Touring’s ‘Post-COVID Crash-Test-Dummies’ Navigate Labor Shortage, Supply Chain, Inflation

Production Live! 2022
– Production Live! 2022
Jamie Cheek (FBMM), Trent Hemphill (Hemphill Brothers Coach), Lance “KC” Jackson, Victor Reed ( Global Event Production Network), Justin Carbone (Rock-It Global), Steve O’Connell (SOS Global).

Much of this year’s Pollstar Live! And Production Live programming content, much like last year, is about navigating – and still determining – what the “new normal” looks like for the touring industry. 

With 2021 having semblance of an outdoor season and notable tours taking place into the new year, that new normal is solidifying. On the production side, however, this means ever-increasing costs, uncertainly overseas and staffing difficulties.
“The work we did September into December, it was like a game of roulette,” says veteran stage production manager and Roadies Of Color United co-founder Lance “KC” Jackson. “Despite the fact the artists cut down on the amount of production, and our labor calls have reduced, you show up in the building and its like, ‘Are the (stage)hands going to be there?’”
Jackson noted one particular show where personnel was so scarce that they hired security, ushers and other part-time workers to assist with load-out.  “That was the worst case,” he  said, adding that it worked out, although took longer than usual with the inexperienced makeshift crew. 
Staffing has been particularly difficult in the trucking and transportation space, with many experienced drivers pivoting to trucking during the pandemic and some not coming back. While there is some overlap between driving trucks in multiple types of businesses, an inexperienced driver behind the wheel of a tour bus can spell disaster.
“I can have a brand new bus and a bad driver and we’re both coming home pretty quick,” says Trent Hemphill, President & CEO, Hemphill Brothers Coach Company. “We Learned that pretty quick a long time ago.” Hemphill notes that while the driver pool is now back to full strength after hiring and training new drivers, which he says has led to a bit of a youth movement. Hemphill now has the company now has weekly meetings to take stock of the driver situation as well. 
Victor Reed, CEO of Global Event Production Network, says ramping back up in late 2021 was like being “the crash test dummies of touring post-COVID,” with labor calls coming up short, buses hard to come by and overall scarcity. He says he ended up bringing eight skilled traveling personnel to help alleviate problems, with their own bus approved. However, then it took weeks just to get a bus. “What’s going on here?” he says, joking that he quit college to join the touring industry 40 years ago but may go back to school now.
On the freight and logistics side, being at the mercy of seaports, airlines and global economic turmoil is nothing new, although COVID and price increases exacerbated things. 
“We said we don’t want to be team of doom and gloom, and don’t want to say awful for the next year or two,” said Rock-It-Global’s Justin Carbone. “As the world opens back up, also things are going to ease out in terms of supply,” he says, with ports easing up and staffing catching up. 
The revamp may be geographical, with Europe likely followed by Asia and Australia, but it seems to be getting there.
“It’s all doable, it just may have to be done differently,” says Steve O’Connell, Co-Founder & President of SOS Global. He adds that it’s been important to invest in and compensate personnel accordingly, including hiring people full time or long-term rather than on contract.   “I’m very positive it’s going to sort itself out,” O’Connell says, stressing that navigating the current landscape and making it work is what his company is supposed to do.
Easier said than done, planning ahead and having contingency plans are more important than ever, although getting artists to choose and design their productions a year and a half in advance is not likely. 
“The optimistic view is that when tours start around the world again, logistics will be there right with it,” Carbone says. “Whether it happens? We’ll see.”