Coronavirus, Brexit & Empty Theaters: An Update On The Global Venue Landscape

Talking venues at Pollstar Live! 2020
Black Coffee Prod
– Talking venues at Pollstar Live! 2020
From left: Brian Kabatznick, John Boyle, Michael Brill, Ashish Hemrajani, Lucy Noble and James Taylor.

Brian Kabatznick, EVP, International Facilities, Oak View Group, hosted a panel at Pollstar Live! 2020, giving the audience an update on the global venue landscape.
A group of venue operators from different countries that couldn’t be more diverse in terms of their respective economies and cultures, contributed to an insightful session: Michael Brill, CEO, Dusseldorf LIVE (Germany), Ashish Hemrajani, CEO of BookMyShow (India), Lucy Noble, Artistic and Commercial Director, Royal Albert Hall,James Taylor, Senior Commercial Manager, Wembley Stadium (both UK), and John Boyle, President, Live Nation Japan.
Brian Kabatznick
Black Coffee Prod
– Brian Kabatznick
EVP, International Facilities, Oak View Group

Kabatznick opened the discussion with some major topics moving this business at the moment, for instance the Corona virus.

Hemrajani said he had one cancellation by an artist going through China on his way to India so far. He said it was a serious outbreak, with three cases in India, but no deaths yet. “It’s about containing it, once that happens, we’ll be bounce back,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if more cancellations followed.
Boyle said he hasn’t had any cancellations yet, but probably would, seeing that artists touring Asia usually stop in China. “If they can’t do China, the economics of touring Asia changes a bit,” he explained
He said he was “more optimistic about it than others,” and pointed out that people in Japan already fancied wearing masks even in times when there was no threat around. While the number of people waring a mask may have risen, there didn’t seem to be a climate of fear. 
Touching upon  Brexit, Noble said that it “hasn’t had an impact yet,” but added that it was “too early to tell.” So far, however, there’ve been no cancellations because of Brexit at the Royal Albert Hall.
She was hopeful that, after years of poisoning the political and social climate in the U.K., people were on motivated to move forward with stability again.
Taylor confirmed that Brexit has had “no impact at all,” on Wembley Stadium’s business.
Brill agreed that it was “too early to say,” but pointed out that “everybody’s well prepared.” 
“National product may become more important in some continental European countries,” he said, and pointed towards potential changes to the agency business, seeing that most agents Germany deals with are based in the U.K.
Touring mainland Europe would definitely become more difficult for U.K. artists, in particular up-and-coming talent that can’t afford to add another tour day abroad just to account for prolonged border processing.
Kabatznick then went into some of the new entrants to the venue markets, including the MSG Sphere projects in Las Vegas and London.
“The Garden have a vision,” he said, adding that their business plan was three-fold: programming during the day with content they own, touring, and product launches/corporate events.
His own company OVG, which is Pollstar’s parent company, currently has six new arena projects in the making.
Lastly, the merger between AEG and SMG had created the largest venue operator in the world, ASM Global. Kabatznick asked his panelists how they saw themselves positioned in this dynamic market.
Noble recalled that when London’s O2 Arena originally opened, it had a tiny impact on the Hall for a short time. Especially in the first years of opening, artists did want to play there, seeing that it has a much bigger cap than the Hall.
Nowadays, however, the Royal Albert Hall isn’t in competition with other venues, it enjoys this iconic status that will always make artists want to play it..
Lucy Noble
Black Coffee Prod
– Lucy Noble
Artistic and Commercial Director, Royal Albert Hall

The Sphere was a completely different proposition, Noble elaborated, adding that “it does concern me that another arena is opening right next door to the O2. It feels a bit mad to me.

“We have many arenas in the UK, some are doing well, some not so. Are we over saturating the market? 
She went into the many closures of grassroots venues in the U.K., and pointed out that lovely old theaters were just sitting empty on a high street. 
“Sometimes I think we should be looking at the assets we already got,” said Noble. “Having said that, I’m also excited. Introducing competition is a good thing.”
Taylor, who’s welcoming the competition from London Stadium as well as the new home stadium of Tottenham Hotspur, said 2019 was best year ever for Wembley Stadium.
“We’ve got the brand of Wembley, that helps. But, yeah, two new players in the last five years. It’s about managing the calendar effectively,” he explained.
Part of that was turning into a two-night minimum venue. It doesn’t seem that Wembley Stadium is losing a lot of content because of it. 14 out of 16 potential stadium acts chose Wembley last year, according to Taylor.
What helped massively in attracting music was the hiring of music expert to the venues events team, which is now made up of 50% music and 50% sports experts.
And then, there’s India.
It’s always fascinating to hear Hemrajani speak at Pollstar Live!, because he’s simply dealing with such a different set of challenged in a 1.3 billion population market, where the richest of the rich often live next door to the poorest of the poor.
However, there’s an emerging middle class that is going to change the economics of putting on live entertainment in the country going forward.
The company sells some 20 million tickets per month, mostly for movies. “Indians get their music fix from films,” Hemrajani explained, “you don’t need arenas yet.”
He said the ROI in India would not come from an arena worth billions.
“We need to learn how to walk before we can run,” he continued, explaining that his company was going to build seven state-of-the art “cirque-type arenas on steroids,” in some of the country’s biggest cities.
He explained that these venues had to be located centrally, because transportation in India was very slow. You couldn’t build an arena outside a city, as it takes you roughly two-and-a-half hours to cover a distance of 20 miles in India.
Using cricket pitches for concerts was out of the questions, as the grass on the pitch is holy to Indians.
He also emphasized that the country wasn’t dependent on international talent. India is made up of 28 states with different languages, cultures, and their own rich heritage and cultural industry. These artists also needed a stage to perform on.
Some 250 million Indians speak English. “We’ve got indie bands, music events, English speaking local bands, that attract 10,000 to 15,000 people in open air parks,” Hemrajani explained.
Ashish Hemrajani
Black Coffee Prod
– Ashish Hemrajani
Founder of Big Tree Entertainment, owner of BookMyShow

BookMyShow was Live Nation’s partner when U2 closed the monumental “Joshua Tree” tour in Mumbai last year. It was the band’s first concert in India, and the highest grossing show in India to date.

The band didn’t compromise on the production, everything was flown in by plane. 40,000 people bought tickets at “nosebleed prices,” according to Hemrajani.
“We had to do some crazy shit to put up the show,” he said, explaining that it wasn’t about the band, or about the tickets. “It’s about moving people efficiently and getting them back home, making sure there’s food, water, sustainability. 
BookMyShow had organized a dedicated Joshua Tree train to get people in and out of the city, there was a helicopter service as well as 175 air-conditioned buses moving some 7,000 people, plus parking lots where Ubers were pre-parked.
Japan is another super-interesting market when it comes to venues. Boyle explained that most of the venues in the country were being built specifically as single-purpose venues.
He explained that Live Nation Japan recently acquired the management rights to a volleyball arena in the middle of Tokyo. The building would be shut down for a year to be transformed into a multi-purpose venue. 
“There’s not enough 20,000 seaters,” Boyle explained, adding “85% of the business is domestic.”
He said that there was hardly any more land available in Tokyo, apart from a couple of pieces everybody was trying to get their hands on in central Tokyo. 
And while he doubted that whoever bought the land would build a concert venue on it, he emphasized: “There is nothing between 10,000 and 30,000 [capacity]. If someone built a venue there, they’d win.”
Boyle was desperate for venues, “please, just give me four walls and a stage so we can do shows,” he said, adding, “Japan is the only market Live Nation isn’t the dominant promoter in. Our challenge is market share. You can’t get market share if you don’t have venues.
“If we get Tokyo right, Japan will grow. If we get Japan right, all of Asia will grow. Tokyo is the most important city. It’s LA, New York, London, Tokyo. It’s the most exciting city in the world right now.”
The discussion moved on to Germany, where not many cities have a lot of money to spend these days. Düsseldorf is an exception, the city can invest, which is “necessary to enhance experience for everybody coming into the venue,” according to Brill, whose team was looking at 5G, and building additional facilities, ie invest to be ready for the future.
He explained that the D.Live set of venues was located in a great catchment area of 30 million people, but surrounded by lots of competing venues, which is why his team needed to stay on top op its game at all times.
Noble talked a bit about the Royal Albert Hall’s upcoming 150 anniversary, which will be celebrated throughout all of 2021. The program, which is currently being finalized with the Hall’s many business partners, will be announced in May.
The Hall is a Grade 1 listed building, and it can be challenging to stay relevant in today’s market, Noble admitted. Maintaining the building was a constant priority.
“Space is an issue,” she said, “backstage and public areas are relatively small.”
Which is why the Hall has started to dig downwards. The office staff is about to move underground to release some space upstairs. The Hall also just invested £2.2 billion into a new sound system.
Since the building receives no government funding, “whatever we do needs to make money,” said Noble.