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Big events are back

After an 18-month hiatus, concerts, festivals, sports, and other big events are expected to return to their pre-pandemic glory.

Memphis Grizzly fans attend an NBA playoff game in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 31.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

When cities and states around the country began issuing stay-at-home orders in March of last year, Live For Live Music turned to tracking cancellations rather than promoting shows. But as vaccination rates rise and governments relax their pandemic regulations, the music marketing and production company’s site is getting back to normal.

“For the first time in longer than we can remember, today’s update doesn’t feature a single cancellation or postponement,” reads a recent Live For Live Music blog post.

The recovery of the event ecosystem is happening faster than expected. Events professionals see the number of events and event attendance reaching and potentially surpassing pre-pandemic levels in 2019. But that recovery is contingent on a number of factors, including how effective the vaccine program is, the nature of the events themselves, and where they are located.

Event industry leaders pointed again and again to pent-up demand to illustrate their certainty that events would succeed in a post-pandemic world. After a year and a half spent at home, many people are more than ready to attend festivals, concerts, sporting events, and other big group pastimes they’ve been missing. So far it looks like they’re doing their best to make up for lost time.

What current events data suggests

June is on track to be the first month since before the pandemic began that events in the United States will bring in more than a billion dollars, according to new data from demand forecast company PredictHQ. The total economic impact — an estimate of spending on travel, food, and lodging for the largest 2,500 events this month, including sports, concerts, conferences, and expos — is expected to be $1.6 billion, which is more than it has been in over a year.

Chris Phillips of Zowie Bowie performs during a “Downtown Rocks Again!” event in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 1.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Folks attend a live concert during the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on April 17.
Rory Doyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

These types of events were all but absent over the past year, as health measures prohibited many group activities. June’s numbers represent a substantial improvement, and will likely increase as cities and states continue to roll back their restrictions around capacity and masking, and more events get added to calendars.

“There’s capital available, there is this pent-up demand, and there are these events being generated for people,” PredictHQ CEO and co-founder Campbell Brown told Recode, describing what he called the “perfect storm of demand.”

The country’s top ticket sellers are welcoming the change, as well.

“Demand is roaring back in a way that’s exceeding our expectations as recently as 60 days ago,” Akshay Khanna, general manager of ticket exchange StubHub, told Recode. “It’s driven by confidence in the vaccine program and the sheer numbers of vaccinations since February.”

StubHub is expecting the number of events and ticket sales in the second half of the year to match and potentially exceed 2019, given this rush of demand and the increase in the number of events being announced.

“Understanding pent-up demand and human nature, I would be surprised if it wasn’t the case, assuming the vaccine rollout continues and caseload numbers continue to decrease,” Khanna said.

Live Nation, the event company that owns Ticketmaster, recently reported that major tour dates booked for next year are up double digits compared to 2019, which was a record year for the company. But so far this year, events haven’t yet reached their pre-pandemic levels, either in number of events or overall attendance, according to PredictHQ.

As of late May, attendance at festivals scheduled for the second half of the year is expected to reach 87 percent of its 2019 levels, according to PredictHQ. Meanwhile, concerts and conferences are at just 53 percent of their 2019 attendance for events that were listed as of May each year. Sporting events were slightly higher at 58 percent and rising.

As more events are added thanks to the success of current events, those overall attendance numbers will continue to increase, PredictHQ says. The company expects attendance levels this year to surpass 2019.

What exactly that recovery will look like depends on a variety of factors.

What’s coming back and why

The most promising events so far are, naturally, those that take place outdoors. Outdoor events, like music festivals, pose less of a risk for Covid-19 infection and are thus recovering more quickly.

A number of popular multi-day music festivals that draw tens of thousands of people are back on the calendar this year. Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Electric Daisy, Astro World, and Rolling Loud all sold out in record time, according to Ticketmaster. Garth Brooks just had the fastest-selling stadium show ever, with 50,000 seats to Utah’s outdoor Rice-Eccles Stadium selling out in less than 30 minutes.

“Strong demand is proving that fans are eager to get back to the experiences they love — it feels like every week we have another event breaking a record,” Ticketmaster president Mark Yovich wrote in an email to Recode. “For some of these record-breaking on sales, we have millions of fans lining up for just a few hundred thousand tickets.”

And those record-breaking events aren’t exclusive to outdoor venues. In May, the world title fight between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Billy Joe Saunders set a record for attendance at an indoor boxing event in the US, with more than 70,000 fans showing up at AT&T Stadium in Texas. It was one of many events exceeding pre-pandemic attendance levels by double digits and sometimes more, according to StubHub.

Singer Angela Aguilar performs prior to the Canelo-Sanders fight at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on May 8.
Omar Vega/Getty Images

“Concerts are probably going to see the highest demand pop because people have been able to watch sports — even if you can’t be there, you can turn on the TV and watch,” StubHub’s Khanna explained.

“I haven’t been able to watch a concert, and there’s not really much of an alternative — I can listen to Spotify, but it’s not the same as seeing Billie Eilish in person,” he said, adding that comedy shows and theater also don’t have a great alternative to in-person events.

Indeed, Eilish, as well as rapper Bad Bunny, had some of the highest sales on StubHub in the last couple months.

And the inauguration of new stadiums for teams like the Las Vegas Raiders and the LA Chargers is also driving demand to attend games there.

Attendees walk past a Covid-19 public health safety sign at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on April 17.
Rory Doyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Attendance at festivals and expos in Nevada and Texas are already above their 2019 levels, according to the PredictHQ.
Rory Doyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Smaller local events are coming back in person too. During the pandemic, event management and ticketing website Eventbrite saw a surge in virtual events, many of which were geared at things like health and wellness, self-care, and career development, according to the company’s chief marketing officer Tamara Mendelsohn. Now, common searches include food trucks, car shows, live music, and comedy.

“We’re seeing in the data this revival of a desire to get out again and celebrate and do the quote-unquote fun things that you hadn’t been able to do in person last year,” Mendelsohn said.

The success of different events also has to do with the policies of individual states. Attendance at festivals and expos in Nevada and Texas are already above their 2019 levels, according to PredictHQ. In Texas, those figures are more than double what they were, as they absorb pent-up demand and host events from other states. Meanwhile, PredictHQ data shows that California, which has stricter policies and is among the bottom 10 states as far as return of event attendance, is at about half its 2019 attendance rate.

“You’re seeing somewhere like Nevada and Texas, who have lifted their mandates a month and a half ago, that has accelerated a lot of the rebooking rates of events,” Brown said. “And so what we expect to see is when California comes out of their mandate on June 15th, you’re seeing an acceleration of events being booked towards the end of the year.”

For some people, the precautions events require will make the difference.

Many venues nationwide are requiring a vaccine passport or proof of a negative Covid-19 test to attend. New York’s Excelsior Pass Wallet was recently the most downloaded health and fitness app in the US, according to app measurement firm App Annie. Other precautions like social distancing, mask-wearing, and limited-capacity events will likely become less common as local and state governments retire their mandates.

It’s even possible that events could soon look a lot like what they used to.

“I think this is going to shift back to pretty much very similar to what it was pre-pandemic, but with better safety measures,” PredictHQ’s Brown said. “But if people do want to wear a mask to a game, I don’t think they’re going to be ostracized because of it, either.”

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