Despite a comprehensive, 150-page COVID-safety plan that was approved and reportedly commended by the NSW Government, the Byron Bay Bluesfest music festival was cancelled just one day out from the event, due to an evolving COVID-19 situation in the region.
Thousands of workers were sent home, marquees and staging was disassembled, 10 kilometres of lighting was pulled down, almost 20,000 chairs were packed up and some 79 stallholders bundled up their stores, many full of fresh food and drinks ready to serve 16,500 daily festivalgoers over five days.
It’s expected the cancellation will total $10 million in losses for the organisers and $100 million in economic loss for the region.
But for emergency and risk management company Riskworks Group, which has worked with the Bluesfest team since 2017, the impact of the cancellation goes far beyond dollar value.
Usually involved in the risk assessment and safety side of the festival, the company’s role naturally magnified in 2020 and 2021.
Riskworks spent 10 months designing the festival’s multi-layered COVID-safety plan, working alongside festival organisers and the NSW Government.
They were also in charge of providing COVID supervisors and marshals, which meant increasing their team from four people in previous years to 112 this year.
With her team already on-site and preparing for the gates to open, Riskworks managing director Karessa Symons-Hall was blindsided by the government’s sudden decision to cancel and their lack of consultation with the COVID-safety plan.
“We had very positive feedback [on the plan], it was approved and it was actually written, on the advice of the government, in many stages so that should something happen like what did with one positive case, we were ensured that the COVID plan could be adapted to accommodate that,” she says.
“We were very upset we weren’t given the opportunity to put that into action. We were told we would be.”
Watch the Bluesfest bump out in action below:
Symons-Hall says she was caught off guard by the cancellation, with one of her team members breaking the news to her after hearing it in the media, but within minutes the impact was severe.
“It was really tough and it was really sad that [Bluesfest director] Peter Noble wasn’t given the opportunity to address his team and tell them before the news broke in the media,” she says.
While it was entirely out of their hands, Bluesfest organisers, led by Noble, expressed their overwhelming sadness to have to cancel the event two years in a row.
“The cancellation of the festival last year was devastating. The cancellation this year on the eve of our event has been catastrophic for everyone,” the team said in a statement.
Impacts reaching far beyond financial
While the financial impact must not be understated for event businesses like RiskWorks and their staff, the mental health consequences are the most troubling.
“For me, mentally, it’s been an absolute knock,” says Symons-Hall.
“It has been for everybody across the board and I think that’s the biggest fall out from this.
“My team had sacrificed time over Easter, away from their family, had taken time off their jobs and then they arrive on site and within hours were told it was cancelled. Some of those people came from Perth, Melbourne, the Gold Coast, but the majority were from Sydney.
“That plays on my mind, that they missed out financially after sacrificing time for the event.”
Now Symons-Hall fears snap cancellations like this will add to the already alarming risk of an event industry skills shortage.
“It’s putting fear in everybody as to whether they will recommit to the industry as a whole, because they’re running scared of these constant cancellations and the government changing everything at the drop of a hat.”
The industry rallies
In the days following the cancellation, festival partners and the local Byron Bay community rallied together to support each other and the Bluesfest organisers.
Mantra Salt Hotel, part of the Accor Group, omitted the charge of all unused rooms that were booked for Bluesfest artists and their crew.
Lion, the beer and cider partner of the festival, credited Bluesfest for the stock on site and redirected drinks to New South Wales venues affected by the recent floods.
“Where there’s a tragedy there’s often opportunity to do something good and I’m very pleased to be involved in redirecting more than 9,000 beers that were already in fridges at seven bar sites at Bluesfest to be repackaged and transported to flood-affected communities around NSW. It’s a small win for all in a really challenging time,” Lion Sponsorship & Events business development executive Chris Silver said via LinkedIn.
Food vendors took to social media to sell hundreds of meals, including Joachin Varella, owner of Holy Moly Empanadas, who, alongside his partner Maria Elena Betto, had spent three weeks preparing 2,500 empanadas for the event.
Thankfully, they swiftly set up an online shop and managed to sell out of their stock in one weekend.
A plea for help
The cancellation has reinstated calls for government support, specifically to establish a Business Interruption Fund for the live entertainment and events sector.
Industry body Live Performance Australia (LPA), alongside Noble, has been calling for the funding since last year.
“This has cost hundreds of jobs, musicians who were about to perform their first gig in a year have been shut down, thousands of people who were attending the seated, COVID-safe approved event have been turned away, and the local regional economy has been severely impacted,” said LPA chief executive Evelyn Richardson.
“We call on the NSW Government to step up and provide support to Bluesfest to ensure it survives a second shut down due to public health directives.
“This is irrefutable proof that a business interruption fund is critical to the survival of live entertainment events in an environment where no promoter or producer can get insurance.”
Despite the financial and mental toll of such a significant event cancellation, Symons-Hall isn’t giving up. Her long-standing partnership with Bluesfest is stronger than that.
“Personally, I haven’t lost confidence in the festival,” she says.
“I’ll be back 100 per cent with Bluesfest when they go ahead with the next event.”
Symons-Hall recently received some wise words from Bluesfest general manager Nadja Konietzko, who said, “The best shows are after a full dress rehearsal.”
“We’ve done that now,” she Symons-Hall. “We’ll just take a couple of weeks to dust off the mental wounds and then come back fighting for a stronger, bigger event.”