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How UK sporting venues are preparing for recovery

Juliet Price, consultant executive director, HBAA speaks to various UK sporting venues to see how they have adapted throughout the pandemic and how they are preparing for recovery.

Turnstiles are rotating once again and fans returning to sports stadia and venues across the UK, with business events set to follow. It has been a tough time for the venue sector overall, but how have sporting venues adapted, what plans have they put in place to build back better, and how will the sector evolve in the future?

Hybrid technology

While some sporting venues have remained closed for extended periods of time, particularly for business events, venue managers have found ways to adapt. One of the main trends to emerge from the venue sector is an investment in hybrid event technology. Silverstone has formed strategic partnerships to develop a virtual studio and hybrid event packages. Lime Venue Portfolio, which works with a range of sports venues such as Twickenham Stadium, Aston Villa Football Club, The Kia Oval and Aintree Racecourse, has upscaled its hybrid and video conferencing technology across its venues and invested in full media suites and studios.

Innovation

Innovation has also been a key characteristic among sporting venues. Silverstone launched a new concept for event planners: drive-in conferences. Hayley Smith, head of sales at Silverstone, says the team worked hard on launching new ideas.

Venues with outdoor space have re-focused their efforts outside. Sixways Stadium, home to Worcester Warriors, hosted a variety of special events at its outdoor Fan Zone Area, such as a drive-in cinema, fireworks display and a dining club event. Alex Morris, the venue’s business development executive, said: “Since the pandemic we have really had to adapt to new events and focus on areas we can use, such as outdoor spaces. These have been key to keeping the venue operating and bringing in business and revenue.”

Some venues have found new revenue streams as a venue or location for filming. Lord’s Cricket Ground is one that has been used for filming purposes. When restrictions permitted, the venue also hosted dining activities for members as well as online talks with individuals from the cricketing world.

With sports allowed to continue, this has benefited some, such as Loughborough University’s conference and events brand, Imago Venues, which was able to provide hotel, meeting, and sporting facilities for athletes.

Silverstone has also run British Grand Prix F1 behind closed doors and Newbury Racecourse reinstated its racing calendar from June 2020.

Training, hospitals and testing sites

Many venues have remained open for essential training events. Jenner Carter, head of marketing at Lime Venue Portfolio, says meeting the demand for essential training events has helped to keep the events team operationally sharp. Carter said: “We have shared a lot of information and learning across the venues to ensure we are offering the safest, most hygienic environments possible.”

UK sporting venues have also been repurposed into hospitals and testing sites. Newbury Racecourse partnered with Age Concern to feed the most vulnerable elderly in West Berkshire. The racecourse provided a Meals on Wheels hub, using the available kitchens and chefs. By the end of June 2020, the initiative had delivered more than 7,500 meals to those in need. The venue was also used as a walk-in Primary Care Hub, an NHS Blood Donation Centre, a vaccination centre, and created an outdoor pub space for the local community.

What are sporting venues doing to prepare for a revitalised market?

Carter said: “We have been really busy throughout the lockdown, upskilling our staff, talking to our customers and staying open so we can look after them; this has all left us in a good place as we move out of lockdown. The market is revitalised, but it’s also nervous and we need to inject some normality into it. We are back to our pre-lockdown passion. If we all do this, we can breed confidence and ensure the industry bounces back higher than where we left it pre-lockdown.”

Business outlook

Venues report that recent enquiries are for in-person events. This is the case at Lord’s Cricket Ground says Tamanay Grinion, events and experiences sales executive. She said: “Enquiries for in-person events are by far outweighing those for hybrid events. After the Government’s road map was announced and we passed the first step, corporate enquiries have started to take over and now make up around 50–60 percent of the enquiries each week.”

Elena Gurgul, head of sales at Newbury Racecourse is seeing something similar. She commented: “The majority of our upcoming events are live. We have a very small number of hybrid events, and the general feel is that people want to be back and see people. Our business is already picking up from the end of June 2021 with large events such as exhibitions and launches.”

Bookings at Silverstone are largely from July onwards, with September and October as the most popular months. There is also a lot of interest for Q1 2022. Smith added: “Corporates are booking now, the biggest transition we are seeing is that they are asking for flexibility in both cancellation terms and payment terms. Where possible, and where commercially viable we are adapting where we can in our contractual terms and conditions.”

As part of the recovery process, many venues are focusing on sustainability as a key driver for building back better and stronger. Ethics is also key says Carter. She concluded: “It is no surprise that society is seeing a direct alignment between what we do to our planet and what covid has done for us. We are all coming out of this pandemic more aware. We need to be all over this as an industry, not just around sustainability and ‘green’ issues, but really looking at our ethics and responsibilities to each other and the communities around us.”