Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, has a lively festival and event program that is often seen as an inspiration for Australia. The vision for Scotland’s festival program was mapped out in 2008. In this article Professor Joe Goldblatt and event manager Gerry Reynolds ponder how Scotland’s event industry will recover from COVID-19. Their findings would also be relevant to festival and event directors in Australia.
When “Scotland the Perfect Stage” was first published in 2008, it set out the Scottish Government’s vision for events in Scotland and highlighted the range of benefits that a strong portfolio of events would yield for Scotland. Since then Scotland has demonstrated ever strengthening credentials as the perfect stage for events with considerable success. Never more so perhaps than in 2014 when Scotland enjoyed the fruits of highly successful delivery of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the 2014 Cultural Programme, the 2014 Ryder Cup and over one thousand events in the Homecoming Scotland 2014 programme. Today, the Covid-19 pandemic would have made all of that impossible. The battle to prevent the foundations of Scotland’s Perfect Stage from crumbling has commenced.
In 2015 when a revised “Scotland the Perfect Stage” was published it provided the focus and leadership needed for everybody involved in any aspect of planning, securing, supporting and delivering events of all sizes in Scotland for the next decade. It brought together all parts of the public, private and third sector that had a role in relation to events in Scotland in order to drive the development and growth of a flourishing, innovative and competitive events industry in Scotland. It was working. Scotland had an inspirational portfolio of events planned for a Themed Year – the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 – just a few short months ago. A programme that was going to continue the great work that was being created to generate business, create jobs and boost the Scottish economy. Then suddenly everything changed. Mass gatherings were banned overnight and today nobody knows for certain when Scotland will ever be able to place anything on its world class perfect stage again.
With lives literally at stake; those employed in Scottish events industry understood that mass gatherings had to be banned for the foreseeable future. Health and safety has always played a major role in the industry at every level and rightly so. However with livelihoods at stake, there is also growing concerns that time is not on their side. Nobody knows how long it will be before the ban on mass gatherings is lifted and that makes planning impossible at every level. What is clear is that there will be no new normal for those companies who run out of money or those who lose their jobs before a vaccine or a financially viable way of safely staging events is found.
The search for a financially viable way of safely staging events is not going to be easy. Currently work is underway using all the scientific advice that is available preparing the guidelines that will detail the measures that will need to be taken by event organisers to ensure the safety of those attending, performing and working at events. It is clear that those measures are going to involve a combination of reduced incomes and increased costs; and thanks to the need for social distancing, change the feel and appeal of events that will only become apparent with the benefit of hindsight.
Because the success of Scotland’s events programme was (and has to be) built on a foundation provided by the combined efforts of the public, private and third sectors; it is impossible to ignore the additional challenges that all three sectors are now facing as a result of the pandemic. Challenges that are going to have to be met during an economic recession that is certain to significantly reduce the funding that is going to be available to support the efforts that are going to have to be made to protect the foundations of Scotland’s Perfect Stage for the development and delivery of events.
Every network that has been established in Scotland since 2008 to support the Perfect Stage strategy will have a part to play when the events industry emerges from its enforced hibernation. While those at the front line will face the immediate challenge of surviving and then thriving in a world of additional obligations and reduced funding; everybody behind the scenes will face the collective responsibility of ensuring that they are given the support and the encouragement to do so.
Of course every cloud, even one as dark as this, has a silver lining. The enforced hibernation of the Scottish events industry has provided an unexpected opportunity for stakeholders to discover that now is the perfect time to strengthen Scotland’s Perfect Stage. Exciting opportunities have been identified to encourage world leading research into the design of future health and safety measures; and to encourage collaboration on an unprecedented scale at a community level.
There is a need to encourage and reward the sharing of community resources to achieve economies of scale; and to revisit the case for the development of permanent local and regional event and exposition centres that could reduce the costs of delivering events and encourage greater public and private partnership working. Hopefully the new norm that everybody is desperate to see will be one where everybody is working and enjoying themselves for each others’ mutual long term benefit.