The first words out of Tim Leiweke’s mouth are that he does not know when health officials will say it’s safe to return to concerts, sporting events and other mass public gatherings. Yet the live-entertainment veteran and CEO of the Oak View Group — an entertainment and sports facilities company he cofounded with Irving Azoff that includes a sponsorship/partnership division, a consulting wing, a venue security company and a 28-member arena and stadium alliance that includes Madison Square Garden and the Los Angeles Forum — is deep into the process of making sure his company and the arenas, stadiums and other venues it works with will be safe, once health officials determine that the coronavirus pandemic has abated.
“There are a lot of very smart doctors and scientists spending every waking hour trying to find a vaccine and a test, and we will follow their lead on when and how it’s safe to return to public gatherings,” Leiweke says. “When that happens, our job is to regain the trust and confidence of the people coming into our buildings. But we will come back and we will come back stronger than ever.”
To that end, he tells Variety, Oak View is in the process of planning a proposed new division that will specialize in making sure venues are sanitized and securely in line with government health recommendations. While it is still in development and he declines to name names, he says, “We’re partnering with the companies that I consider the smartest in the field, companies that sanitize hospitals and other workplaces, on how we better prepare our facilities, so that people know that we have that seal of approval.”
The pandemic has caused Leiweke and his team to add whole new levels to the concept of venue security. “Before we open those doors, we have to create new standards that show people we actually took the extra steps to sanitize the building — the seats, concourse, rest rooms, concession stands and the clubs — and screen our employees when they come into work; we may also have to get people in and out of our buildings in a way that’s different from what we used to do.
“That certification has to be standard,” he continues, “it was to be something that people can tap into thru their phones and social media, where they understand exactly what standards we have and how we met them.”
Few industries have not been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but the live-entertainment business has been hit especially hard. While both 9-11 and terrorist attacks at the Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, the Bataclan in Paris and Ariana Grande’s 2017 Manchester concert sent a chill through the industry, the odds of mortal danger from coronavirus are much higher. Virtually every tour and concert taking place over the next few weeks has been postponed or cancelled, and although many dates in the summer and beyond remain on the calendar, even if quarantines are lifted by late spring, it’s hard to say when people will feel secure enough to return to mass gatherings. While touring-industry trade publication Pollstar projected a $12.2 billion year for the industry based on concert grosses from the first fiscal quarter of 2020 (which was largely unaffected by the coronavirus lockdown), those projections changed virtually overnight: It now lowers that estimate to $9.9 billion if touring resumes in late May, and $3.3 billion if the rest of the year is dark — the latter of which is “a worst-case scenario and certainly not expected,” the report asserts.
Looking forward, a recent study from sports and events research analytics firm Performance Research found that 33% of respondents said they would attend major indoor concert venues less often, and 56% said it would take “a few months” to “possibly never” for them to feel safe about returning to indoor concert venues after the Center for Disease Control says it’s safe to do so.
Leiweke, not surprisingly, is quite familiar with the Performance Research survey. “If you look at when the study was done — March 23-26, right in the eye of this crisis — I completely understand the confidence issue that people are ultimately going to have with live entertainment,” he says. “It’s to be expected because all we see on a daily basis is bad news — and I actually think it was fairly good that 56% of the people said they would attend as many or more [live events] once we come out of this. But we’re going to have to get back the confidence of a third of the people out there that we’ve taken new steps and standards to protect them. This is the single most important issue we’re now going to face: confidence and how we get it back.”
While many elements are still under study — Leiweke said he couldn’t comment on how social-distancing might be integrated into venues — buildings are exploring ways to expand touchless technology, utilize more germ-resistant materials than the current standard, stainless steel, and even thermal screening for employees and other security upgrades.
“It’s a simple thing that’s really complicated: We don’t just clean our buildings before and after an event, we have to sanitize them,” he says. That doesn’t just apply to the seating, surfaces and fixtures: “Some of it is a new way of screening our employees when they come into work every day, especially those that interact with customers,” he says. “How do we check whether or not a person has a fever or a virus? Via a heat scan or thermal technology, so now we don’t just have timecards anymore, but a system to determine whether our employees are healthy. We must have certainly that we are protecting our employees first because they’re the ones that interact with customers.”
Some industry experts have said that the return to concertgoing will be gradual and nuanced — Leiweke called it a “staged evolution,” but declined to elaborate further. An industry source who prefers to remain anonymous speculates to Variety, “It’s not like someone’s going to ring a bell and say ‘It’s safe to go to any concert, anywhere.’ It will depend on the capacity of the venues, whether or not the venue is outdoors, where in the country they are and what the social-distancing possibilities look like.”
Yet anyone seeking a vote of confidence about the return of live entertainment need look no further than Leiweke. “The virus will determine the timeline, not us,” he says. “But we will gain the consumers’ confidence and grow that 56% that will attend concerts to 80 or 90%, if we can create a system and implement that system that they have confidence and trust in. That’s the great challenge and it’s going to take some time, but I can tell you we’re on it.
“People have been celebrating together since the beginning of mankind, and it’s an experience and a moment and an emotion that you just cannot replicate at home,” he concludes. “We can’t underestimate the damage this has done to people’s confidence about coming out to gather, but there is nothing like a great U2 or Garth Brooks concert or basketball game or football game. We have to find a way to celebrate together that protects the community — and we will.”