NEW BOSS: Rebecca Kane Burton stepped in as interim general manager after original GM Gary Roden stepped down amid opening delays. (Courtesy venue)

Co-op Live has come to life after a rocky start. The arena’s opening was postponed three times to ensure it was safe for patrons, performers and staff, safety, according to Oak View Group, the building’s owner and operator (and VenuesNow’s parent company). The Manchester, England venue officially opened on May 14 with a performance by local act Elbow.

Since then, Eric Clapton and Barry Manilow have performed on Co-op Live’s stage. VenuesNow caught up with interim general manager and UK venue veteran Rebecca Kane Burton, ahead of two performances by comedian Peter Kay, followed by Nicki Minaj and The Eagles.

Kane Burton, who formerly worked at Sodexo Live, LW Theatres and The O2, took over following Co-op Live’s troubled start.

VenuesNow: There may be easier times to take on general management of a building?

Rebecca Kane Burton: Apparently, it’s in the Kane family blood that we like challenges. In seriousness, having run The O2 for five years was a great training ground. I have lots of very good colleagues who are still running The O2 and there are old team members who now work for OVG. That made life a bit easier: to walk into a room, and recognize faces. I pride myself on spending time with teams, walking the building, getting to know people, because that’s the only way we can get things done. The first few weeks were spent getting to know who was there, what challenges we had and how I could support and make this a reality. Some long nights, getting things over the line.

After a bumpy start, what’s your state of mind?

Still brimming with energy, and excitement. Venues are in my bloodstream. I was watching with intrigue as OVG announced Co-op Live and never dreamed that I could play a role in helping get it open. But sometimes dreams come true. We’ve now delivered four events, there’s been a shift in the dynamic, and what that’s meant for this team. This team needed to open, they needed to start seeing the results of all their hard work, their preparation and planning. There’s nothing like the adrenaline kicking in when you’re about to go into a live event. Now that we’ve done four shows, we’re looking forward to demonstrating to everyone what a great facility this is.

Is the building completely finished, as far as all the publicly accessible spaces are concerned, including the suites and rooms like the AMP Room and Record Room?

All up and running and fully furnished. We’ve had a natural ramp-up in terms of the capacities we’ve been hosting. Peter Kay is our biggest event (May 23-24). We’ll have between 14,000 and 15,000 people, all of the levels will be in full use. All suites and premium areas have been working at full-tilt. There’s still work happening within the building, but it tends to be offices and back-of-house areas.

What were you working on just before this call?

Our lovely colleagues, and co-owners at Man City just won the Premier League and we’re looking to see whether we can host any activity and events with them. It’s what this building should do. It was designed to take up its corner in Manchester, and become a community asset and one that’s used by local businesses. Lots of requests and asks are now coming in, which is great.

As someone who’s worked in buildings for such a long time, is there any aspect of Co-op Live that surprised you?

The sound. The boss [Tim Leiweke] is very clear: if Bruce Springsteen and Don Henley give this building a vote of confidence from a sound point-of-view, then he’ll have delivered his passion for the last 30 years of delivering a building purpose-built for music. There’s never been a room this large anywhere with that clarity of sound. Artists and production teams are having to rethink how they set the scene up, because the sound is so good. Getting used to what we have here is a learning process, but those are nice problems to have.

The Barry Manilow concert coincided with the Premier League’s final match day (on May 19), where Man City claimed the title. The entire Etihad Campus must have been overflowing with fans wanting to celebrate? How was that day from an operational standpoint?

There were 53,000 people in Etihad Stadium, and we had 12,000 people coming in for Barry. We’ve been planning for that, there’s been desktop exercises, transport routes and communication to fans. The obvious challenge was re-educating Man City’s 30,000 season ticket holders, who’ve done the same thing weekend in and weekend out every fortnight, that some routes have changed. We’re thinking about the customer journey for new people, who’ve never been to the building before, having extra stewards out directing them and putting the friendliest face of the building out there to help people get to the right spot.

The biggest complaint I heard on Sunday was that the “Congratulations Premier League Champions” banner we put up on the rotating [LED halo] on top of our building wasn’t showing constantly, so the Man City fans could be photographed with it. Again, a nice problem to have. The building literally lights up in a way I’ve never seen a building do before, other than the Sphere.

Based on your experience from the first four events, are you happy with the flow of people inside the building?
I always say running a venue is a little bit like running an airport. People’s single-minded determination is to be on that plane before it takes off, because there aren’t another 1o people waiting behind. Airports are brilliant at telling you how long the queues are for security, how long it takes to get to your gate. We do a lot of messaging and signing, too, making sure people feel comfortable. People will only go two or three blocks away from where they’ve sat, to find food, drink or a toilet, they’re not going to be adventurous enough to go any further. We’re never going to change that mentality. In terms of the design, bars, positioning of toilets, it’s about reassuring people that there are plenty of them. We’ve got people on the ground directing them to bars with shorter queues. We have more toilets per head than any other arena in the country. Our job is to make sure you get to enjoy the show, the before, the during, and getting you home safely. Everything else is down to the artist on stage. Once people have been here a couple of times, they’re going to know the spaces, they’re going to know what we’re capable of, and they’ll come earlier because they want to eat all the good food here.

Any other novel aspects to this venue?

The time spent thinking about the artist. It sounds really old because everything is about the artists. Without the artists, without content, we’re nothing, we’re dead. In the past, we haven’t thought enough about what it feels like to stand on stage. Partly, because the stage is sacrosanct. I went onto the stage at The O2 two, maybe three times in the five years I was there. You don’t enter onto somebody’s stage; it’s sacrosanct. But, what you miss from an operational point of view, is that we don’t get inside the headset of what it feels like as an artist to play that space. That’s where having someone like Harry Styles as part of the design team was so instrumental, because one of the things that irritates artists during the show are the hoardings, sponsorships and naming rights across the building. Most buildings are busy with lights and sweeps and that’s the most distracting for artists when they’re on that stage.

The same is true for their fans, who will do anything to get tickets for those few nights out of a year, however tough the economic environment. They need to feel like they’re having their own personal performance. There’s a lot to be said for creating the right environment, so that artists and fans get to enjoy that moment together. That is where this building excels.