Is culture the new petrol?

In praise of a resilient but weakened sector

“Challenges with staffing, suppliers, delays in deliveries and legislation run the risk of turning culture and events into the next industry hit by post pandemic pandemonium.

In Spring, Liverpool was at the centre of the Event Research Programme — the Government initiative to explore the possibility of major events returning safely as we started to get to grips with Covid-19.

Looking back just a few short months and it seems almost quaint to think about how monumental an achievement it felt for us to open the first nightclub, run the first festival and host the first business events in the UK for over a year.

Like cities across the UK, Liverpool is once again bouncing. Bars, restaurants, clubs and festivals are open again and the familiar beat of major events has returned to a city which loves to get together.

Just this week in Culture Liverpool we have hosted the UK’s biggest ever Pokémon Go event in the UK, welcoming tens of thousands of people to the city, we’re also installing (in the rain) River of Light — our annual light art festival which opens to the public on the 22 October.

On top of that we are planning more than a dozen other events for the first few months of 2022.

But beneath all of the energy and excitement which this brings, cracks are starting to show in an industry which is notoriously seasonal and propped up by freelance staff.

Firstly, getting staff and contractors is hard. Companies both big and small from marquee builders to power providers are struggling to attract staff with the skills they need. Many people have left what can be a fickle industry during the pandemic and moved into something else. Others are finding Covid restrictions are crippling their ability to do what they could do at the speed they could deliver it previously.

For some event requirements where we would have previously had a pick of great suppliers we are now struggling to find anyone who can deliver what we need.

Secondly, prices have skyrocketed. For the multitude of reasons we all know, things are much more expensive than they were 18 months ago. High demand and limited supply is driving the price ever higher really testing us in terms of the ambitions we have for what we want to deliver.

Finally, many people are still not totally comfortable with being in big crowds and going back to the kind of shows they would have done pre-pandemic. Anecdotally, some fully sold-out events are seeing almost 20% of ticket holders not show up for gigs. Events and festivals which would usually be packed to the rafters have a lot more room at the back than they used to.

No one can be blamed for not feeling confident enough to party like it is 2019, but this audience uncertainty is causing real problems for event organisers — how many people should you plan for, will enough people turn up to make the event worthwhile?

This might just be a blip — a reaction to the unique moment we find ourselves in and as confidence increases things may start to return to normal. But for those entrepreneurs, those companies, those freelancers who have stuck with it and are trying to reboot this is really hard

We will have lost people for good who have found the regularity of pay and conditions better in a 9 to 5 but therefore we need to invest in skills and training.

The arts and events world need to shine a very strong light on all the careers you can have to make an audience laugh and cry, those electricians, riggers production crew.

The River of Light Trail is outdoor and beautiful and will take the audience on a journey of the imagination. On Friday people will forget the crane drivers, the technicians the hundreds of people behind the scenes who put this on and that is right and proper. But it’s really important that those involved in policy around recovery don’t, otherwise things may never be back to 2019.”

Claire McColgan, Director of Culture Liverpool