Up and Running: Looking back on the Government pilot events
The sound of thousands of fans walking down a concourse, the taste of a pint, the feeling of the hairs on the back of your neck rising as your team advances in the opponent’s half, and, if you’re lucky, the roar of the crowd as your team strikes the winner. We’ve come accustomed to these scenes, making it easy to forget the journey we’ve taken in the last 12 months with venues been empty, crowds kept silent, and the world of entertainment and sport held permanently paused at half time.
At the beginning of the recovery journey, venues such as the Kia Oval felt fortunate to have been chosen to welcome just 1,000 cricket fans as part of the first pilot events, carried out to inform government policy on the safe return of audiences to venues and events in England.
A year on, we’re looking back to see what operators’ experiences were and how they implemented what they learned from the pilot events in the pathway to full stadiums.
“One of our key priorities after the first pilot event was making sure all the information we gained was disseminated and really examined,” explains Alex Lewis, venue director of the Kia Oval. “We had to look at the learnings internally ahead of the second pilot and make adjustments where they were necessary to make sure we were constantly improving.”
This involved changes such as staggering staff arrivals, allocating more staff so more breaks could be taken, and opening more areas to improve social distancing. Any spots that encouraged visitors to dwell or gather in groups, such as beer shelves or bar tables in concourse areas, were removed to encourage people to move back to their allocated seats, where social distancing was far easier.
Lewis adds: “The key for us during the pilots was trying to create an environment where staff and customers felt safe. That was priority number one. Delivering the food and beverage offering was a fairly distant second until we determined how to ensure everybody was safe. The entire process was a real learning curve.”
The Oval worked closely with its catering partner, Levy UK + Ireland, throughout the process. “For a food business like Levy, the focus was on enhancing existing hygiene protocols that were already at a very high standard pre-pandemic,” says David Crowe, Head of Safety at Levy UK + Ireland. “Strict handwashing, regular sterilisation of work surfaces and periodical deep cleaning were already the norm, but we focused with our venues on how we could step up to even more stringent specifications over the course of the pilot programme.”
With food such an important aspect of any day out, Lewis explains that concessions had to be made for the sake of safety: “We were all trying to deliver as ‘normal’ an experience as possible for customers at the beginning. However, by the second pilot event, we realised that it just wasn't achievable given where we were with Covid at the time. It wasn't feasible to offer six different items, so we brought it down to two with just a meat and vegetarian option. The food and beverage has now been built back up to the point of a full offering, but it has been a very gradual process done in a safe and secure way for both teams and customers.”
Now back to full crowds, and while health and safety of course remains a priority, venues are largely focused on delivering great experiences and service once again. Desire to return to venues and watch sport again has been unrivalled, and their willingness to spend has never been greater - average spends have “rocketed”, says Lewis.
One area that has made a huge contribution in sports and entertainment venues over the course of the pandemic, both for safety and for improving the overall experience, is technology. Levy UK + Ireland has been an industry leader in events technology for a number of years. “We had a forward-thinking approach to going cashless, with our venue partner Tottenham Hotspur built to be the Premier League’s first cashless venue,” says Jon Davies, Managing Director of Levy UK + Ireland. “We have also been ahead of the curve on innovations such as digital screens and apps, allowing for pre-ordering of food and beverages with delivery at designated drop points. Alongside reducing waiting times and congestion, these innovations have helped customers to maintain safe distances – both from each other and from employees – when in venues.”
Davies says: “It’s been great to see fans able to return to sports and entertainment venues. Levy has done a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes with our venue partners to prepare for their safe return, and to ensure that they continue to have the exciting and memorable experiences they remember from before lockdown.”
The Oval has taken great pride in that fact that they, in hosting the pilot events, were “instrumental” in where we are today. “If it wasn't for these pilots, I don't think we would have had the summer that we started with this year,” says Lewis. “We’re now focused on trying to make the spectator experience as normal to pre-COVID as it can possibly be. Our goal is to make people come back to what they know and love.”
So, looking forward as we move on from the pandemic, what is the new priority? Sustainability, say both Levy and the Oval.
“More consideration needs to be taken by our industry as to how food fits into the modern-day event experience,” says Jon Davies. “While Covid may be our immediate crisis, our planet’s health is the longer-term issue. We are looking to reduce our food waste by 20% and use a minimum of 80% British seasonal fruit and vegetables by the end of this year and have drawn plans for a total ban of air freight in the transport of our produce, cutting down our emissions significantly.”
Alex Lewis echoes this: “The Kia Oval has been pushing the sustainability agenda for a long time. We were one of the first venues to completely eliminate single-use plastic in our bars. We’ve had a zero waste to landfill policy for a number of years now – we can’t renege on these commitments because of the pandemic. It'll be worse than the pandemic if we end up in a situation in five years’ time where we've missed our sustainability agenda.”