Outdoor festivals during Covid: the ISLAND Arts Centre
As we’re looking towards a brighter summer, with the hope that cultural events will finally be able to take place in some capacity, we wanted to talk to an organisation that did deliver an in-person event during the pandemic to learn from their experience. The ISLAND Arts Centre in Lisburn is our Audience Delight award winner for best socially distanced festival for families. Last September, they ran the Great Artdoors, a two-day free outdoor festival with a family-friendly programme, including a musical theatre masterclass, a puppet show and opera.
It would be unusual for the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council not to programme a summer full of activities and events, but because of the circumstances, they needed to find alternative ways for delivery. They reached out to one of their venues, the ISLAND Arts Centre, to discuss what could be possible. At the time, we were coming slowly out from the first lockdown, with some Covid restrictions still in place. The centre had been offering online activities since March and was eager to return to an in-person format. Delivering something outdoor while still adhering to the rules seemed to be the safest and most desirable option.
Their audiences were excited to come back and there was a real appetite for outdoor events
The ISLAND arts centre took part in our audience research survey Culture Beyond Covid last summer and they discovered that although their audiences were still hesitant about returning to an indoor setting, they were enthusiastic about an outdoor opportunity. This confirmed there was a demand for this type of event and the next step was to make it happen.
At the time of planning, there were no other examples of events in NI that took place outdoor during Covid. Although it was challenging, being part of a local authority was a real advantage. The ISLAND team worked hand in hand with the local council’s health and safety, and emergency planning teams to make sure the project was delivered within guidelines and restrictions.
Having the Great Artdoors on residents’ doorsteps was important for the same reasons. Lisburn Castle Gardens and Moat Park in Dundonald were picked as locations to remain central within the council area, but off the beaten path to avoid crowds. Capacity was limited to 60 for each of the 8 events delivered over the weekend. To make sure this cap was respected, audiences had to book tickets in advance. A pre-event email was sent to all attendees to let them know of the safety measures in place. At their arrival on the day, everything was paperless, and tickets were scanned on attendees’ phones.
Other measures included track-and-trace, one-way systems and sanitiser stations. Entertainers had to bring their own equipment so microphones would not be shared, and audiences were welcome to bring their own blankets to sit on the grass. On the ground, they had signage up and Covid marshals and stewards positioned around the venue to communicate with attendees and passers-by.
We know from our own research that lack of toilets can be a dealbreaker for audiences, especially in outdoor settings. The ISLAND also had that covered as both locations already had toilets accessible on site. The team only had to organise additional sanitation areas for Castle Gardens with baby changing tables.
100% of attendees said they were satisfied with the overall event and 100% strongly agreed they would like to see more of this type of event in the future
The ISLAND team repeated several times how there was such a lovely atmosphere during the whole duration of the event and it showed in the feedback they received after the festival. Most attendees loved the experience and asked for more. 79% strongly agreed it was fun for all the family, 87% strongly agreed they viewed their local area more positively as a result and 91.3% thought it was extremely well organised. During the event, individual staff members received great feedback from people attending, saying how great it was to be outside again but also the joy of experiencing a live event. They even received a message from one family of 4 generations who had managed to book a few of the events together and said it was a very memorable day for them after being apart for months.
Are you planning your own outdoor events for the summer?
As the numbers of new Covid cases and hospital capacity continue to decline, and the vaccine rollout being in full speed, we’re hopeful cultural events will return in a near future. We know NI audiences feel more confident about outdoor events, at least for now, and the ISLAND arts centre showed us it can be done safely. We asked them for tips for other organisations thinking of delivering a programme outdoors and this is what they said:
- Partner up with your local authority.
- Think about partnerships with other organisations. As the arts and culture sector’s overall budget has been strongly impacted by Covid, coming together could be beneficial financially but also in terms of sharing the risks. Delivering an event for a low capacity can be expensive, especially if you’re the only organisation running it.
- Don’t be afraid to try. You will learn more as you go, which will in time build up your confidence.