Tuesday August 11th was a busy day for Scott Hillary of AH Events. It was, in fact, an unusually busy day as it was the first time since the lockdown began in March that Scott and his team had gone out to work. They spent all day on a field at Crook Community Leisure facility in County Durham setting up for an outdoor festival as part of a national #RedAlert campaign initiated by the #WeMakeEvents movement, designed to draw attention to the live events sector which has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and, sadly, ignored by the government.
Alert to the crisis, I went along to talk to Scott and his team who were busy rigging an outdoor stage with full lights, sound, instruments, special effects, video screens, crowd barriers, and more. Event security personnel were already patrolling the area communicating on walkie-talkies. Yet there would be no crowds to control, no musicians to applaud, because this was one of thousands of live events that cannot happen under the current coronavirus legislation, putting the industry in grave jeopardy. Scott had brought together dozens of trusted local partners, suppliers, and freelancers – the lifeblood of the industry representing 72% of the workforce. There was a fairground ride with a reminder to potential customers to stay two metres apart. Nearby was a burger van with no queue of hungry punters and a team of litter-pickers waiting to ensure the site would be cleared of non-existent rubbish. On the opposite side of the field there was a NERAM (NHS) ambulance just in case anyone needed medical attention. The field was ringed with colourful flags fluttering in the wind which had been specially made for the occasion. It was extraordinarily eerie to be the only person standing in the middle of the field, waiting for an event which would not happen.
Professionals like Scott in the live events business know all about risk mitigation – health and safety is their number one priority. Recognising the public health danger posed by the novel coronavirus, the sector was the first to shut down and it looks as if it will be the last to re-open. With a million or more people employed in the industry, that’s a lot of idle hands and dwindling bank accounts, that’s a huge number of livelihoods affected, meaning more families unable to pay the bills, more people reliant on food banks and charity handouts. Businesses are already going under and that means valuable expertise built up over decades will also be lost in the process making it harder for the sector to bounce back. Together with his brother Adam, Scott works for the company that his father established 34 years ago, along with a successful spin-off specialist fireworks company. If you’ve enjoyed civic Bonfire Night displays and New Year’s celebrations in the North East the likelihood is that you’ve enjoyed Scott and company’s handiwork. Based in Stanley, County Durham, AH Events produces world class cultural events across the North East and beyond, working with an impressive array of partners from Nissan, Fenwicks and the Sage Gateshead to English Heritage and the London Olympics. The company’s website is full of endorsements from the likes of UB40 and the National Trust.
“Huge crowds, great atmosphere, smooth logistics, superb programmes, excellent performances – what more could one ask?” says Nicholas Kenyon, Controller of BBC Proms, Live Events and Classical Music. “That this kind of thing should be given a lifeline by the government?” I dare to suggest.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, AH Events were experiencing growth year-on-year and were expecting to achieve their highest turnover yet in 2020. Scott explained the seriousness of the situation. “Since March, our income has dropped to zero and it is becoming increasingly likely that we will not receive any income until at least the spring of 2021. We need to raise awareness of this issue and call for support now before it’s too late.”
It’s not just expertise and jobs that we are talking about – the industry contributes £100 billion to the UK each year. In the North East alone, it is estimated 5.9 million people attend outdoor events annually, with a spend of £1.6 billion, supporting 23,335 jobs, injecting 30.4 billion into the local economy. Without immediate action and government support, this could be wiped off the face of the regional economic climate.
The recently announced £1.57 billion arts rescue package and the re-starting of outdoor events overlooks the entire industry and supply chain, and social distancing guidelines make events financially unviable for both venues and suppliers. As it stands, the furlough and self-employed support schemes are set to end long before the live events industry can re-start. If this continues to be the case, the creative and technical workforce, estimated at approximately one million, could soon be lost to other sectors and the UK could forfeit its position as a global leader in live events and entertainment, at a time when our exit from the EU demands that we step up our efforts. Arts and culture are not only an income generator for the public purse but also a powerful tool in the area of soft diplomacy and we have much ground to make up in that respect.
The nationwide #WeMakeEvents movement organised the mass #RedAlert as part of their campaign to lobby the government to extend financial support to the sector in the form of capital grants not loans, and extensions to the Furlough Scheme and Self-employed Support Scheme. The woman from the security company stationed at the entrance to the field told me that last year they had supplied event cover to 240 events. This year it had been only seven so far with no prospect of any further bookings until 2021. It doesn’t take an economics degree to work out how disastrous this is for all concerned.
As the day wore on and the non-event began to take shape, passers-by looked on longingly and a few stalwart reporters from the regional media turned up. The local Conservative MP, Richard Holden, had been invited but failed to show even though the event went on until 10pm with a modest firework finale lighting up the night sky. And when the last sparks fell to earth Scott and his team of highly skilled professionals began to dismantle the equipment, staying late into the night, before returning to their warehouses, not knowing when their services will be required again, and unsure if the government will step up and save their industry.
You can watch a moving video of the non-event here filmed by Skyward Aerial drone technology.
And you can find out more about the campaign and what you can do to help here.