Stadia & Arenas: Roadmap to Reopening – Part II

With the sports and live entertainment sector left in limbo across the globe due to COVID-19, we hear from a range of industry experts on their preparations ahead of reopening and the green shoots of hope from countries like New Zealand, as Katie McIntyre reports.


The industry we love, and indeed our lives in general, were sent into a tailspin with the unwelcome arrival of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Every country, its people and economies have been affected, with our sector being one of those worst hit.


We have started to witness a return to a new normal, albeit in a piecemeal fashion, over the recent months, with a limited number of venues having reopened their doors to fans, including New Zealand’s Eden Park, which welcomed a sold-out, full capacity crowd for its opening game, Optus Stadium, which reopened for AFL on July 18 under 50% capacity crowd rules, and the 2019/20 Ekstraklasa (currently named PKO Ekstraklasa due to sponsorship reasons) is back hosting fans up to 25% of the stadium’s capacity.


With the UK government having confirmed that mass participation events, including sports and conferences, can recommence as of October 1 – albeit under the new normal, with social distancing, face coverings and reduced capacities – there is some positive news on the horizon, but the indoor arena sector remains, for the most part, in a state of limbo, as John Langford, President to the European Arenas Association, explained:

The EAA have been in regular contact with our members during the pandemic. As with all venues they have been hit hard by the lockdown which has resulted in the loss of a great number of concerts and events from their diaries. 


The Association has taken surveys to collate an overview of the allowances and restrictions within the different territories to share amongst the members. As they are all located in different countries and subject to different restrictions we have been encouraging them to reach out to one another as they progress through each stage. In order to help we created a Teams platform to allow them to share experiences and ask questions.


For many we are not yet at the reopening stage but we looking ahead, reviewing new guidance, rules and procedures as well as the technology required for some of these. Being able to encourage customers safely back to our buildings is very high on the agenda for the group.


The Association was founded to provide a European network to share knowledge and experiences and we will continue to do this until the live event industry returns for all our members.


To get a sense of how stadia and arenas are preparing to reopen their doors, Katie McIntyre sat down (albeit virtually) with Nick Sautner, Chief Executive Officer, The Eden Park Trust and Lee Zeidman, President, STAPLES Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. LIVE to hear their views and key learnings.


General views during the Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa match, between the Blues and Hurricanes held at Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand. 14 June 2020 Photo: Brett Phibbs /


What preparations have you been putting in place/put in place ahead of reopening and how have you had to adapt? 


Nick Sautner, Chief Executive Officer, The Eden Park Trust:

The New Zealand Government introduced a countrywide COVID-19 alert system in mid-March, and the team here at Eden Park was always cognisant that we would need to prepare for a range of scenarios depending on the country’s alert level. 


At Alert Level 4, the entire country was in a lockdown unless the services provided were classed as essential. At the opposite end of the scale, at Alert Level 1, restrictions were far fewer with the key focus being on self-managed personal hygiene. 


In order to reopen in any capacity, we knew that either Alert Level 1 or Alert Level 2 would need to be in effect. When the restrictions on outside gatherings were announced as 500 patrons at Alert Level 2, Eden Park mapped out a scenario where the stadium could be segregated into blocks of 500 with designated entries and exits. We made plans for 10 allocated gates, each zone able to seat 500, and allowing us to host 5,000 fans within the seating bowl. Our preparations included methods for contact tracing each group through both ticket allocation and technology, with measures providing restrictions on the contact points at the venue including security, customer service and catering.


We were grateful that these preparations ended up being unnecessary due to the change to Alert Level 1 prior to our first Super Rugby Aotearoa fixture. This enabled us to welcome fans back to the stadium with no restrictions.  


Lee Zeidman, President, STAPLES Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. LIVE:

Most recently, the Global Biorisk Advisory Council® (GBAC) announced on Thursday, July 9, that STAPLES Center received the organisation’s GBAC STAR™ facility accreditation, the gold standard for prepared facilities. STAPLES Center became the first global arena to receive the highest level of accreditation as determined under the guidance of GBAC, a Division of ISSA (International Sanitary Supply Association), the worldwide cleaning industry association.  


To achieve GBAC STAR™ accreditation, STAPLES Center was required to demonstrate compliance with the program’s 20 core elements, which range from standard operating procedures and risk assessment strategies to personal protective equipment and emergency preparedness and response measures.


We wanted to show the world, our industry, and our guests that we were willing to put our staff, procedures and best practices to the test to achieve the GBAC STAR Accreditation. IAVM endorses the GBAC STAR Facility Accreditation and we felt it was very important for us to use an independent third party for transparency and our goal was to be the first arena in the world to receive the accreditation and we are incredibly proud of that accomplishment.


In addition, we have gone through the venue top to bottom and instituted touchless/contactless technology, where appropriate. This included contactless flush valves, faucets, paper towel dispensers, motion detectors for lighting control, sanitisation controls in and on elevators/escalator handrails as well as in the process of replacing our POS system and implementing cashless policies and procedures.


Patrick McMeekin, UK Licensee, SEATSERVE:

We’ve spent lockdown further developing our table service functionality, established for hospitality at Twickenham, Anfield and the Etihad. Having consciously avoided the saturated bar/restaurant POS market, our ambition is to further entrench SEATSERVE into similar, multi vendor environments, such as Kerb, Pergola and Market Halls.


What kind of advice have you sought from industry colleagues, contractors or any other sources?

Nick Sautner, Chief Executive Officer, The Eden Park Trust:

New Zealand has found itself ahead of the rest of the world in terms of reopening to crowds, so we’re in the fortunate position where we’re now able to offer valuable advice to our industry colleagues about the Park’s return to live events.


However, as we prepared to reopen the stadium, we sought guidance from numerous contractors, colleagues, and Government agencies, on how to best go about reintroducing live events. 


Our Health & Safety advisor was an integral source of expertise, as were several contacts at New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Guidance and restrictions were constantly evolving in New Zealand, and there were even key changes to Alert Level parameters as late as the week leading up to our first major event, so it was vital we remained agile and able to pivot at a moment’s notice. 


During the early-mid phases of New Zealand’s lockdown, my Executive team and I participated in as many collaborations with other venues and stadia as possible. We are members of both the Entertainment Venues Association of New Zealand [EVANZ] and the Venue Management Association [VMA], which provided a number of valuable resources, and I took part in Sport NZ’s weekly online sector meetings which provided updates on the evolving situation.


In addition, we swapped resources on the roadmap to reopening with many other global stadia leaders – this knowledge sharing was immensely helpful for all of our venues to move forward and ensure the safety of our patrons, athletes and staff.


Lee Zeidman, President, STAPLES Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. LIVE:

I am grateful to have been a part of the venue and live entertainment industry for over 35 years, and one of the things I have grown to love is that when something major rocks our industry like 9/11 or the COVID-19 pandemic, we all share ideas, form task forces and talk, text and email on a regular basis to discuss best practices and what changes and updates can we make in advance to ensure we are ready to open our doors when we are given the green light. 


Through IAVM we connected with the GBAC STAR Facility Accreditation and that allowed us to go through over 20 years of experiences, philosophies and procedures and our current team took all the documentation, SOP’s, procedures and best practices and condensed them in to one single viable and concise document. We took an extensive amount of time to look at the risk assessment and working with the GBAC STAR team and our partners ABM, AtmosAir, BELFOR and BluEco we were able to evaluate, improve and strengthen our procedures to better identify, mitigate and overcome risks.


Microsoft Theater, STAPLES Center and L.A. LIVE 


For those of you that have already reopened, have there been any unexpected issues/challenges that have arisen? If so, how have you overcome these?


Nick Sautner, Chief Executive Officer, The Eden Park Trust:

Eden Park’s key challenge is to ensure that our operations remain safe and viable. Aside from the obvious measures such as access to hand sanitising stations, increased cleaning regimes and clear messaging around the stadium, we have also introduced new processes for staff to follow to ensure we are still able to operate, even if a staff member becomes ill. 


In New Zealand, if an individual experiences any flu-like symptoms, it’s expected they get tested immediately for COVID-19 and then self-isolate until they’ve returned a negative test. In addition, they need to be symptom free for at least 48 hours prior to returning to work. Given the seriousness of COVID-19, this approach is understandable. 


However, Eden Park has a lean team of less than 30, and many of its essential departments are made up of only two to three individuals. With a skeleton workforce, the potential for a whole department to be unable to work could severely compromise our running of an event.


As such, we have implemented an approach where our staff are divided into two distinct groups in the ten days leading up to a major event, each group in the office on different days. This gives less opportunity for illness to be passed between the groups.


In addition, we’ve contacted ‘back up’ contractors for events, in the rare instance that several team members do become ill at once.  


Lee Zeidman, President, STAPLES Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. LIVE:

STAPLES Center and Microsoft Theater remain closed to the public. California and the County of Los Angeles are currently in Stage 3 on the roadmap to recovery which allows us to host sporting events without fans/guests. Stage 4 would allow us to re-open with fans/guests in attendance. 


We have hosted one small private television production shoot at STAPLES Center and just announced a PBC on FOX broadcasted boxing event at Microsoft Theater on Saturday, August 8th, and it will be a fan-less event.


What advice would you give to other venues as they start their journeys towards reopening or from reopening behind closed doors to welcoming fans back? 


Nick Sautner, Chief Executive Officer, The Eden Park Trust:

First and foremost, make a clear plan in conjunction with your hirers, your contractors, and your relevant Government/State authorities. Keep in mind that the safety of your patrons, staff, entertainers, and athletes is of the utmost importance, and prepare a strategy that has this principle at its forefront. 


On game day, ensure the measures that are being taken to protect your patrons are clearly displayed around the venue to give them a level of comfort that will allow them to relax and enjoy the entertainment.


Once you have your guidelines in place, begin to look into creative initiatives that can make the experience a truly memorable return to live sport and entertainment. The event should be an occasion that marks a return to life as normal. Eden Park and Auckland’s rugby union team, the Blues, included several special initiatives prior to kick-off, including a flyover from a Hercules plane, and a standing applause for New Zealand’s team of 5 million who had overcome the threat of COVID-19. In addition, there was special appreciation shown to our essential workers through another round of applause. 


Finally, I’d encourage you to enjoy the moment of that first event. Across my tenure as CEO at Eden Park, I’ve had a number of proud moments. I can say undoubtedly that welcoming a sold-out crowd back for the resumption of Super Rugby Aotearoa following a global pandemic is right up there. My team, who had just been through a challenging and difficult three months, came together and worked tirelessly to deliver an event to remember.


Blues v Hurricanes. Super Rugby Aotearoa. Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand. Sunday 14 June 2020 © Copyright Photo: Andrew Cornaga /


Lee Zeidman, President, STAPLES Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. LIVE:

Educate, educate and then educate. We will need to educate our team members and staff, the athletes, performers and artists that play in our venues and the millions of fans and guests that will come back that, we are safe, secure, sanitised and disinfected against the viruses we face and that we will continue to be proactive rather than reactive as it relates to this pandemic. COVID-19 has really tested everyone that likes to work two to three steps ahead and will continue to do so as we move forward but, we will work hard to adapt as we navigate through this pandemic. And when and how we open will be determined by the science and data.


Patrick McMeekin, UK Licensee, SEATSERVE:

It’s never too early to start having a conversation! I know that the minute government advice includes details of when & how venues can reopen to the public, we will receive a flood of enquiries. Those conversations could and should already be happening (even more than they are)!


How has the pandemic affected attendance and/or how do you expect it to affect attendances and revenue moving forward?


Nick Sautner, Chief Executive Officer, The Eden Park Trust:

The experience may be different for other stadia, but Eden Park found itself in a fantastic position where our regular Super Rugby attendance more than doubled post-COVID.


The Blues’ games at the Park typically could expect to attract a crowd of around 15,000, however there was immense amount of excitement and hype around the return to live sport in the lead-up to the first match. The event was announced a sell-out on the day prior, with approximately 43,000 fans turning up to the stadium to witness a memorable Blues win. The fixture felt more like a test match or a final than the first fixture of the revised season. 


The second home game similarly brought in an extremely strong crowd, despite terrible weather, demonstrating fans’ clear appetite for live sport and entertainment. Moving forward, we expect attendance to remain high provided COVID-19 can remain contained in New Zealand. 


A recent business confidence survey suggested that six out of 10 people believed that rugby resuming at Eden Park is a sign of life returning to normal. We certainly hope this statement rings true for other stadia worldwide and understand that we play a key role in restoring a level of normality to people’s lives.


We also see giving the patrons a level of confidence around the measures taken to ensure their safety as key to maintaining strong attendance at Eden Park events.


Lee Zeidman, President, STAPLES Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. LIVE:

The best we can tell at this point at STAPLES Center and Microsoft Theater is when we announce date changes for events scheduled in 2020, we on average have seen a 10-20% request rate for refunds, which we feel anything less than 20% is a win for our industry moving forward. 


Personally, I feel like whether you are a sports fan or music fan, we are all missing that outlet, the ability to mass gather and experience sports and entertainment together creating memories that can last a lifetime. It has been such a strange spring and summer with no NBA or NHL Playoffs, and seeing all kinds of incredible live music which would come through on their summer tours and play our venues postponed till sometime in 2021. In my 35 years in this industry I have never experienced anything like what we are going through currently. 


It will be our job as venue managers to ensure our fans, guests, athletes, artists and staff feel confident and safe when they return to our venues. We will work to educate everyone on what we are doing to make sure the venues are as safe and sanitised as possible and that it will be different and a “new normal” when we reopen, but that it will be safe.


NB: The second part of this in-depth feature will follow next week. Huge thanks to Nick Sautner, Lee Zeidman and Patrick McMeekin for their invaluable input.


#arena #arenas #eventmanagement #eventprofs #sportsbiz #sportsindustry #sportsvenues #stadium #stadiums #stadia


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