Hosting events in the ‘new normal’ was the topic of discussion on Friday afternoon as Emirates Old Trafford hosted a virtual round table on how the sports and entertainment industries are adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The round table featured TheStadiumBusiness founder Ian Nuttall, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, Lancashire Cricket chief executive Daniel Gidney, and Marketing Manchester managing director Sheona Southern.

More than 300 industry event professionals registered to attend the webinar, which formed part of Emirates Old Trafford’s Safe in One Place campaign. The venue launched the campaign last month with the aim of sharing the knowledge and best practice it gained from hosting behind-closed-doors Test matches.

Safe in One Place highlights the measures required to host events in line with current UK government guidelines. It came following the recent announcement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that business events, conferences and exhibitions will be given the go ahead to reopen on October 1.

Friday’s webinar discussed whether the industry will be ready for a return on October 1, how it can prepare effectively for the return, whether the government has been fair in the way it has treated the industry, the importance of 90-minute testing, and the need for better guidance on socially distanced events.

Addressing the October 1 return date, Burnham said: “My advice to the industry would be to number one, focus on October 1 and get in place the arrangements for a safe return. Learn from Daniel’s experience at Emirates Old Trafford. If it goes wrong early on then I think your ability to lobby will be much reduced if you have a major breach of safety in the early days, so plan as much as possible for the safe return of events.

“What I would say, is that lobby them about that 10-metre squared rule. Let people experience a conference again and build a little bit of confidence and then go back later this year so say, ‘Look now can we relax this?’. Go for a safe, soft landing with the return and then lobby on the back of that. To go too fast too soon is too risky for the industry in my view.”

Emirates Old Trafford hosted the second and third Tests of England’s series against the West Indies last month, with the home team clinching the series 2-1 with a 269-run win over the tourists. TheStadiumBusiness.com spoke to Lancashire Cricket on how Emirates Old Trafford was able to adapt to the new reality.

During Friday’s webinar, Gidney discussed the importance of 90-minute COVID-19 testing kits in helping the events industry restart.

“That’s where we started when we were looking at hosting behind-closed-doors Test cricket, because there was reportedly at that stage a 90-minute kit, because if you want to be genuinely bio-secure that’s the only way you can guarantee it,” Gidney said.

“What soon became apparent is that although the government had ordered a number of these 90-minute kits from a supplier in America they weren’t actually accurate. The problem is, if you are trying to build consumer confidence, safety and trust, testing has to be at the heart of that strategy.

“Testing gives people confidence. Unless you can get the government to say these 90-minute tests are accurate … if you can they can be a gamechanger. It’s not a silver bullet: you still need a number of mitigations. I would still have thermo screening, take the delegate details for test and trace, still have one-way systems, hand gels, PPE and masks and, of course, social distancing.

“Ultimately, when people are paying for delegate, exhibitor or sponsorship spaces at an event, the cost of a single 90-minute testing kit is between £100 and £150 and that might become a cost of the industry.”

Southern also discussed the extent to which Manchester’s visitor attraction economy has been devastated by the pandemic.

“We have a tourism analyst here at Marketing Manchester and she estimated to our volume and value by the end of August we will have lost almost 47% of the annual £9bn visitor economy, which is £4.2bn,” she said. “Any confidence across event organisers and attendees, confidence is just so low. Guidance has often been very confusing and complex and it keeps changing so that doesn’t help.

“I think Members of the event industry board have said they wanted government assurance and a start date but it must be done safely. Within Marketing Manchester’s convention bureau which we run, before COVID-19 we had 52 conferences on the go, and most of them are either cancelled or postponed. Positively though, most of those conferences have been postponed so hopefully in Q4, we might see a really good, solid piece of business coming through.”

COVID-19 has also resulted in the delay of TheStadiumBusiness Summit & Venue Technology Showcase, which will now take place on December 2-3 at Emirates Old Trafford.

Speaking during Friday’s round table on the importance of such events for the sector, Nuttall said: “Conferences are essential to business and growth. It’s where business relationships are formed, new ideas are nurtured.

“Andy talked about business confidence coming from safety, I think business growth comes from trust and getting people together face-to-face is trust-forming. You can buy something online from someone you’ve never met, it doesn’t mean you are going to like them or continue serving them.

“The industry wants to restart for October 1 but we need guidance. Two metres distance, 10 metres squared per person, it just doesn’t work. Andy was right, we’ve got to be cautious and take the right steps, but I would really like some guidance right now and I’m waiting for that. I’m scratching my head that my wife can get on a plane and fly to Italy sat next to 300 other people in a tiny metal capsule for three hours with a mask on, and that is considered safe. Yet I can’t put 500 people in a 2,000sqm event space with the doors open or put them outside.”

The round table can be viewed in full here.