O2 set for best year of live events, says boss Alex Hill
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It’s hard to imagine an industry hit harder by the pandemic than the live events, but the man behind some of the country’s biggest venues strikes a surprisingly uplifting note.
Alex Hill, managing director of the European arm of live music giant AEG – which owns London’s O2, Hammersmith Apollo and Wembley SSE Arena – said bookings were pouring in for this year and year next.
“This could easily be the busiest year ever, 2022, for venues up and down the country, including the O2,” said Hill, freshly invited to host this week’s Brit Awards. to O2.
If his prediction turns out to be correct, it would represent a surprising rebirth for the 20,000-seat O2 site that grew out of the ashes of London’s much-criticized Millennium Dome project.
Tomorrow, its 30 bars and restaurants will reopen to indoor patrons – and Hill, 48, says patrons have largely kept tickets for a rescheduled concert series now due to take place this year.
The upcoming boom, he says, is due to a combination of pent-up demand from fans desperate to return to concerts and pop stars eager to shoot new, locked-out works. “Some of the shows that are coming out right now are selling like crazy,” he adds. “The younger ones just want to go out, experience life and have fun.
Some of us who are a little overwhelmed might need a little more conviction to get by, but I know everyone will. [return in time]. ‘
Hill says inquiries are already coming in for 2023 and 2024 as newspapers fill up, but ahead of next year’s rush, the concert scene could have a red, white and blue tint.
“I don’t really envision international tours happening again until 2022,” he says. “I think we are lucky in the UK that the music industry is the crown jewel of our culture and we have loads of brilliant talent playing in our venues.
British artists want to come out and perform in front of their fans so I think this is a great opportunity. ‘
Hill talks to me about Zoom from his home in leafy London Wandsworth the day after he appeared at the Brit Awards. The annual music industry televised party was a government test event for the near-term future of live concerts.
Social distancing and masks have been dropped, with the audience of 4,000 people – including 2,500 key workers – having to take a Covid test 36 hours before the event instead. Performers included Dua Lipa, Rag’n’Bone Man and Elton John with Olly Alexander.
No more tables crowded with music industry executives sprayed on the arena floor (they were in the hospitality suites) while some of the performers changed in a nearby hotel as the backstage was “bio-secure” .
But Hill says that didn’t stop the event from living up to its reputation as a glitzy, boozy night out.
“I might be feeling a little jaded,” admits Hill, who is still catching up on TV coverage. “The frontline workers gave it such a buzz, I’m just super happy to see the fans again. It shows that we can safely return to live events.
True Brit: Dua Lipa, in a Union Jack jacket, performing at the Brit Awards last week
All restrictions on venue capacities are expected to be lifted on June 21 and Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has been tasked with studying Covid passports to facilitate the return to more normal live events.
Hill says he broadly supports the use of tests to reopen live events, but as a “temporary measure.” And he believes other Covid metrics used at O2 last week should stay – including new air purification technology, hand sanitizing stations (the Greenwich site has 256) and tickets. without paper.
He reveals, “Everyone now has digital tickets and you can order food and drink on your phone. i don’t think it will come back [to how it was before]. ‘
It has been a brutal year for AEG which owns and operates over 100 locations around the world. Hill is shy about the damage to his balance sheet, but says the industry’s revenues have fallen by more than 90%.
The company is backed by American tycoon Philip Anschutz’s investment vehicle and its deep pockets leave it in decent shape to bounce back. Hill believes that reliable revenue is unlikely to return to the UK until September, while in mainland Europe where AEG has sites in Germany and Sweden, vaccine rollout has delayed its schedule by “a few months” .
AEG staff are slowly coming out of leave, and Hill hopes to have all of the staff back by the start of August.
The company has been forced to postpone its annual outdoor shows, the massive July British Summer Time concerts in Hyde Park, which were scheduled to feature Pearl Jam and Duran Duran, until next year. And Hill argues Britain’s vibrant festival industry is in a perilous position: “There is no commercial insurance market to deal with Covid [so] we are looking for some kind of government backed insurance plan.
“I think there will be more festivals that cancel their shows. That’s why we’ve seen Glastonbury and Boomtown cancel because they’re very complex bills, huge projects that take months.
He argues that part of the money left in the government’s Culture Recovery Fund could be allocated to support the festival season.
Like the venues he runs, Hill seems polished and devoid of the chaotic rock’n’roll energy on which his industry was founded. He sits in front of his collection of houseplants and a book on 1001 Walks, and lists intermediate rockers The Killers playing their Hot Fuss album as his dream gig.
A business studies graduate, he began his career at consultancy firm KPMG, before leading the numbers for broadcaster Flextech and television producer Fremantle.
Despite the ravages of Covid, AEG is returning to center stage – even splashing out on renovations to sites in London, Olympia and Wolverhampton’s historic Civic Hall during the pandemic.
Could there be more offers in prospect? Hill says: “We are not afraid to invest and I think if we found the right opportunity we would be able to do it.”
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