claim their spots which could have a catastrophic effect on the future of these venues and music in general. Many artists get their start playing in smaller local venues and without these venues supporting up and coming talent, the industry as we know it may be a thing of the past.

3. Insurance

After a year that was ravaged yet again by cancellations (not just COVID related but wildfires and weather to boot), insurance remained a major topic of conversation. There was an increase in demand for insurance in general, including significantly higher demand for event cancellation.

Shortly after the start of the pandemic, insurance providers added COVID-19 as an exclusion to every policy issued. Insurance helps ensure you are protected against the unexpected, but a COVID cancellation was no longer all that unexpected. The pandemic was swiftly categorized as a pre-existing condition (read more about that here). Despite not being able to obtain coverage for the biggest threat of them all, insurance policies rose some 25 - 100%.

4. Expectations

Hybrid or virtual experiences were all the rage during the more tedious parts of the global lockdowns, but as the world opened up, expectations began to shift. There’s no doubt that there’s a time and a place for virtual, but in many ways, the hype has already run its course. Digital experiences weren’t as satisfying and many opted for smaller, regional in-person events to supplement the larger online virtual components which are more suited to education than networking or entertainment.

5. Lack of Industry Talent

Coined “The Great Resignation”, many industries across the US have started experiencing staff shortages. For the events industry, it all went down a bit differently. With events coming to a complete halt for months and no end in sight, many were forced out of their jobs and had little choice but to search elsewhere for employment. Not only did the majority have to leave the industry altogether, it has proven difficult to convince those that remained to actually return, with many asking themselves: is the paycheck worth the risk?

This mass exodus has resulted in events going forward with untrained or reduced staff and, in some cases, has had devastating consequences (Astroworld). The inability to appropriately staff has also forced even more cancellations.

6. Travel

For most of last year, limitations on travel prevented event professionals from taking to the road for domestic and international events alike. The number of restrictions and the constant changes to those restrictions, made crossing state lines or entering other countries nearly impossible.

Domestic: Late last year the US began opening up nationwide, but that only brought on even more challenges. Many venues imposed their own restrictions, in some cases above and beyond those of state level requirements. The complexity of adjusting to different requirements from venue to venue or city to city forced many tours to postpone once again.

International:

  • After years of will they or won't they, the UK did indeed leave the EU as promised on January 1st and the logistical nightmare ensued. While Brexit had a minimal impact on Americans’ movement, it does affect the way international crew is hired and could have costly cabotage consequences.
  • Some sports leagues reorganized their divisions to prevent athletes from crossing borders in North America (like the NHL).
  • Despite the ongoing pandemic, the first large international event took place in summer 2021 with the kick off of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games. Serious precautions were taken, like limiting access to the games strictly to athletes, team management, volunteers and press and having no crowds at any of the events. It was an Olympic event like no other, but it was a positive outcome and gave hope to the return of larger international events.

Knowing everything that we know now, industry professionals are rolling back their early optimism. Events have not come back to the scale that some expected (and nowhere near pre-pandemic levels) and it’s clear that it will still be some time before the wounds heal. With consumer demand remaining high and the relaxing of more and more restrictions, the industry will continue to push forward and make an epic comeback – it may just take longer than we originally anticipated. The reality is, the live entertainment industry is not likely to return to normal until 2023, at the earliest.

Stay tuned for part 2 where we’ll talk a bit more about our expectations for the coming year (and beyond).