Unobstructed: Navigating COVID-19 (EP. 1)

The first episode of the Unobstructed podcast features a conversation between AudienceView’s CMO Mike Evenson and CEO Mark Fowlie. They discuss how our industry is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, from the sudden absence of live events to how quickly organizations have rallied in this moment of crisis.  They share things they are seeing that make them optimistic about the future of live events and make a strong case that this disruption will lead to innovation.

Episode transcript

Unobstructed: Navigating COVID-19 (EP. 1)

Announcer: You're listening to Unobstructed - your view on the live events industry.

Evenson: Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Unobstructed. This is the podcast brought to you by AudienceView. My name is Mike Evenson. I'm the Chief Marketing Officer for AudienceView and we are launching a podcast. This is a really exciting launch for us. We wish it was under better terms given what's happening in our industry right now, but we thought it was a fantastic opportunity to bring our CEO Mark Fowlie in for the first episode. Something we can always look back on, right Mark? 

Fowlie: Yes, absolutely. I’m excited to be here on the podcast. As you said, I wish the industry was in a different situation, but here we are, so I think it's as good a time as any to launch the series, so I'm happy to be here. 

Evenson: Absolutely. And a lot is going on. I think this could be a massively long conversation but we'll try to keep it focused in and around what really is happening in this industry and how affected it is by the COVID situation -- not just within North America and the UK, but around the world and how it's affecting live events -- and we'll get into all of that. So, I guess to start with, events just aren't happening. They're not occurring right now and whether this is seen as a precaution or seen as too much too soon, hopefully that debate can be settled over time, but what a fascinating time. Mark, did you ever think when you took over a ticketing software company that we would ever be in a situation like this? 

Fowlie: Well, no. Clearly we're in uncharted territory here and I don't think too many people could have imagined this, maybe some epidemiologists out there. Short of that or the conspiracy theorists. But we're into a situation that I don't think any of us in the industry could have fathomed. But ultimately, it is a changing world, there’s a changing dynamic, and there's a lot of things going on in our world that were unheard of years or decades ago that we've got to get to come to grips to, so I guess maybe this is the new normal. 

Evenson: So in my history in live events, and I came out of the university space, one of the first kind of big events I dealt with was 9-11. I was at the University of Wisconsin at the time and in the United States specifically events did stand still for a smaller period of time. That was massively impactful and when you think about what everyone went through in the live events space, it was new. Here we are fast forwarding almost 20 years later and this is something that, while it seems similar for a period of time, it's going to last much, much longer. We're talking about weeks; we're talking about four to eight weeks of live events being shut down. What kind of long-term impact do you think this will have on our industry, both positive or negative?

Fowlie: That’s a great question, Mike. You know, it's really hard to think through how long this is going to last and depending on the duration, I think that will have a bigger impact as organizations struggle to carry on. I think, as you talked about 9-11 and other events, being from Toronto, we remember the SARS outbreak here very well and the impact that had on the live events space. I think the one thing that we can sort of take comfort in is people who go to live events are really passionate. They're passionate about the content they're going to see -- whether that's music, comedy, theater or sports. When we get through this and we will, I think that passion will come back to the industry stronger than it's ever been. We did see that with the SARS outbreak in Toronto, so the long-term impact of this is a little hard to predict, but the fact is that people are really passionate about what they go see and they care about the organizations that put on those events. I think as an industry we can take comfort, maybe perhaps uniquely compared to any other industry and airlines and hotel chains and coffee shops come to mind, but I don't know that they have the same patron and fan enthusiasm that we do. So in some respects, I think we're fortunate to have a consumer base that's so committed to our organizations and the events we put on. 

Evenson: I think you're seeing that play out on social media and other channels where from performers to fans to industry supporters, we’re all playing a role in trying to keep live events alive, even in a situation where people can't go to them. So we're seeing live streaming, we’re seeing short vignettes of engagement that are happening on TikTok and Instagram and all these different social media channels. What's interesting is the connection that will be formed and the bonds that will be created during this time, I agree with you, might catapult us into an even better state when we're all in a position to be able to go to live events. It's kind of one of those old adages -- you don't know what you've got until it's gone – and I think when people are used to being able to go to live events and now all of a sudden they can't, boy all of us in the industry are really hoping that we’ll come out in full force once those doors open again.

Fowlie: I guess the other aspect of this is, personally, I'm doing this podcast from home. Like many organizations out there, AudienceView has instituted a work-from-home policy for all staff and closing all our offices temporarily as we weather the storm here. When I think about the effect on the industry, I look no further than myself. I've been cooped up and I live in a condo in downtown Toronto. I haven't been out for fresh air in a few days. I don't know how long this is going to last, but personally I think we're all going to want to go out and have some fun, let our hair down and get out once this passes. I think there will be a tremendous amount of pent-up energy for people to go out and just be with other people after being in this social distancing for a period of time. We're going to crave that connection and there's nothing like sitting beside people in a play or in a comedy or a music festival to really enjoy that event and get back to that connection in a physical way. 

Evenson: What is Toronto like these days?

Fowlie: Pretty quiet. My condo here in downtown, I look out, not a lot of people walking around, not a lot of cars on the road. I think people that are out are doing their part to maintain distances. You see people spreading themselves out at the traffic lights. A bit of a run in the grocery stores this week, so it was a little hard to get some things and obviously toilet paper is in high demand. But beyond that, even the staples, there was a bit of a run. I think it's reflective of the downtown or urban concentration here in Toronto. I think in the more suburban areas it's a little less severe. But yah, it's scary. From the point of view of thinking what happens if our supply chains get interrupted and how long can we continue on. So it's a bit nerve wracking but I think people are adjusting and level-headed. We're seeing, as you said, the industry is rallying around these things and people are doing everything they can do to find a way to connect in this moment of crisis, but let's hope it passes in the weeks ahead. 

Evenson: It's tough when live events – arts, sports, music – are your release and all of a sudden you don't have access to those things. With sports not being on the TV and people not being able to go to concerts, you realize how sewn into the fabric of our communities these live events are. I agree with you, I think that people are going to be aching to get back to those things because life is challenging enough. Most evenings you have something that you look forward to, that you can turn to, to press pause on life for a while. With the 24-7-365 access to media and things changing all the time and wondering what to believe and what's true and what's not, it's always been so nice for me to be able to just flip the channel and turn on the game or to get out and go to that bar or restaurant and go to go to a concert. Not having that is really is really hard. You realize how much of a release live events is for people, how much of a life pause it can be, so I think people are missing that big time. 

Fowlie: Yes, certainly feeling that here in terms of my own family and the things that we would do together, whether that be theater or sports, and that would be live or even watching on TV occasionally. So yah, we see it, the way it's impacted our immediate family in terms of that time together, so it's something that I would think everyone would be eager to get back to us as soon as we can.

Evenson: AudienceView is in a unique position. We serve thousands of clients around the world that are dealing with this challenging situation -- everything from theater, which we've seen has been closed down, to one-time events like music festivals, and even commencements that have been either canceled or postponed.  We're in a unique position where we're seeing different trends and decisions that are being made and it's so hard because I think for those that don't understand the complexity of the live events space and all the different chains that put a live event together -- the different people and pieces that go into what makes a live event happen -- untangling all of that has really been an interesting window into the complexity in and around everything that goes together to put on a live event. When that breaks down, from our perspective, it's just been fascinating to see where the decisions are made and how that affects different parts of the puzzle economically, financially. What have you seen that's either surprised you the most or you that shines a light on how complex really this industry is? 

Fowlie: Well, it reinforces things perhaps that we or I already knew, but the sort of criticality of some of the relationships in the industry around all the pieces that make commerce or e-commerce in live events work, so the relationships between the content and the venues, the venues and their suppliers, the venues and our organization, our organization and our suppliers and payment processors. It's a tangled web and when it's functioning, it functions very, very well. But when we get to this sort of uncharted territory we're in now, where everything has to stop, we're sort of unwinding some of that that dependency, that co-dependency, is a bit of a challenge, and just trying to figure out where everything is settling and I don’t mean entirely on a financial basis, but just how are we managing consumers? Where are they going for help? How are our venues coping with this and our clients all across the industry? Then how do we act responsibly to make sure that, like governments are doing now, we keep the funds flowing where they need to flow but do it in a way that allows us to manage through the crisis in a responsible way? Those are not easy things to untangle. We're fortunate enough to have many clients and we have a number of solutions and so that also adds a layer of complexity to this. 

Evenson: Absolutely. I think when you look at the challenges that our industry is facing, it’s going to be tough for some organizations to recover from something like this, which is really heartbreaking. What's so important during these times is you how can those organizations stay afloat? We've seen some great campaigns and things happening on social media and other places to really drive keeping those organizations afloat during this time. I think we all want our local venue, our local theaters, our universities to prosper because of that release and that escape that live events and entertainment is for us. We all love Netflix, but if life was just Netflix and Disney+, I think it'd be a much darker world in my opinion. So it's a tricky time, but I'm really hopeful that as consumers for those of us that that otherwise would spend our discretionary money on live events, we can still find ways to support these organizations. 

Fowlie: Yah, I think it's encouraging. Again, it's that passion for the industry and the events that people attend and trying to find creative ways to support those organizations in a situation where consumers find themselves not able to go to an event, but allowing that to become a donation or a credit towards a future event or subscription or take a gift card in return. Those gestures are really, really critical to supporting those organizations and keeping them viable because we will bounce back and we will bounce back stronger, I think, with that energy and enthusiasm for the industry. We just really need to see everybody contributing to the long-term viability of individual organizations of the industry at large. 

Evenson: Absolutely. And I think if you flip that to the consumer and kind of thinking about what their confidence level is and kind of what live events will look like throughout the rest of 2020, I'm curious to see how organizations deal with selling events that are the back half of the year and then what the consumer confidence is to buy those tickets and even though they might go through a similar process that we're going through now where it's a bit unknown, it's still an opportunity, I think, to show that they are supporting those organizations. I think we've seen obviously a pause and some cancellations and rescheduling of events throughout the next four months or so, but looking at the back half of the year, assuming that we can get out of this, hopefully ticket buyers and consumers will really feel strongly that they want to support the industry and go to you know go to a lot more events and spend their money in the back half of the year. That's what we're hopeful for I guess, huh? 

Fowlie: Yes, absolutely. And I don't think you can overstate the importance of consumer support through this. The simple gesture of saying ‘I get that my event has been canceled or postponed, I'm happy to defer that to a later date’. Those small gestures across millions and millions of event goers will make a difference to the health of this industry and our collective ability to provide those great events that we all crave, so it can't be overstated how important the consumer reaction to this is in keeping the industry strong and vibrant. 

Evenson: It's been great to see some of the industry organizations come together and create a set of resources and tools for live event organizations. It's been great to see that come together because there is a lot of unknown at this point in and around what kind of government relief and help that will be available to these organizations. Again, we're pledging to make sure we find paths for our clients to know when their states, their provinces, their governments are going to provide relief. You've been around kind of that in Canada. What have you seen up in Canada in and around how the government, whether it's provincial or federal government, is going to try to help this? I know that airlines and other industries kind of seem to float to the top in and around what relief looks like, but what do you think that might look like for our industry? 

Fowlie: I think the cultural elements of our industry is critical to any country, any nation, and making sure that's vibrant and I think our governments of all levels understand that. I know the Canadian federal government rolled out a set of measures today. Unfortunately due to my schedule I haven't been able to catch up on the news, but I think there was a massive sort of stimulus announced in the press today, so I’ll unwind the details of that at some point, but we're seeing provincial government stepping up as well and even local governments. So I think the criticality of the cultural space and sports and arts and culture in general is so important that maybe the airlines and the hospitality industry sort of take the first priority in terms of how things are communicated, but I'm confident that at least in Canada and I would assume throughout the world, governments will recognize the importance of the live events industry and will step up. We employ a lot of people collectively as an industry and those jobs are very important to the economies in those countries, and I can't imagine governments not doing everything they can to assist as they are assisting other industries. 

Evenson: So I want to shift because we've talked a little bit about what we think the short-term impact would be like, the optimism that we have around events coming back to life here as soon as they possibly can and event goers leaning into that. But as we're seeing the innovation during this time when people literally cannot go into live event venues that they're used to, there is disruption that occurs. There always is in times like this. There is innovation that happens and I think that live events are going to forever change. I think that there are local and regional organizations that have been very reliant on people coming into their venues consistently. Now that that's not an option, they're being forced to innovate and to pivot and change, so I think live events will be augmented I should say moving forward. That may take time, but when you're seeing organizations that never would have thought about live streaming and coming into homes all of a sudden now looking at platforms and realizing that maybe this isn't as challenging as we thought and maybe this is something we should be adding to our offering, that opens up tons of opportunity. It creates more competition because now you're competing with similar content and event concepts around the world, but it also opens you up to the global population that might follow you, your organization, your venue, your purpose, for a particular reason. I'm curious what your take is on that and how you think this industry will shift. I don't mean in the next six months, but three to five years. What are the big sweeping changes that might be made as a result of this unfortunate situation?


Fowlie: Great question. I've spent a lot of time thinking about that in between managing day-to-day issues. We said off the top that we're kind of into uncharted territory and perhaps this is the new normal as we look at other disruptions in our in our lives over the past years and decades; you know how many years ago we think about climate change. You'd hear it was a once-in-100-year storm that happened four times in five years. You think okay, well what was normal is no longer normal when we think about climate change. We look at how we absorb the new normal there, so I think we've got to be prepared for this pandemic sort of experience to not be a once-in-100-year thing. I think all the indications of our society and how we travel and move about the globe, we should assume that this is not a once-in-100-year thing. And so what I think about is okay, how do we help our clients find a path forward in that? It's through innovation of what they're bringing to the market and then the delivery mechanisms of that. So I don't know if we're talking about live streaming or a combination of live streaming with live performance and things like bringing virtual reality into the mix. I just think this is going to, as you said, change the industry trajectory and maybe in a positive way too from the perspective of if you have a great event, you're limited to the seats in your venue or your location of your festival. Maybe becoming very proficient at live streaming allows us to open that experience to more people and ultimately have a broader audience that we'd love to ticket for. So I think there's positives in this as we think about what is that new normal. Over the next coming years it's really going to be a question of how those events change the profile of the delivery mechanisms and we will look to work with our clients and the industry at large to understand that and make sure we're bringing solutions at the right time because it's a little uncertain how fast that will unfold. 

Evenson: It's interesting. In North Carolina, Blumenthal Performing Arts, they've made a decision on one of their events, SEED20, to create a, dare I say, combo pack where it's a combination of a live stream in the short term along with a physical event in the medium term. I think that kind of connection between being able to provide content and entertainment now but also connecting it to something physical down the road is a really smart way to keep going during these times. So you are seeing organizations figure out and think outside the box around how do they best attack both worlds and stay relevant and I thought that was a great example and I'm sure there are plenty of others out there.

Fowlie: Yes, for sure. I love the creativity of that type of offering. And again who knows where this will land, but we'll get there steps at a time and we'll work with our clients and the industry to figure that out and make sure that we're sharing best practices and thinking around how do you operate in this new world going forward. 

Evenson: So as the leader of AudienceView, what are the big things that you're driving within the organization to help this industry in uncharted territory while we see this through? What are the themes that you're driving to make sure that our company is helping these clients and the industry as a whole? 

Fowlie: I think it really comes down to four key categories for us, for me personally as I think about the business. Number one, and I think this is the same for pretty much every organization out there, is the well-being of our employees and making sure we're making smart, responsible decisions to keep them safe and healthy and productive, but really ensuring the well-being of the employees and their families. By example, our work-from-home policy that we instituted at the start of this week. So we spent a lot of time thinking about that. The second category for us is business continuity; how are we managing our business to ensure that our business will continue should we see people coming down with this virus that are in critical functions for the company, our suppliers and how important they are to us. So we worked through our business continuity plans, through cross training and other things to make sure that we can stay up and running for our clients and their patrons and fans through this experience, so we spend a lot of time on that. The third category would really just be figuring out the business impact -- to us, to our clients and working through how do we untangle that web that I talked about earlier and making sure we're just being responsible and ensuring that the funds flow where they need to flow at the right time in the right way. The fourth category is some of the things we've talked about in terms of where does the industry go from here. We call that are our lessons learned and future consideration bucket. So we’re looking at these things and taking notes down as we think about what could happen and what we need to do differently with our products, with our services, with the industry at large, how we can help our customers differently if this unfortunately were to happen again, how would we change our products to make things easier, whether that's reporting. One of the things we're looking at just by an example is what is the reporting mechanism across our product line for our clients to be able to say, ‘This was the impact to my organization of COVID-19’ to support them when they do go have those conversations with their local governments, their state or federal government, in terms of financial compensation. We want to make it easy for them to do those things. So those are the type of things I put in that lessons learned bucket. There will be a lot of learnings from this and we'll take that forward, but those are the four areas that we come back to on a daily basis at AudienceView. 

Evenson: For those that do come out of this, I think everyone's going to come out of it stronger and with those lessons learned, not just being able to attack a situation like this should it occur again, and I hope it is not the new norm, but should it occur again, everyone will people be more prepared. Hopefully the innovation that comes out of these times will be able to carry us forward into new ways to engage, new ways to fund live events and potentially the evolution of what a live event even is. I would hate to say we're going to be quarantined forever, but the last piece I wanted to touch on is a bit apocalyptic, but I'm just going to share a few events that I remember in my past that if I never could go to another live event again, what are the ones that stand out to me. For me, it's sitting near the floor at the Final Four game where Wisconsin took down an undefeated Kentucky Wildcat team in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. From end to end, the exhilaration of that event and having Aaron Rodgers sitting behind me and just going through that with friends and family and that experience is something that I'll never forget and I could never get in a 2D environment. Just being there and being around that electricity is one of those events that, well, you hate to say if you're stranded on a desert island, what five live events would you take with you, but that certainly would be one for me. How about you? 

Fowlie: That’s a great question. There's a recency effect to this, but I'll give you two because of the recency effect. If you'd asked me literally about a year ago, I would have said probably the most memorable and impactful live event for me was a Who concert in Toronto in my late teen years. I was 18 or 19 years old, there with a bunch of friends and it was just an incredible experience and a great lineup of warm-up bands if you can call Heart a warm-up in. It was a fantastic event and, well, I remember most of it today. I have to say it competes up there with the NBA finals last year. I was at game two of the championship round here in Toronto. That was pretty incredible to be at.  Again you talk about the live events and perhaps transcending between live and streaming, watching the actual final game with my family in Toronto and celebrating in the streets of Toronto after the Raptors won. But I have to give it to the Who, I think. 

Evenson: As a Bucks fan, thanks for four for bringing up last year's NBA playoffs. I'm just hopeful there is going to be a playoff opportunity this year considering the Bucks would easily take down the Raptors. But you're right -- even when you weren't there, you were there, and I remember you telling me about the environment that Toronto had when they won that championship and it goes to show again that the energy of a live event isn't always contained within the walls but it expands beyond that and I think we're seeing that now. Even though the energy is zero inside the walls, it's so great to see the energy in a lot of cases continue outside of those venues. So, thanks so much for taking the time. I know it's been hectic and chaotic, but really felt it was a good opportunity to check in with you and let's make a point, when we come out of this, to do this again. 

Fowlie: Great. Thank you for kicking this off Mike and I look forward to future episodes. 

Evenson: All right, thanks Mark, so much. All right everyone, thank you so much for tuning in for our first episode of the Unobstructed podcast. Look forward to more conversations with people in the industry, outside of the industry; our goal with this podcast and Unobstructed is really to create a clear view of the live events industry. We need it more than ever in how unclear things can seem, but we're here to help and looking forward to future episodes. Thanks for joining.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to Unobstructed - your view on the live events industry. Subscribe today wherever you listen to your favorite podcast.

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