Tallinn Music Week Conference 2020: The Future of Music & Culture events – Health & Safety

TMW is presented by Telia
18 November 2020

Tallinn Music Week Conference 2020
The Future of Music & Culture events – Health & Safety
Estonian Academy of Arts
Friday, 28 August

Speakers

Perttu Pesä (FI), Director of Major Events at City Of Tampere, Director of Tampere 2026
Ieva Irbina (LV), Chairperson of the board at Hanzas Perons, formerly director of Positivus Festival, co-chair of the Latvian Music Industry’s Council to the Minister of Culture and Member of the Board, co-author of Covid safe event guidelines
Kati Kuusisto (FI), Director of Tapahtumateollisuus events organisation
Karena Leiger (EE), Crisis Management Advisor, Estonian Health Board
Sami Rumpunen (FI), Director of Provinssi Festival

Moderator: Helen Sildna (EE), Founder and Director of TMW

 

Tallinn Music Week Conference 2020 The Future of Music & Culture events - Health & Safety. Photo: Aron Urb
Tallinn Music Week Conference 2020: The Future of Music & Culture events – Health & Safety. Photo: Aron Urb

 

The music industry and its partners hold significant professional competences to secure the health and safety of crowds in the hundreds and thousands. It is an industry trained to combat crises and tackle the unknown, often with dramatic risks involved. 2020 has offered unprecedented global challenges, and the topic of health and safety has moved to the absolute centre of attention. On a panel dedicated to the health and safety of cultural events, the speakers reflected on the state of affairs in their respective countries and the lessons learned during the pandemic and exchanged valuable ideas on what to consider in light of possible future restrictions.

In summary, as in the rest of society, the topic of health and safety is at the forefront of event organisation like never before. As experts in crowd control, event organisers should be included and consulted more in decision making, when it comes to developing and implementing restrictions. The pandemic has given rise to research on the industry, revealing its true dimensions, which in many countries are much larger than could have been anticipated. In addition to including stakeholders in the discussion, messages from the government need to be clear and consistent.

 

Helen Sildna opened the panel by stating that we are in a completely new reality, one in which the events and culture sector can recover only by taking their expertise in health and safety to entirely new levels. That means bringing the topic of health and safety to the executive level of organising any public gathering. It also means that skills need to change and that the cultural sector needs to ditch politicians and start working with scientists and medical professionals. Finding out about new restrictions imposed for immediate implementation on the same day via the media is unacceptable, however, it reflects another aspect of the current reality, where the industry has to be ready to change at a moment’s notice. However, the story here is not about complaining about communication logic. Instead, the industry must take initiative.

Coming together for a united voice 

One such example is the new Tapahtumateollisuus, an event industry association founded in June 2020 in Finland, represented in the panel by its director Kati Kuusisto. The coronavirus was the main catalyst for finally establishing the organisation, which had been discussed for two years. When the pandemic hit and the events industry was immediately locked down, everyone understood the need to come together and make their voice heard in society. The organisation quickly brought together 44 different entities from the events sector – sports, culture, music, church, fairs, expos, etc.

In order to understand the industry’s place in society, the organisation conducted research, and within two months gave significant input to the government about the industry and the effects of restrictions. Getting so many different event organisers at first raised some questions, however, it was decided that it was logical to have everyone organising any kind of event included. After all, the virus spreads at all gatherings.

Ieva Irbina spoke about the sector’s input to the ministry’s crisis council in Latvia. She began by saying that they first had to break some stereotypes about what a cultural event is. Parties are only one small part of cultural events – there are theatre, plays and concerts, where everyone is seated. After explanations, some restrictions were held off. Also, since events were perceived as dangerous, they had to inform the government that event organisers have been thinking about health and safety all along. The industry needed to create guidelines, not so much for itself, but for the institutions, the government, to show that they know how to deal with it. That was the initiative from the sector – showing the government how to organise events and keep people safe.

Specific measures and their effect on the events industry

Perttu Pesä said that at the moment they have to be partners for the event industry and help them, because otherwise there won’t be an industry anymore. Although the overall situation is calm in Finland, some restrictions are in place. Overall, the requirements are all rather typical, but if alcohol or other drinks are served, there have to be seats and tables for all, which is not easy to set up. At the same time, sales at events are very important.

The main issue at the moment is the 1-2 metre distance requirement. For example, a stadium in Tampere, which usually has a capacity of about 32k seats, can now host only 6000 spectators. While usually two gates are used, since people in queues have to be dispersed, they now use 18 different gates for access to the stadium. People are separated into sections and not allowed to move between them. That means all services have to be provided for each sector, which drives up costs. In addition, the safety costs are nearly doubled from where they were at a 32k capacity. This has major implications for the business side of organisation.

Irbina noted that security costs might indeed rise if the same old methods were applied as in normal times. Instead, in Latvia they suggested applying the same logic used for boarding in airports: give people a time slot for arriving, so they could enter in smaller groups. That way there is no need to increase the number of gates or the number of security guards hired, and the flow of people is managed instead.

The view from the healthcare expert’s side 

Karena Leiger explained that over the past 6 months, new information about how the virus acts and what are the consequences has been coming practically daily. In March there were severe cases involving the elderly, and hospitals were afraid that they might not have the capacity to deal with these patients. At the moment, the positive tests tend to be among younger people with less chronic illnesses, so the pressure on the healthcare system is not that strong. The disease is more prevalent among the young now because younger people like to party, and it is a social disease. They also might be more rebellious and think it won’t kill them. The same thing is happening all over the world.

The measures taken to prevent the new pandemic spread have worked. Something to keep in mind is that this virus does not have a brain, it does not have strategies, people do, so we have to be smart and develop strategies for coping.

Since this is a new disease, there is no information about how it will develop, for example, it might develop new symptoms or act differently in cold weather or with humidity. In the beginning, the medical experts didn’t have enough knowledge about the disease, but now they do know that it was severe. Research to understand how severe it would be for the risk groups took time. Currently, there is a balance, the system is not under such pressure, and we can ease the restrictions, we can cooperate and find solutions for how to do better should there be another wave.

How restrictions are communicated

Karena Leiger explained that at the government level, all these situations are so new that they don’t know how to cope either. But what they know very well is that their messages carry weight in society. In March, when the first restrictions were set out, it was surprising that no actual event organisers were included at first. The restrictions were made at the government level and were slightly discussed with the Health Board. The decision to lock down was made quickly, which was not right, so the voices of the industry must be stronger, also in cooperation with the sports industry.

In Latvia, Irbina recalled, the Minister of Health tweeted in March that there might be a ban on events forthcoming. She immediately arranged a meeting, because it wasn’t a moment to sit back and wait for someone to invite the industry to the table. Ieva also added that it was a moment she realised that if she has an opinion, she has to speak out and be clear. But whom to speak with also needs to be considered carefully. For example, on topics related to health and safety, the Ministry of Health should be consulted. When speaking of losses and compensation, it’s the Ministry of Economy. For the bigger picture concerning culture, it’s the Ministry of Culture. If the message is misdirected, it means wasted time and losses.

For a comparable experience from Estonia, Sildna commented that choosing who to talk to is indeed very important. Here, the industry kind of fell in between the ministries of social affairs, economy, and culture. In hindsight, the first instance should have been the Ministry of Social Affairs, while so far the minister of culture has been the mediator of the industry to the government.

Another issue to consider is the terminology that the industry uses – it should talk about jobs, companies, and skip talking about opera vs rock. Because in the end, 50 people is 50 people whether it is at a church or at a concert. Corona became a media event, easily linked to gatherings and the events industry, so it became easy to stereotype the whole industry. At this point, the communication strategy has to be super clever and clear, devoid of all terms like ‘party’, ‘music’; essentially, the text needs to be stripped of the industry’s interesting, sinful, party background.

Perttu Pesä added that if we are still discussing culture, sports, churches without using the term ‘events industry’, we are losing the game, because that was the first industry that was immediately paralysed, after the first restrictions.

Every time someone who is responsible from the government side says that now is not the time to go to events, it brings major losses, because nobody wants to buy any tickets. The message should be that they are doing things well, buy your tickets, help them recover. Helen Sildna echoed the concern, stating that the Estonian government makes restrictions that allow certain types of activities, but then advises something different – what does that mean? There are lots of double standards as well.

The economic case

Perttu Pesä pointed out that previously different parts of culture were usually discussed separately, and sector by sector the numbers are not very high. But collectively, for example, in Finland the culture sector is worth 2 billion euros, which is twice as much as the agriculture sector. Looking at it from that angle, there is real volume and a real issue to talk about. Helen Sildna added that in every country, we now also realise that the grey areas are a huge problem. Where do the sound and lights companies belong, where do the ticketing companies belong, the service providers, the freelancers?

Speaking of their freshly published study conducted in collaboration with the University of Turku, Kati Kuusisto explained that the research showed that in Finland the events industry is worth 2,35 billion euros. That is the scale and number that can now be provided as input for government decision making. They also asked companies and operators about the impact of the pandemic. Their responses showed that revenues dropped 80-95% this year. That means the industry is losing 1.5 bn this year, which is a lot of money, and not only in big cities, but all over the country. The situation is the same in all Western countries.

The travel industry perspective 

Liina-Maria Lepik, head of the Estonian Tourist Board, brought the tourism sector’s point of view to the discussion. She spoke of how the tourism sector was hit right away and will recover for a long time, along with the event industry. Since cultural events also motivate tourism, from the onset the two industries worked together closely. The current state of affairs is an on/off period, where we don’t know at any point in time what we will wake up to the next morning. While it can be difficult to keep track, the tourism industry needs to be aware of the changes in regulations, and support the event organisers, financially or marketing-wise. The terms of support also need to be more flexible, and it might be time to realise that this is a time of smaller concerts and gatherings.

Another discussion we need to have in parallel is how patterns of behaviour have changed – one thing is the restrictions, the other change is how people behave. When people travel anywhere now, they always think about how to return if something happens. That means people aren’t travelling too far away from home. Also, health and safety is no longer the concern of single service providers or operators, it is everyone’s responsibility, so it is a mindset change.

Changing trends in event organisation

From the TMW point of view, the festival in 2020 was only possible because of scattered, small venues. Might the current times change the size and shape of events, is there a trend towards boutique events, gatherings, festivals?

Sami Rumpunen, director of Finnish Provinssi Festival, is choosing to be an optimist. With 30 000 visitors per day, the festival is a major one and they want to keep it that way. The team is optimistic that they can provide a safe environment for a large audience in the summer of 2021. In August, Finland had ca 10 mid-level festivals, with 4000-5000 visitors a day, with no infections trackable to any of them. That is also cause for optimism for next summer, so Provinssi is not choosing to go boutique at this point.

TMW has never collaborated more closely with its security partner Meeskond, highly skilled in crowd management. Not many other industries are skilled in managing large crowds, but this skill is not visible enough. Also, close collaboration with health specialists is a new imperative, reaching out to new types of people with new knowledge. The industry can’t wait for the government and instead needs to provide smart input. In 2020, TMW communicated safety as a collaboration – half of it is an environment that we create, the other half is an individual responsibility. Pre-recorded public safety announcements were played before the concerts and during intermissions, and the organisers directed a lot of effort towards informing and communicating.

The audience asks: As organisers, we try to follow all the rules, but what should we do if we stumble on an event, where organisers have not followed rules. It’s a moral dilemma, because as a colleague, you don’t want to harm the business, but underground facilities, they keep on partying and some clubs define themselves as food distributors, what’s the right thing to do?

Helen Sildna replied that TMW faced the same exact situation because it uses 60 different venues around town and these are 60 organisations with their own ideas. All it could do was sign a goodwill memo with them. The TMW organisers talked a lot to people to get an understanding of their feelings, but it was very time consuming and emotionally draining.

Ieva Irbina added that they also had the same discussion. According to her, the only way to make a change is to lead by example, show how events should be done in a safe way, explain what to do and how. There are a lot of people tired of COVID headlines and they don’t read that information anymore.

The audience asks: Whom to trust, the organisers that say that everything is OK or the government? And how to make the decision to believe the media?

Helen Sildna responded that the lesson learned since March for TMW was – consider all information, but do not take any single opinion as the final truth. Instead, collect pieces of information from knowledgeable people around you, and look at the emerging patterns. Then make your decision together with the team, as transparently as you can, being really honest about your team’s capabilities and skills. The most difficult thing was realising that nobody knows. In March, even the experts all said different things. So in the end, there was a gut feeling, based on collected info, and an open discussion with the team about whether they were ready to do it, learn on the fly and accept that this time the festival would never be ‘ready’. That everything would be changing until the last moment was a prediction that held up.

Concerning the media, Ieva Irbina added that it’s a huge job to work through the material in the media, reading it all the way through, finding the source, validating the information, and then, in the end, making your own decisions whether you believe it or not. There is no black and white, there is only a point at which you feel comfortable with your decision.

Helen Sildna added that she learned to trust her team, much more than ever before. One thing that changed was that all of the difficult decisions were really made together around the table. Sometimes leaders have a way of pretending democratic decisions: they have their own decision made when they go into the office, and then sell that idea. It was not the case this time, because there are so many issues – team members risk their own health, that of their grandparents, it’s everyone’s individual life, and as the head of an organisation, you can’t persuade anyone. It made the marketing really interesting as well. TMW kept being asked how do you guarantee safety, and then decided on the answer: we guarantee nothing, but we will tell you what we do for safety on our end – please come only if you feel comfortable. That made marketing very tricky. But in the end, you don’t want anyone making decisions that they don’t feel comfortable with.


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