Optus Stadium chief executive Mike McKenna has promised improvements ahead of next week’s Australian Football League (AFL) preliminary finals after huge queues for refreshments marred Friday’s semi-final for thousands of fans.

McKenna said recruitment challenges amid COVID-19 restrictions were a major cause of what he described as the “most difficult night” since the 60,000-capacity, $1.6bn venue in Perth opened its doors in 2017. Fans complained of waiting for up to 40 minutes to buy food and drink at the game between Geelong and Greater Western Sydney.

McKenna said the venue has historically attracted overseas students and backpackers seeking work, but travel restrictions have led to an “extreme labour shortage” in the hospitality industry.

McKenna also said the 5.50pm start for the match increased pressure on staff to get to the venue in time, with many coming from other commitments.

“It was not a great performance,” he said on ABC’s Sports Talk. “We had lots of people working very hard, but we didn’t have enough of them. We didn’t provide the experience that we normally do.

“We had people queuing for far longer than they should have… we weren’t cooking fast enough, not getting it out to people fast enough.

“(It was) probably the most difficult night we’ve had since the very first event at the stadium.”

Next weekend’s preliminary final between Melbourne and Geelong is also on Friday night, but McKenna said fans would receive an improved service.

“We’ve been short on staff before, we’ll probably be short on our ideal roster next week, but it won’t affect the customer service that we deliver,” he said.

“The grand final is another level above that to, you know, probably talking about 2,500 jobs by the time we get to the grand final … and that’s a challenge.

“It will be much better by the time we get to next week in the preliminary final because we’ve just got that extra week to get the roster done, and people to adjust to what time they’ve got to be on site.

“And we’re very confident about that.”

Optus Stadium has held major concerts, Test cricket matches and international rugby fixtures since opening its doors four years ago. It is also the home of the AFL’s West Coast Eagles and Fremantle.

It was announced last week that Western Australia will host the AFL Grand Final for the first time after the league moved its showpiece event to Perth’s Optus Stadium. The match had been due to take place at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on September 25 but COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in the state of Victoria has left the stadium unable to host the event.

Image: Tama Leaver/CC BY 2.0/Edited for size