After the better part of two years, it seems the world is starting to tentatively emerge from, or at the very least learn to coexist with the devastation wrought by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
While parts of Australia at one stage laid claim to being the most locked down areas in the world, restrictions around the nation are starting to ease for those who are fully vaccinated, and state governments have laid out plans for the further re-establishment of previous freedoms, including the resumption of international travel.
Worldwide, it’s a little more of a mixed bag – most US states have lifted restrictions, even as cases grow in some areas; the UK have done away with most COVID rules, though they face an uncertain winter; and with most of the EU seeing a downwards trend in cases, there are calls to allow fully vaccinated residents and travellers to move freely throughout the bloc.
Photo: Edwin Hooper / Unsplash
However, even as this most recent wave seems to be cresting, the pandemic has left in its wake significant economic concern, and has levelled a vast array of industries, most visibly the events and hospitality sectors. Stalwart restaurants closing their doors, major festivals cancelled at great financial loss, and countless jobs lost are only the tip of the iceberg, as estimates suggest that over $30 billion in revenue was lost in the live events sector worldwide. Restrictions such as travel bans, orders around limited movements, and caps on event and venue capacities have all contributed in some way to that figure, so now that we’re seeing them relaxed, will the events industry return? Let’s look at some major festivals worldwide to see how they’ve adapted and overcome the difficulties of COVID-19.
Plenty of major festivals saw significant losses; Byron Bay Bluesfest faced back to back cancellations over two years, including the 2021 edition which was cancelled just two days out. While this event was slated to run back in March before the most recent NSW lockdowns, it still highlighted a few of the major difficulties when running a large-scale event in Australia, particularly the looming threat of a state-wide snap lockdown. However, as vaccination rates across the nation continue to rise, there is reason to believe that a situation like the Bluesfest cancellation, based on a single case reported in the local area, will thankfully now be a thing of the past. Byron Bay Bluesfest will go ahead in April 2022 with a NSW Government approved COVID-19 safety plan, which includes measures such as a daily QR check in, fewer stages to allow for social distancing, and allocated zones for patrons to manage numbers. Major Australian festivals are now, for the most part, able to plan for up to 20,000 attendees, which is not a wholly insignificant number, but will also put further pressure on promoters who are attempting to return strongly.
Photo: Matteo Jorjoson / Unsplash
Similarly, the cancellation of Glastonbury for its 50th anniversary in 2020 was a disappointing way to reflect such a triumphant milestone for the popular festival, which they followed up in 2021 with a back-to-back no show. In the festival’s place, organisers pushed multimedia alternatives; 2020 saw the BBC join in celebrating 50 years by broadcasting a number of Glastonbury’s most famous sets across the originally slated weekend. In 2021, the organisers went a step further, and created a concert film, Live at Worthy Farm, at the famed festival grounds.
While lucky to have such resources at their disposal, it becomes clear that pivoting to other formats in case of a late cancellation due to COVID could be a viable strategy to retain fans in the mid-term; maintaining direct avenues to people through social media could assist in this. England currently faces no major restrictions for large scale events, though government guidance emphasises an importance on personal responsibility.
It is also worth noting that “Plan B” could still be implemented by the British government, which would involve mandatory vaccine certification requirements for events with over 500 patrons.
As for successful festivals post-COVID, there have been some great examples worldwide. A Delta variant surge in Chicago did not prevent Lollapalooza from going ahead this previous July and August, as the event became one of the first major American summer festivals to go ahead since the pandemic began.
The state of Illinois currently has no restrictions on social distancing or venue capacities, though festival organisers Live Nation still required either a proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival for the over 400,000 attendees. It seemed to work, with Chicago’s Public Health Commissioner Dr Allison Arwady attributing only 203 cases directly to the event. However, while Dr Arwady conceded that it was “not a zero-risk situation”, it appears there were areas the festival could have improved; according to eyewitnesses, the event was rife with scalpers offering fake COVID vaccination cards in the park outside. Additionally, video has shown event goers breaking into the venue, thereby circumventing the COVID protocols to get inside. It is clear that with these new protocols comes new challenges for event organisers, which may require stricter security measures.
Europe also saw its largest post-COVID festival staged in Novi Sad, Serbia as Exit Festival went ahead in front of over 180,000 fans this previous July. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Exit Festival was staged in Petrovaradin Fortress, a 240-year-old castle with “unmarked stone tunnels that lead attendees to entire stages”.
Working closely with the Serbian government, who have removed most restrictions as of June 21st, Exit Festival required either proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test, either from a medical practitioner or from the festival’s own testing site, which carried out 14,000 swabs over the space of the four day event. With fans from over 70 countries attending and no major spreading events reported, Europe’s first major festival of the summer was a great success and set the tone for a return to large crowds across the continent.
It is worth noting though that the inbuilt security mechanisms of a literal castle likely would have prevented break-ins like those seen at Lollapalooza, so tighter security measures and stringent COVID safety protocols are still highly recommended.
In addition to that is Thailand’s most famous festival, and likely Asia’s largest, the Songkran Festival – a country-wide celebration coinciding with the beginning of the Thai new year. Having taken place in mid-April, and officially run by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the festival consisted of numerous events of differing scales and activities in seven locations across the country. The festival was largely unrestrained, though the strongest restrictions were put in place by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, including sanctioning traditional practices while banning events that would involve close contact between people such as foam parties.
Events with more than 100 participants, as well as traditional activities with more than 300, were required to register with the administration – failure to do so could have resulted in a 40,000 baht fine ($1,600 AUD) or up to two years in jail. While such severe measures would be unlikely in western nations, it is encouraging to see events returning on a large national scale in certain nations. And with the Thai government scrapping quarantine measures for vaccinated visitors from over 60 countries, considered to be the largest step towards a return to normal tourism in Asia, it should see that events and festivals make a lasting return across the continent.
Photo: Egyptian Theater, Sundance Film Festival © Sundance Institute | photo by Weston Bury
While working within these restrictions laid out worldwide is the ideal approach to staging events in a post-COVID world, there are pathways that could avoid any lingering restrictions altogether. Events such as Sundance have gone a less traditional, yet equally valid route to relaunching – Festival Director Tabitha Jackson has laid out an interactive hybrid strategy that will see not only in-person screenings in the festival’s traditional home of Utah, but also digitally to 10 partners across the United States.
The festival will take place between January 20th and 30th in 2022 and will see 80 feature films screened across the country. This type of strategy is not only important in a world still grappling with COVID, but also opens up events to larger audiences than ever; Jackson estimates that over half a million people viewed the online 2021 programme, eclipsing Sundance’s largest ever numbers. Embracing virtual events appears to be the future of live events, regardless of any restrictions that may be in place around the world.
Globally, festivals have pivoted and adapted in a variety of manners, with most finding some form of success. Government restrictions have eased worldwide to allow events to be held in some capacity in virtually every corner of the globe. And while many major events have taken place, or are scheduled to take place, it seems apparent that the future of events will require either a certain level of hybridity, or at least stringent COVID protocols to ensure both safe and successful festivals.
As we continue to find the “new normal”, it seems that organisers will continue to work closely with international governments to see that major global festivals will remain operational, safe and successful.
Feature Photo: Martin Sanchez / Unsplash