Promoters Should Use Post-Covid Capacity To Reimagine The Fan Experience
Patrick Topping rocks the crowd at the UK’s Virgin Money Unity Arena. The temporary venue offers fans a well-spaced experience driven by Covid regulations, but what if we gave fans more space for a better experience even when this is over?
Photo by Thomas Jackson / TyneSight
How often does one get to reinvent the wheel? In spite of all Covid’s hardships, the event industry gets a real chance to change its spots.
Covid-driven social distancing regulations offer new ways to enhance the fan experience. In fact, it’s already happening. Virgin Money Unity Arena in Newcastle, England, and the Scala Theater in Utrecht, Netherlands prioritize fan health and, inso doing, promise of a better future where promoters consider more than maximum capacity.
Any serious nightclubber knows the sweaty feeling of a floor that’s too packed. It’s a touch unsafe, maybe even dangerous despite fire code. When bad luck pairs with negligent operations, results can be deadly. Remember the Great White concert disaster of 2003? A pyro-triggered fire killed 100 of the 432 people in attendance and injured many others. The Station nightclub venue had a cap of 404, and while that certainly was an example of egregious disregard for life, packin’ em in per code isn’t always a comfortable experience.
Fans buy tickets not just because of lineups, but to share a transcendent musical moment with friends and strangers. Humans want connection. Promoters and artists encourage these fleeting emotions when the energy of a room becomes greater than the sum of its parts. After months of quarantine, social distancing and COVID, we are desperately exploring new ways to hear music in spaces. I mean, Drive-in concerts are a thing.
“Capacity” is the maximum amount of something that something else can contain. For human gatherings of humans in a physical space, one approach to capacity is the maximum number of people allowed in a defined area as dictated by the local fire code.
Like so many other laws, the origins of modern United States fire code starts with tragedy. On June 5, 1946, a fire at the La Salle Hotel in Chicago caused 61 deaths. Later that year, a fire at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta resulted in 119 deaths and 65 injuries. Responding to these mass fatalities, then-President Truman called for a national conference on fire prevention to revise fire code and prioritize human lives over “fireproof” construction.
Section 101.3 of the 2018 International Fire Code states a purpose “to establish the minimum requirements consistent with the nationally recognized good practice for providing a reasonable level of life safety and property protection from the hazards of fire, explosion or dangerous conditions in new and existing buildings, structures and premises, and to provide a reasonable level of safety to fire fighters and emergency responders during emergency procedures.”
Across the US, state fire codes borrow heavily from this language. California’s 2019 Fire Code is similar but favors public health, safety and general welfare as opposed to emphasizing property protection. Whatever the language, the purpose of a fire code is as bright as the lasers at EDC: to keep people alive in the case of fire.
Fire codes also answer a simple question: “How many people can evacuate a building or space before the whole thing turns into a pile of ashes?” These codes establish a “minimum standard” for “reasonable level of life safety” – meaning there may be some casualties and injuries but most of the people will escape. Social distance mandates gift time to reconsider these risks, and it is borderline insane to continue with this standard.
Existing codes never contemplated fan experience beyond an evacuation. With Covid regulations as motivation, new and temporary venues Scala Theater and Virgin Money Unity Arena are doing this.
The Netherlands’ Scala Theater is a 1,050-cap venue with 129 boxes built in Utrecht’s Jaarbeurs convention center. The boxes are distributed on three floors and surround the stage. Seats on the floor in front of the stage create enough space to satisfy social distancing requirements. In a move typically restricted for the highest paying guests in sky boxes and bottle service areas, all of the guests will have space of their own. What a concept.
The UK’s Virgin Money Unity Arena is a 2,500-cap experiment purpose-built to accommodate more space for parking, seating and concessions. The space is designed with 500 separate viewing platforms that accommodate five people each. Rather than fall back on minimum standards, the Arena includes four times as many toilets as comparable spaces, as well as more food and beverage vendor stations and bigger bars. Their summer run of 29 events in 26 days sold more than 72,000 tickets for artists including The Libertines, Supergrass and Maximo Park.
Bigger space plus more staff and facilities does bring higher expenses, and yes, lower capacities mean less tickets sold. With current restrictions, sponsorship revenue can be crucial. There is some ceiling to what fans will pay, and a maximum cost to sustain the necessary volume of ticket sales.
Continued strength of aftermarket ticket sales does indicate that there is room for ticket prices increases - but (and this is an all caps, not-screaming but loud BUT) the COVID standard is not the only standard. Consider the possibilities between the fire code max capacity and the Scala/Unity Arena model. That is a gap with ample room for experimentation and growth.
Fresh approaches to capacity create opportunities for promoters to differentiate their events. What is the right number of people to enjoy this experience in a comfortable way? The general admission experience can be improved significantly by offering the luxury of more physical space and shorter wait times for bathrooms and the bar.
These improvements can and should extend beyond COVID’s impact. Profitability remains more than possible with these considerations, but it will take new and creative thinking to get there.