This time last year Sydney Writers’ Festival CEO Brooke Webb was over the moon. The festival had narrowly dodged lockdowns to record $1. 3 million in ticket sales – a figure that topped the pre-pandemic .
2021 was a celebration, she says. You couldn’t keep people at home. They were ready to get out and experience the world again.
But this year, even without the threat of lockdowns, it was an entirely different story. Ticket sales for the festival, which wrapped up last month, were considerably down and many events that had sold out only ended up being 70-80 per cent full due to late cancellations and people simply not turning up.
Though Webb still considers the festival a huge success – particularly for its engagement with younger and diverse audiences – it’s a stark reminder of how COVID is still impacting live events in Australia’s major cities.
Audience members are getting sick, others are reluctant to plan things in advance, and some have just gotten used to staying home after two years of the pandemic.
The virus is still very much out there, Webb says. But another virus we have this year is lethargy. Everyone’s tired, the world is heavy, and getting people off the couch [especially as the weather gets colder] is one of the hardest challenges we have.
Evelyn Richardson, CEO of Live Performance Australia, says ticket sales for live events have been patchy across the industry, with some sectors doing better than others, but everyone is dealing with disruption to some degree.
One consistent trend, for example, is people waiting until the last minute to secure tickets.
Bluesfest was hugely successful, she says. It had a target of over 100,000. But a lot of that came in the last few days in the lead-up to the event … People weren’t sure if they were going to get sick or if they would be able to go.
Speaking with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on the first day of , co-artistic director Hannah Fox says she’s seeing the same thing: events that were sitting flatline for quite a while are now suddenly starting to sell out.
Buying on the day of the event is not unusual [anymore]. Even for the really big shows, she says.
And, though it’s great that people are buying tickets, the change in behaviour has a big knock-on effect. It’s hard to know how many staff you need, how much beer you have to buy and how much security to put on, she says.
Notably, after attending opening night of the festival, The Age’s reviewer wrote there were too many bar staff .
Susan Provan, director of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), says this is one part of the rolling uncertainty she faced during that ran through April.
With transmission rates quite high in the community, MICF had to deal with cancellations and refunds, late-ticket buying and staff shortages.
It was probably the most logistically challenging festival we’ve ever had, Provan says.
And, while she found many audience members were dead keen to be back at live events, the number of tickets sold was definitely not back to normal yet.
There’s still quite a percentage of the population who are very cautious, and that’s totally fair enough, she says. People who would normally buy four or five tickets, were buying just one or two.
Provan is really optimistic about the future and thinks this will pick back up as community attitudes shift over time. But Webb, who runs a festival on a tighter budget that gets 40 per cent of its revenue from the box office, is more concerned.
A loss in revenue impacts [how Sydney Writers’ Festival can] grow and innovate in the following years, she says. Commercial imperatives become a lot more important … and you become reliant on having events you know are going to sell out.
We want to be able to take risks. We don’t want to go into a creative black hole.
Richardson says the next six-18 months will be crucial for companies like this, as a number of federal and state support programs finish up and the full impact of COVID is felt.
And while she praises efforts like state governments’ dining and entertainment rebates, she says those programs need to be ongoing – and other measures, like , should account for the current challenges being faced and be made consistent across the country.
Though Victoria now has an insurance product that covers events in the case of a snap lockdown or mandated capacity restrictions, for instance, it doesn’t cover anything if your cast and crew get COVID or a huge chunk of ticket holders have to cancel at the last minute.
As much as we all want to pretend it’s over, COVID is still with us – and we’re having to manage it.
A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. .