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Emirates Old Trafford seeks to evolve amid COVID-19

Emirates Old Trafford today (Thursday) began hosting the first of its behind-closed-doors Test matches between England and the West Indies, but the Manchester venue is already looking long and hard at how the events industry will evolve amid COVID-19.

Although primarily a cricket stadium, Emirates Old Trafford has become a leading destination for concerts, conferences and other events. Its showpiece concert for the summer of 2020, US rock band The Killers, was due to take place on May 30, but will now be held on June 12 next year.

Its substantial events portfolio also includes TheStadiumBusiness Summit & Venue Technology Showcase, which will take place from September 28-30. Lancashire Cricket’s adjustment to the new COVID-19 reality comes just months after it reported its highest ever annual turnover of £34m (€37.5m/$43m) for the 2019 financial year, with earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) having risen to a record £7.6m.

The EBITDA represented a tenfold increase since 2015 and was as an all-time record for a first-class cricket county, excluding minority interests and legacy reserves. The club’s net profit was £5m, also a new record.

Commenting on how COVID-19 has impacted on the club and Emirates Old Trafford business models, Angela Hodson, sales director at Lancashire Cricket, told TheStadiumBusiness.com: “Last year we delivered around £8.59m in hotel and conference and events revenue alone. When it got to March, when COVID really hit, everything completely stopped.

“What we found was that all the conference organisers, all the business on our books basically for the next four or five months, completely rescheduled their events to the back end of the year, so effectively between September and December.

“There’s no government guidance at present in terms of the events industry, and how that’s going to open up. This means that organisers are now starting to get nervous again, so we’re seeing this second wave, almost, of events being shifted into 2021. Or they’re looking to do some kind of hybrid event. It’s about how we support them through this.

“From a ticketing and hospitality point of view, this has completely stopped for the year. For certain games, we know they’re going to be played behind closed doors so we’ve setup a refund scheme, which at the minute has shown good retention in terms of people who’ve moved from the Pakistan Test to the India Test next year.

“We’ve done the same with Australia for the Pakistan T20 next year, or another game. That’s the kind of strategies we’re putting in place to try and retain as much sales, plus advanced sales for next year. That’s been the same for hotel and hospitality bookers. Most people have an appetite to keep their business in with us.

“With conference and events, we’re doing a lot behind the scenes. We’re trying as much as we can to give organisers confidence that we can deliver events safely at the back end of the year. I think all of the work that has been done for behind closed doors cricket, and setting up these new processes and procedures, you can see in your mind that events can be delivered successfully.

“The events industry is born out of people who are very organised, meticulous planners and with the right processes and procedures in place we can very much deliver events in an organised way. In the same way that retail has opened up, as well as bars and restaurants.

“If we can work effectively with organisers, and get some kind of guidance from the government, I totally believe we’re an industry that are able to do this successfully. We basically just need to keep lobbying the government and I think we need to be shouting about how we can deliver these events safely.”

Looking forward, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) this month announced that Emirates Old Trafford will host England matches behind-closed-doors later this summer against Pakistan. The venue was selected to host a further four internationals, on top of the West Indies games.

This includes the first Test of a three-match series between August 5-9, before then hosting all three T20 matches between England and Pakistan on August 28 and 30, and September 1. Meanwhile, all 18 first-class counties last week agreed to participate in the same competitive red-ball and white-ball competitions during this summer’s shortened season.

All counties will be eligible to compete in the four-day Bob Willis Trophy, which will be followed by a shortened T20 Blast competition beginning on August 27. Regarding the future plans for cricket, Hodson said: “I think the ops team have proven that things can be setup successfully. It’s a very nerve wracking, challenging situation because nobody has ever dealt with this before.

“You’re constantly testing yourself in terms of ‘have we set it up the right way’, but I think you can setup an environment as safely as you possibly can by maintaining social distance and hygiene standards etc across the venue. We’ve just got to keep improving these measures and what we do, in order to open up these industries.

“For cricket, there’s talk that by the back end of the year we hopefully can have small crowds. We’re doing a lot of work behind the scenes in terms of what that looks like from a stadium bowl point of view, how would you consider a reduced crowd, how would you separate them, access to the stadium and movement around it, using toilets and food and beverage outlets etc.”

For Lancashire, that throws up the added challenge of accommodating domestic cricket at a time when Emirates Old Trafford is locked down for internationals. Steve Davies, Lancashire Cricket’s operations director, confirmed the club is currently looking at Liverpool and Chester Boughton Hall as alternative venues.

He said: “We’re hearing the same rumours of having 5,000 to 10,000 people in a stadium. I like to think we’re giving the government a lot of confidence that we can prepare for this. There is nothing set in stone in terms of what the future looks like, unfortunately.

“We’ve obviously got Pakistan here in a few weeks’ time, but we’ve got to host the West Indies first and beyond that look at other internationals we may end up hosting. And then there’s domestic cricket. The news that four-day matches will resume in August is great, but gives us another challenge as our site is currently locked down.

“I don’t imagine the guys will want to be playing in a car park so we’ll have to find a second place to play and set that up similarly to Emirates Old Trafford. This is clearly not ideal, but is something we’re confident we can achieve.”

While fans are currently not permitted within sports venues in the UK, Lancashire Cricket is already well advanced in its planning for when this is allowed at Emirates Old Trafford. “Within our ticketing team, we’re already looking at the maths behind how do we split down the stadium and move people around,” said Davies.

“Clearly if everyone is in the same household they can sit together, but if not, we have to pick and choose where they can go. In all honesty this could be a really good experience. You’ll get a lot more space, be a lot less cramped and it’ll be easier to get food and drink etc.

“From an ops perspective we’ve got to look at how we get them in and out safely, which shouldn’t be a big problem as it’s a big site with plenty of entry and exit points. We would want do screening upon entry, and then it’s really a case of doing what we’re doing now in terms of PPE, sanitisers and one-way systems where we may need them.

“Where technology comes into play, we’re already talking about seat service. In terms of F&B (food and beverage), how do we get seat service done in a way that’s fairly normal in other industries and sports venues.”

Hodson adds: “From a ticketing point of view what we’ve done at the moment, specifically around the (domestic) T20s, is look at what tickets we’ve sold so far. We’re working on 25% capacity at the stadium being operational.

“For a lot of the T20s at the moment that’s fine in terms of ticket sales. The Yorkshire game would be a problem, but we’re looking at how we would whittle those sales down, so to speak. We’re looking per stand. For some stands that’s not an issue, but for others we’re looking at how we could move people if they choose to retain their tickets.

“It’s a complicated process, but I’d say the bones are there in terms of what we’ve got to work to. But from a stadium bowl point of view it’s certainly achievable, and we could definitely deliver it in a safe way which still gives fans a great experience when they come into the ground.”

Check out the first part of this feature, analysing Emirates Old Trafford’s approach to staging cricket in a bio-secure environment, here.

Images: Lancashire Cricket