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Scotland in focus: OVO Hydro director of live entertainment Debbie McWilliams – Access All Areas



Ahead of the publication of our in-depth report on the Scottish live events industry’s post-pandemic fight back, we caught up with Debbie McWilliams, director of live entertainment at Glasgow’s 14,300-capacity OVO Hydro arena to discuss key issues and developments at the venue and across the wider industry.

How strongly is the Scottish live events industry bouncing back after the post-pandemic reopening and what have been the high and low points since?

Scotland’s live events industry is very much back in business. Following a hugely challenging 18 months, there is positive messaging coming from promoters, artists, and venues, from the smallest to the biggest about the resurgence of live entertainment in Glasgow. In fact, the OVO Hydro has had one of its busiest first six months of the year, hosting some record-breaking performances, including the Hydro’s biggest selling show, My Chemical Romance. Glasgow will also enjoy its strongest ever summer calendar of outdoor live entertainment in 2022. My Chemical Romance, they had no production kills at all, meaning the saleable capacity was the highest ever.

Are tickets selling strongly and are you happy with the number and variety of events being booked?

Tickets are selling, no-show percentages are greatly reduced and are almost back to pre-Covid levels, and despite concerns about the cost of living, fans continue to spend on live. This demonstrates the value and need for live entertainment for the fan, backed up by a real desire from artists to get back to doing what they love most, performing live. We’ve had an exceptional start to the year with some of the biggest names performing at the OVO Hydro,  including Billie Eilish, Sam Fender, Diana Ross and Queen and Adam Lambert playing to sell-out crowds . There’s a strong pipeline of future events, including an incredible 16-night run from Glasgow’s Kevin Bridges in September. There’s a good mix of events, meaning there is something for everyone. In 2022 we have a higher percentage of comedy, mostly attributed to Kevin Bridges. Ticket sales are strong, and with the calibre of acts and mix across all genres we’d expect this momentum to continue through to the end of the year and beyond.

How close is the Glasgow live events community and do you support each other?

Collaboration is key, and the Glasgow events community is a well-connected, supportive,  and focussed group of stakeholders who recognise, celebrate and amplify Glasgow’s music heritage and rightful place as a world music destination. ‘People Make Glasgow’ and ‘the People of Glasgow Make Music’ there is recognition across all stakeholders about the role that the famous Glasgow audience plays in the success of live events in the city, its thanks to the fans that the Hydro receives such consistent accolades as top 5 in the Pollstar rankings for busiest venues globally and no 1 in Billboard for venues up to 15,000-cap. Delivering the best experience for fans is the goal and is very much a collaborative effort.

“Tickets are selling, no-show percentages are greatly reduced and are almost back to pre-Covid levels, and despite concerns about the cost of living, fans continue to spend on live.”

SEC and the Hydro hosted COP26, how important was that for the venue, Glasgow, and the wider Scottish live events industry?

The importance of hosting COP26 cannot be understated. This was a significant and important event globally at a crucial time for governments across the world. The SEC is honoured to have been the host venue for this significant conference.

It was the biggest event of its kind ever held in the UK and it was the first time in SEC’s history that it became UN sovereign territory.  It brought sustainability and the environment into sharper focus in our business and was certified to ISO20121 Sustainable Management System through the sustainability consultant used for the event. We inherited the paperwork used for the standard which gave us a great starting point to implement the management system into our full site and operations, provided us the chance to learn and adapt our own aims and policies and build new partnerships for a global approach to the climate crisis.

An important outcome of COP26 for the event industry was the Net Zero Carbon Events pledge, which attracted hundreds of signatories. The SEC was one of the first signatories of the Net Zero Carbon Events pledge and we are proud to say we supported the development of the project from its outset, supporting the multiple working groups who developed the project.

We’re proud to have played such a central role in COP, and particularly proud that our team received glowing feedback from the UN about the standard of service and facilities at the venue. It allowed us to demonstrate to the world what the SEC and Glasgow are capable of.”

How important is the Greener Arena certification, and what can other venues learn from your experience?

The driver for obtaining certification was our strong desire to do the right thing for our planet and attaining the credentials to back up our commitment is a great achievement. The certification highlights recognition of the OVO Hydro’s status as a world leading venue. We are working exceptionally hard across the whole campus to reduce our carbon footprint and to be recognised by A Greener Festival, who is setting the standard on sustainable arenas, gives us the confidence that what we are doing is working.

The award assessment is incredibly comprehensive, and it covers a lot of areas we are already working to improve including energy, waste, environmental protection, carbon, water, and green travel.

A key element of the A Greener Arena award is continuous improvement and as part of the award, we will receive a feedback report which lists recommendations and improvement opportunities identified during the process.

If I were to make one recommendation to others who are in the AGF certification process it would be to hire a dedicated Environment and Waste Manager, we did, and it is what made a significant difference.

Glasgow and the venue has a net zero 2030 target, how is that progressing and are you happy with the progress being made by the wider live event community in the city?

We’ve already made huge strides towards our target: launching our sustainable food strategy, eliminating single use plastic cups at live events, utilising 100% renewable electricity and gaining A Greener Arena certification.

With OVO Energy, we have a shared passion and commitment to green and sustainable practices as well as building meaningful partnerships.  Their goal is to make zero carbon living a reality in everything we do, including when attending events. OVO will support us in strengthening our existing sustainability credentials and help fund newer initiatives to make the OVO Hydro as low impact as possible.

We’re proud of what we’ve been able to achieve so far, and we’ll ensure this momentum continues as we move into the second half of the year. We’re greatly encouraged by the focus and drive displayed by the city who have also set the ambitious net zero 2030 target, and we look forward to working with them to achieve this shared goal.

How important is the SEC’s heritage as a live events campus, from Simple Minds being the first standing floor show onwards?

Stopping at our campus as part of a city tour, visitors learn that they are standing on the former Queens’ Dock.  This acknowledges that shipbuilding and export of goods was a significant industry at the heart of Glasgow.  Now, while industry remains here, it’s of a different kind, represented by a world class centre of events and entertainment.

The Simple Mind’s track Waterfront, written by Jim Kerr, captures this transition in part.  Written in the early 80s when Glasgow was still emerging from its post-industrial phase and drawing from his personal experience of walking along the cobbled roads, with the river still flowing, in times past and times to come, he wrote this song encapsulating a feeling of hope and rebirth.  That same location is now the hub of entertainment and media and stands out as a jewel along the River Clyde, quantifying that notion of rebirth.

Since our very first live music event, UB40 (supported by Simply Red) in 1985, the SEC has delivered world class events.  SEC’s Hall 4 subsequently became the first arena style venue to be granted permission to introduce a standing floor for the Simple Minds show in 1986.  In 1990 Glasgow was the City of Culture and in the space of a 3-week period, The Rolling Stones played Hampden Stadium, Pavarotti played the SEC, the first time he had played Scotland, Paul McCartney played SEC, and Frank Sinatra played Ibrox Stadium, the first time he had played in Glasgow since 1953. In 1993 Bruce Springsteen played to an audience of 12,000 at SEC, which, at the time, was Britain’s largest indoor, all standing concert. Over the years, SEC’s Hall 4 played host to some of the world’s greatest performers and in 2013 the campus was catapulted to the global stage with the opening of a purpose built entertainment arena, the OVO Hydro.  Rod Stewart officially opened the venue with the first of an amazing four-night run.  In its first year the OVO Hydro hosted many special events that were televised such as The Commonwealth Games (Glasgow 2014), the MTV EMAs and BBC Sports Personality of the Year.  In year two, we staged the 2015 World Gymnastics Championships and the Concert for the Ryder Cup.  All contributing to the label ‘the OVO Hydro, Scotland’s home of live entertainment.

What flexibility is there in the campus in terms of the size of shows that can be booked in across the three venues?

Our venue spaces range from a 600-seat theatre layout to a 14,300 seating /standing arena capacity, demonstrating the high level of flexibility we can offer.  Our operational infrastructure also allows us to host multiple events at the same time.

The tiered design and shape of the OVO Hydro creates a unique intimacy for a venue of its size, along with our flexible draping system allows us to offer a variety of capacity options for standing/seating and fully seated configurations. It’s unique illuminated exterior has the ability to glow over 12 million colours and our strong portfolio of digital assets amplifies messaging to enhance the overall event experience for audience and artist.

Are there any major changes planned for the venue in the coming year?

The ambitious plan to upgrade and expand the campus, principally to facilitate further growth in the Conference and Exhibition sectors, is being pursued with Planning Permission in Principle granted. The plans are supported by a robust business case and an economic impact study.  The challenge is to secure public sector grant funding support for the project to proceed which would be of significant benefit to the Glasgow, Scottish and UK economies.

Technology is at the forefront of our plans in the coming year, all of which focusses on enhancing the fan experience, from accessing their ticket, to purchasing F&B and seamless secure entry to the venue.

Nile Rodgers


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