The Best Fans Are From Scotland: Q’s With Debbie McWilliams, Head Of Live Entertainment, The SSE Hydro

The SSE Hydro in Glasgow, Scotland, ranked six in the arena category of Pollstar‘s midyear worldwide ticket sales charts. It was the most successful UK venue in terms of ticket sales, just ahead of Manchester Arena
The venue sold 1,076,209 tickets in the calendar year 2017, and stood at 420,714 for 2018 at press time. The Hydro is part of the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), which also includes the 3,000 capacity Armadillo and the SEC conference center. The campus as a whole sold 1,304,657 tickets in 2017, and 489,162 in the first half of 2018.
The SSE Hydro
The SSE Hydro
– The Scottish Event Campur
From left: the Armadillo, the conference center, and the crown jewel: the SSE Hydro.

In the financial year ending March 2018,  SEC turnover increased by 1 percent to £29.1 million, EBITDA increased by 11 percent to £3.8 million and operating profit increased by 19 percent to £1.3 million. 
The SEC is owned and operated by Scottish Event Campus Limited. 90.86 percent of its shares are owned by Glasgow City Council, and the rest by a number of private institutions, such as banks, pension funds and insurance companies. 
The SSE Hydro, which celebrates its fifth anniversary in September, feels quite intimate despite its capacity of 13,000, thanks to its elliptical sloping shape inspired by Greek and Roman amphitheaters. Pollstar visited was on site to catch Paul Simon play one of his last solo concerts in Europe, July 11, and took the opportunity to ask Debbie McWilliams, the venue’s head of live entertainment, a few questions.

Debbie McWilliams
– Debbie McWilliams
Head of live entertainment at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow, Scotland

Is it a good time to be working in the live business?

There has never been a better time to work in the live entertainment business. For artists, this is their main revenue stream and as such more are touring, resulting in an abundance of choice for the consumer.
Productions are focussed on delivering the best possible experience at a time when people are placing more importance on buying experiences over things – the result is a buoyant marketplace.
Can you talk about the SSE Hydro’s business? How’s it doing, how has it developed over the past years?
Business levels for the SSE Hydro have been consistently positive since opening in 2013.
A new building generates a lot of interest and a strong desire to play there. We have had the great fortune of hosting some spectacular special events every year since opening, including; the Commonwealth Games, the  EMA’s and BBC Sports Personality all in the first year and we have continued to attract high profile special events every year thereafter with Andy Murray Live, World Gymnastic in 2015 and this year we play host to the European Gymnastics in August.
There is so much consumer goodwill towards the venue, which we don’t take for granted. The fan experience is at the very top of our priority list. We want to deliver the best events in the best venue and believe we have the best people in place to ensure that happens.
How important are concerts in your overall business plan, compared to other events you put on at the arena?
Of course, concerts make up a significant part of our overall live entertainment business, however comedy with the likes of Still Game and Kevin Bridges has made up a significant percentage of the overall live entertainment business every year and as mentioned earlier we have had a strong special events programme too.
Are you looking into e-sports at all and other new forms of entertainment, such as YouTube stars on stage etc?
Yes, we have invested a significant amount of time and research into understanding the e-sports market and the only barrier to our hosting events of this nature thus far is having available tenancy. We are confident that we will play host to a big e-sport event in the not too distant future. YouTube acts are also an emerging marketplace and whilst we haven’t hosted anything of Hydro scale we have staged some smaller events in other spaces on the campus.  
How else do you keep the venue busy? Are putting on program during the day?
Out with live entertainment business levels, the venue hosts conference sector business. We’ve played host to TEDx, religious meetings and events aimed at school children. Looking ahead, the booking team are in discussion with keys clients about hosting festival style events across our campus.  
Do you use your own in-house ticketing system? Do you allocate to third-party ticketing systems?
Ticketmaster is the ticketing partner for our campus.  As a venue we don’t allocate to third party agents, however from time to time, clients do.
Are you going to adopt the AXS Marketplace, seeing it has a strategic partnership with AEG?
We are part of an industry that acknowledges that there is a resale market so as a venue we welcome the recent announcements from AXS Marketplace and Ticketmaster on new initiatives that provide transparency for fans.
Do you have a VIP offering?
On an event by event basis VIP packages are offered and delivered by the promoter.  We do offer yearly venue VIP experience with our suite option and club membership.  Naming rights partner SSE offer lounge access as an upgrade to their customers. 
What makes Scotland unique, when it comes to the live music scene? Is what people say about Scottish live music fans being the most passionate fans true?
Before any artist takes to stage at the SSE Hydro they pass a large clock which carries the message ‘time to meet the best fans in the world’ and there is no better depiction of the Scottish audience, who are the most vocal, musically knowledgable, discerning and loyal.
If the Scottish fans take you to their heart you are in there forever. For example only last week Roger Waters received the loudest and longest ovation that I have ever heard. It was a very special moment not only for the spectator but for Roger himself, I’m sure. 
Do you have a favourite live band of all times?
For me, it’s Take That. I have had the privilege to see them perform every time they have played Glasgow in their 25-year career. Not only do they have great songs but what they deliver from a production perspective goes beyond the realms of music and crosses into a theatrical extravaganza. They know what their fans want and give them exactly that every time.
They are as strong as a three-piece as they were as a five-piece and are possibly the only boy band who can boast that they have a large male following too. Great songs coupled with great production and a focus on giving the fans what they have come to expect – a winning formula.
What are the challenges, live music is facing in Scotland? Do you have enough venues of different sizes, so up and coming artists can build a career, working up through the different capacities?  
Glasgow has always been rich in terms of the quality and quantity of atmospheric venues.  Many artists have launched careers in this city. Take Biffy Clyro for example, they launched a career at
Is the government supportive of live music?
The Hydro stands as a beacon of city partnership. As major shareholder, city support was integral to the delivery of the SSE Hydro and the people of Glasgow responded by making it consistently one of the busiest arenas in the world. Glasgow is a UNESCO world city of music, which is a great accolade and we’ll continue to work hard with them to maintain it.
Have the security requirements for live events in Scotland changed much over the past years, given that live events have become a worldwide target for terrorists?
There is no doubt that one of the biggest challenges that we face not only as a venue but as an industry is security and our focus is making sure that we look after the welfare of all our visitors in a way that does just that whilst not impacting on their enjoyment.
This is an ongoing process, of course, and one of our main focuses. As well as enhanced security measures such as bag and full body searches we regularly liaise with the appropriate authorities for guidance including Police Scotland and carry out numerous table top exercises to train and test the SEC team.
At certain times, ticket checks take place at entry points to the site of the Campus (such as the link bridge to the station) restricted to ticket holders only. Looking ahead, the focus will remain on public safety as we strive for an even safer campus for all staff and visitors which is of paramount importance. 
Another topic of major importance is sustainability.

Of course, we continually strive to improve our sustainability practices and have retained a Gold Award in line with the Green Business Tourism Scheme. We’re working towards ensuring that the whole campus can operate on a 100 percent recyclable and compostable basis. So far, there have been over 15 initiatives implemented, including cultivating our own SEC honey on site – judging by the great summer we have had this year we are hoping for a bumper harvest!
Another example during the year was when we held our first fully compostable event, with no waste to landfill from a sold-out Mogwai concert. The band had chosen the Marine Conservation Society as their charity for the concert and had enquired about the waste policy at the venue. In line with the ‘No Straws’ campaign, Mogwai requested that none were served at the event. The SEC team managed to find some fully compostable straws to use, ensuring that everything served at the event was fully recyclable and this spurred us on to remove all plastic straws from our campus from February this year.
Anything you would like to add about the SSE Hydro that people should know.  
The SSE Hydro has become an iconic part of the Glasgow skyline and arguably delivers the best live experience in Europe. It’s very much a city venue in every sense of the word. Within 15 minutes of experiencing a live event you can be in a fantastic restaurant, bar or in a whisky distillery on the banks of the River Clyde!