Tattoo to bounce back in 2021 - even if it means moving from castle esplanade

Organisers of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo have vowed to bounce back from this year’s cancellation – even it means cutting its crowd in half or relocating it away from the castle esplanade.

Around 220,000 people normally see the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo each year. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The event’s new chief executive has suggested it could be staged in an alternative location like Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rugby, to ensure it returns in 2021.

Major General Buster Howes said he hopes to start selling tickets before the end of this year for the comeback production, after this year’s show fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic at the beginning of April, along with the city’s major summer festivals.

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However he admitted the event, which normally has a capacity of 8800 for each show, was likely to have fewer international acts, a shorter running time and a cast reduced in size by around a third from the productions staged in recent years.

The event, which is normally a 220,000-strong sell out every year, is estimated to worth more than £70 million to the economy annually, with the event generating more than a million pounds for charities each year.

Major General Howes admitted that this year’s cancellation had cost the Tattoo, which normally costs nearly £10 million to stage, around £5m in lost box office income.

However he revealed that 30,000 ticket-holders, out of 160,000 advance sales notched up before the plug had to be pulled, had committed to roll over their bookings into 2021.

Major General Howes was unveiled in the role weeks after the cancellation of the 2020 event was announced.

A former commandant general of the Royal Marines, his previous roles included a spell as head of British defence staff in the US during Barack Obama’s tenure as president.

In an exclusive interview, he said: “We’re trying to be really dynamic in the way we horizon-scan for next year. Our business has already had to become much more nimble.

“We took a big financial hit last year at the point of cancellation – £5m is a lot of money for a charity to lose.

“There are critical decision points in the year, which is why we took the decision when to cancel when we did, so we could protect our income as best we could, as well as our suppliers.

The Tattoo has a global television audience of more than 100 million each year. Picture: Ian Georgeson

"It also costs us £2.1m to put our spectator stands up and take them down every year.

“The major thing we’re working on at the moment is to systematically understand how we run a ‘clean-crowd’ event at scale – preferably at the castle, because it is so iconic and that is what we do – in 2021.

“I think the best case scenario we’re looking at the moment is that we have mitigation measures in place that would allow us to get up to around 80 per cent capacity.

“Ahead of decision points on things like building the stands, we need to produce a fully-evolved plan which says ‘this is how we can do it’ and take it to the authorities.

Major General Buster Howes took over the running of the Tattoo in June. Picture: Ian Georgeson

"It’s up to us to reassure them that what we’re doing is responsible and appropriate.

“We’re taking advice from everybody we can. Part of it is going to be about relative risk. If this is an indefinite new normal that we are in, we will have to decide whether we want to have mass events to happen in the future.

“Our event is just not possible with two metre social distancing. We can’t wash our face. We need to get to 48 per cent capacity just to cover the running costs of the event. We are going to be looking closely at how tickets are booked and how that will affect capacity.

“It’s super-important for the city that the event comes back next year, not just economically but psychologically. There are certain engines which will really help the city and certain iconic things which really capture the imagination. The Tattoo is one of them."

Major General Howes pointed to the successful staging of the Tattoo in Australia and New Zealand for examples of how it could be staged in an alternative form next year. Venues previously deployed include the ANZ Stadium in Sydney, the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne and the Westpac Stadium in Wellington.

Major General Howes said: “It is very early days, but we will be looking at some of the other arenas around the city. A place like Murrayfield is an obvious one, but we’ve not really approached them yet.

“One thing or another, we will find a way to do the show next year. It will have to be lawful and if you’re coming you have to be confident that you are going to be safe and the show is going to be worth watching.

"Look at our overseas Tattoos. That’s your model. It’s about scale, how you fill the space and what technology you use to give it the magic that it needs.

“There will have to be a balance struck on overseas acts. If you invite an act which has a long way to travel and they are subject to a whole load of travel restrictions at the last minute they may have to quarantine at both events.

"The most important thing will be to get the show on the road. There may be more of a domestic focus, because it will be more straightforward.

“We will have to look at the number of acts as well. The show normally has around 1200 performers, but I think we’d be pitching to have around 800.

"The show may also be more compressed and more intense. We will only have so much space and so much time.

"We’re looking to attract a broader audience demographic. We want to appeal more to young people. There’s still a sense around the Tattoo that it is quite staid.”

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