Interview with Jason Cotillard, former Commercial Director for Cuffe & Taylor / Live Nation UK

2020 was poised to be the busiest year on record, then it wasn’t. From slowly running out of work to do, to being furloughed, to putting your heart and soul into a new project and having it fall apart, to being furloughed again, to eventually being made redundant; event professionals in the time of COVID have not had it easy and this series of events is all too familiar for so many people. Jason Cotillard is the former Commercial Director for Cuffe & Taylor / LiveNation UK and this is his story.

Despite everything that happened in 2020, Jason still feels like he was one of the lucky ones.

“I was employed, but there are a lot of self-employed/freelancers in the live industry. LiveNation recognized there were people not directly on the payroll and did the best they could to help those individuals, for as long as they could. But ultimately, while it’s difficult to make people redundant, when there aren’t any tickets being sold and there’s no future pipeline, there’s no alternative.”

It started with a whisper

Looking back at this time last year, things were pretty normal (does anyone remember what that was like!?). Festival season was still a few months out and event professionals were busy planning; it was pretty much business as usual. There were reports of a new “flu-like” virus spreading rapidly around the world; but, there was no indication of how devastating it was going to be. Then, a few weeks later, entire countries started going into lockdown and it was clear the soon-to-be-declared pandemic was no joke.

“My first thought was: it will be nice to have a summer off for the first time in 10 years. I thought we would be back in action by August to close out the festival season.”

It was at this point that Jason and his team started to consider postponing shows and working with local authorities to secure new dates, adding even more to the already punishing workload.

Mid-April was the real turning point. The world began so see live events being cancelled across the board. Everything from sporting events and races to theater and concerts was affected; nothing was safe.

“We were exploring all possible options to avoid cancelling and meeting with safety groups became the biggest challenge. They had so many other things on their plate and we didn’t feel it was right to take their time to advise on events that were looking likely to be cancelled anyway. We have a social responsibility to our communities.”

One minute the industry was forging full steam ahead then suddenly, there was nothing - no events, no work to do. New ideas emerged bringing with them a full slate of things to do and obstacles to overcome. Warmer weather had us all feeling optimistic and event professionals once again had the opportunity to put their skills to the test. Rinse and repeat.

“We’re used to having to adapt and change very quickly, it’s part of the job and the events industry was more prepared than most for all of the uncertainty. I think the hardest part was the back and forth. The constant changes to legislation and lockdowns on a local level made it impossible to plan anything. We started work on a drive-in series and brought our staff back from furlough because there was so much work to do. Commercially, it would be challenging, but we felt we had a responsibility to the fans, the freelancers, suppliers, our teams and the industry to get artists back in front of fans in a safe way. Everyone worked so hard and then it all became  clear that pandemic would not allow us to make it happen; that was a hard one for everyone involved.”

Will they or won’t they?

Now a couple of months into the new year, things are not looking much better for mass gatherings. We’ve already seen the likes of Glastonbury and Coachella announce cancellations for 2021 because the risk is simply too high (and insurance cover is unattainable, but we won’t get into that here). Even with an effective vaccine rollout, reduced capacity and social distancing aren’t going anywhere. Organizers are doing their best to get creative because going from an empty stadium to full capacity isn’t realistic (or safe).

Take the Australian Open for example. Australia has been one of the few places in the world that has had an effective approach to combating the virus and as a result, the Open was expected to be a full-capacity return to normal life. However just a few days into the tournament, play transitioned to a behind closed doors format due to an outbreak in Melbourne.

“I wish I could say definitively that events will be back this year, but I can’t, no one can. What I can say without question is that there is not only the desire but a strong will for things to get back to normal. The simple truth is: we don’t know enough to risk it quite yet. When we bring events back, we need to make sure they’re sustainable. The last thing you want to happen is for an event to result in a super spreader that delays the return of live even further. We need to be sensible."

In addition to the typical 6+ month planning cycle, there are so many more things to consider for the post-covid world of live events. Many event experts have years of special training and they’ve been forced to find new professions leaving a gap in available talent. Staff will need to be (re)hired and (re)trained before the shows can go on. Government support has been tough to obtain and without certain guarantees, event organizers have no choice but to wait it out. We’re in uncharted territory and there’s no right answer on how best to manage these new challenges.

“When it comes to planning right now, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion on how to get back to live. Some say rapid testing is the way to go whereas others feel it is completely infeasible. The term “Health Passport” (proof of a vaccine which would allow access to events, travel, etc.) is gaining steam now that vaccines are rolling out around the world. Social distancing is being attempted through cardboard cutouts, pods and even individual inflatable bubbles. Hygiene plans and ventilation systems have become some of the biggest concerns when selecting venues.

“Logistics aside, I think there will be an appreciation that hasn’t existed before, from all sides. Fans will appreciate the industry and the industry will appreciate the fans.”

Any final thoughts?

We’ve already begun to see in-person events returning in some parts of the world (i.e. the Super Bowl). When it comes to sporting events, theatres and other events that are more receptive to social distancing, there’s a higher likelihood of a full return in 2021. Phased approaches are certainly expected with gradual increases to capacity as more of the population is vaccinated and other risk mitigating solutions are implemented. Full-scale music festivals still seem a little out of reach but crazier things have happened.

“There will be an unprecedented appetite for live events, travel and everything else we’ve been deprived of for so long. Once it’s safe, the desire to be with people and share experiences will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
And to all the event professionals out there: One thing is certain, we will bring back live, together.”