ESSMA Spotlight: Arsenal FC and FIA discuss COVID-19

The majority of sports and entertainment venues have had the opportunity to welcome back (a small amount of) visitors in the past months. Valuable lessons were learned about hygienic requirements, safety protocols and fan experience. To kick off our first ESSMA Spotlight, John Beattie - Stadium & Facilities Director at Arsenal FC, Adam Baker - Safety Direct at FIA and Cyril De Greve from ESSMA shared their insights during a high-level panel discussion.

An extract of the panel discussion

John, from a club perspective, how would you evaluate these last 10 months?

John Beattie: Very difficult! It's been frustrating at times, saying that moving goalposts has been a regular occurrence is an understatement. We've got used to writing policies. We've got used to rewriting policies. In some cases policies were rewritten even before the ink was dry. Literally everything had to be written, then approved and signed off… 

“When we were working on welcoming fans back into the stadium, we brought together a cross-departmental team. Which I think allowed us to appreciate each other more and learn more about other department roles. In the end, we got to a stage where we could get fans back into the stadium.”

Adam, FIA was one of the first in setting up a plan to restart races internationally, with F1 as the most visible example. What were the main challenges for you to develop this plan?  

Adam Baker: Initially, we had to identify which skills, qualifications, expertise, etc. were missing in order to be able to prepare for the challenges COVID-19 posed. It was quite difficult to put a team of in-house and external people together to tackle the problem. With regards to Formula 1 events, people can probably imagine how complicated operations were. There are a lot of stakeholders involved and we had a lot of questions which needed to be answered: What would the venue do? What is our role? Who should take the lead? Who's dealing with the local health authorities? etc. The biggest challenge was finding an answer to these questions and adapting.

John, you’ve been welcoming fans back to the stadium and recently hosted 2 trial games. What learnings are there?

John Beattie: It was very last minute that the Government decided we could finally welcome fans back, only 2.000 fans were allowed in. Our operational plan focused on pulling the ticket-, temperature- and safety check away from the turnstiles and towards entry points further away. We felt we could control the queue far better this way. 

“We spent over £400.000 to be able to let fans in.”

The fans were very cooperative and responsible about how that was organised. However, 50 percent of the crowd still turned up only 15 minutes before kickoff, when they were specifically asked to arrive at dedicated time-windows. So, protocol changes will have to be made because entering a stadium takes a lot longer with all these procedures.

Something else which was a little problematic were the different regulations for Europa League and Premier League matches. With the Europa League game, we were only allowed to sell single seats. While Premier League protocols allowed us to sell multiple seats in the same social bubble for a match only 5 days later. In a short amount of time, we had to change the seating layout for those 2.000 fans. 

In addition, London went into a new lockdown 2 days before our 3rd match so here we  had a learning curve of how to refund the tickets.

Adam, did FIA have to adapt its protocols to different countries?

Adam Baker: We did not adapt our protocols or our systems. Of course, each country has their own national requirements,so we had to adapt minor aspects of our protocol.

Now we’re looking towards the 2021 season with one main question: What do we need to adapt in our system? As this is the year of the vaccines, we can perhaps consider allowing fans who have been vaccinated. Something else that is interesting are the antigen tests. Last year our protocols entirely focused on PCR tests. However, the antigen tests are fairly low cost and don’t require the support of a lab nearby, which gives us more opportunities.

Only ESSMA Spotlight participants can re-watch the panel discussion