Scotland's festivals 'as we know them' unlikely to return in 2021

Scotland’s events and festivals are unlikely to be able to return to normality in 2021 - amid fears that fears that its reputation for them will be damaged by the UK having the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe.

More than three million tickets were sold for the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which was worth more than £300 million for the economy. Picture: David Monteith-Hodge
More than three million tickets were sold for the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which was worth more than £300 million for the economy. Picture: David Monteith-Hodge

One of the most senior figures in the industry said live events were likely to make only a “very cautious” return next year, with only a “very limited” number of live events would be able to be held this year.

Marie Christie, head of events development at government agency VisitScotland, said: “Events as we know them are unlikely to return for some time.”

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Ms Christie said events and festivals are likely to have to be completely “remodelled” in 2021 to take into account social distancing restrictions and public enthusiasm for them, but would face an additional threat to their viability because of the extra costs likely to be needed “to mount events in the new normal.”

She also predicted organisers were likely to face growing “survival issues” and see their resources “stretched to the max” for the foreseeable future by the knock-on effects of the virus on the economy.

The stark warnings have been made in the face of industry fears over “heavy” job losses at major venues if a ban on “mass gatherings” is still in place when the UK’s furlough scheme is brought to a halt.

An official report on the impact of coronavirus on the industry highlights demands for “urgent clarity” on the timescale for the reintroduction of mass gatherings and calls for a collective effort to promote Scotland internationally as a “safe destination” for events.

Large gatherings of people for cultural and sporting events are expected to be some of the last elements to get the go-ahead for a return from the Scottish Government - and only then with strict conditions on crowd numbers and social distancing in place.

Speaking in an online panel discussion on the future of Scotland’s events and festivals, Ms Christie said the short-medium term impact of the pandemic on them would be “devastating.”

She said: “Events are a huge contributor to Scotland's economic, social and cultural life. But this year is unlikely to see more than very limited event activity and 2021, in my view, will see a very cautious return, with events looking to remodel themselves in the context of social distancing restrictions, public sentiment and in response to the developing economic situation.

“The Scottish Government’s route map out of lockdown suggests only very small events, for up to 500 people, could take place as we move into phase three, whereas under phase four large scale events and mass gatherings could resume in line with public health advice and restrictions. This means that events as we know them won’t be returning for some time.

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“Many cultural events work on a 9-12 month planning cycle and often organisations are focused on the delivery of just one annual festival. If that opportunity is lost, the cashflow and survival issues are significantly exacerbated.

“A high proportion of festivalgoers have retained their tickets for postponed events and some festival friends schemes have allowed fees to be repurposed for resilience, but it cannot be ignored that finances will continue to be stretched to the max, the public sector will be under unprecedented pressure and all investments are expected to be heavily scrutinised. There will be significant risk over commercial income from sponsors and ticket sales.

“Trying to manage the impact of cancellations has been the focus for over the past few weeks.

“As we start to look ahead, it’s the additional costs that will be required to mount events in the ‘new normal’ that will become an increasing additional threat to their economic viability and therefore the economic benefits that we are used to seeing.

“It’s a really difficult position that we’re trying to work through.”

More than 120 different representatives of Scotland’s events and festivals sector have been surveyed on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic since the first restrictions were imposed in mid-March.

The report on the findings for VisitScotland said clear guidance needed to be produced for all parts of the sector, covering permanent indoor and pop-up outdoor venues, as well as ticketed and non-ticketed events.

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The dossier said there was a need to ensure that not all events were defined as “mass gatherings” as the term was open to interpretation and could have “negative implications” for the industry if they were all deemed to be unsafe.

Ms Christie added: “Edinburgh festivals alone generate more than £300 million for the economy. Their absence will be really sharply felt by thousands of businesses that benefit from audience spending and by supplying the festivals directly.

“But the same picture is repeated in every part of the country on different scales, from Wigtown and its book festival in the south to the Western Isles and the HebCelt festival in the north.

“Events are an essential part of our economic health for our cities and our communities across the whole country, bringing visitors, generating spending and creating work.”

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