Andrew Lloyd Webber, seen at a premiere in December, told a Parliament hearing that U.K. theaters cannot remain closed much longer. (Getty Images)

Events execs: Battered industry must know when it can open

Witnesses including musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, Melvin Benn of Festival Republic and Lucy Noble of the Royal Albert Hall told Parliament on Tuesday that the live events sector needs a target date for resuming fully attended shows to give U.K. venues the opportunity to prepare for the return of audiences.

They were among several high-profile executives from the industry who spoke at a hearing on reopening venues in the U.K.

“There comes a point now where we really can’t go on much more,” said Lloyd Webber, owner of the seven-theater LW Theatres group.

Rebecca Kane Burton, chief executive of LW Theatres, said the theater sector alone employed around 1 million people, most of whom have a job only when events are on. “It’s a really bad, catastrophic time,” she said. “We need to find a way out of it.”

She emphasized that opening theaters isn’t like flipping a switch. “We need that conditional reopening date as soon as possible and get this part of the economy back up and running,” she said.

Said Lloyd Webber, “Give us a date!”

He said it would be impossible for theaters to operate with distancing mandates and reduced capacities in place, explaining that hits such as “The Lion King” and “Hamilton” were exceptions and that the average theater show worked with much tighter margins.

Using the model of Seoul, South Korea, where his show “The Phantom of the Opera” has been running through all but three weeks of the pandemic with hygiene mandates in place but no distancing, Lloyd Webber and Kane Burton had planned a pilot event at London’s LW Theatres-owned Palladium to demonstrate how theaters could operate safely without distancing, but politicians’ nervousness surrounding COVID-19 led to a Palladium pilot show in July with distancing in place.

Measures such as temperature checks at the entrance, a one-way system throughout the venue, hand sanitizers, contactless payments, Silver Ion hygienic door handle covers, and the wearing of face coverings were all in place.

Kane Burton offered some insight into extra costs that those government mandates produce. The Palladium, for instance, usually has a staffing ratio of one staff member for every 40 guests. During the pilot in July, the ratio was 1 to 10.

Customers have to feel confident returning, although that seemed to be the least of Kane Burton and Lloyd Webber’s worries: Surveys indicate a keen interest in returning to live events among the audience. Indeed, the presale for some LW Theatres shows next year is going well.

Lloyd Webber said that he had been wondering why airlines are allowed to operate at full capacity but that he hasn’t yet received a satisfying answer from government representatives.

When asked about the risks to public health by reopening too early, Lloyd Webber answered that there was risk involved in everything but that it must be weighed among all factors.

“A million people out of work poses risks as well,” Kane Burton added.

LW Theatres has furloughed about 60% of its staff. The government furlough program is to end in October, and all witnesses at the hearing agreed that the industry would be in trouble then without a green light to proceed with shows.

Melvin Benn, managing director of U.K. promoter Festival Republic, informed the politicians about the reality of running festivals. He confirmed that promoting a festival with distancing mandates in place wasn’t possible.

His solution, which he already made public in June, is to test ticket holders as they arrive.

When the hearing’s chair, Parliament member Julian Knight, questioned how Benn would test 200,000 festival goers, Benn pointed toward the self test, “which seems to be around the corner.” People with a negative result could prove this through an app at the gate.<

Benn was also asked whether he thought the fact that many festival goers took drugs could mislead them into ignoring COVID-19 mandates. He said he was confident that he could create an environment that was also safe for people seeking “personal abandonment.”

“That’s not difficult,” he emphasized. What has been proving difficult, however, is getting the U.K.’s departments for culture and the public health engaged in the efforts.

Lucy Noble, who aside from her executive role at the Royal Albert Hall also heads the U.K.’s National Arenas Association, addressed the work required to restart, pointing out that 80% of the hall’s staff was on furlough. “It takes time to remobilize. It’s not as simple as saying you can have an audience back next week,” she said.

The Royal Albert Hall, which is privately funded, has lost income of 18 million pounds, or $23.4 million, during the employment ban of the past months. Since the building is not eligible for grants, its only recourse is loans, which it has already taken out once and will do again.

The Royal Albert Hall needs to operate at 80% or 90% capacity to break even, she said. It could use a major cash injection, for example, in the form of a subsidy on seats it is forced to keep empty. An insurance or underwriting scheme from the government to cover canceled shows would help as well.

Noble added that distancing requirements didn’t affect just the customer-facing business but also the entire backstage area of venues, especially in the case of large-scale productions involving many artists.<

She reiterated Lloyd Webber’s point about needing a reopening date. “If a date cannot be given, the furlough scheme needs to be extended,” she said.

Speaking about the arenas represented by the NAA, Noble made it clear that “all venues are on their knees” right now.