We love venues because they are the places we go to be entertained.  But how much do we know of the work that goes into building a programme of events that will do just that, and how much that goes into making the experience right.

In this week’s Big Interview on Entertainment for Business we travelled to Belfast to catch up with Sharon McCrea, the Event Bookings and Development Manager at the SSE Arena.

Entertainment for Business: U2 were a highlight in 2018 and you have Westlife for the follow up in 2019. How important are these big acts with a strong following to you?

Sharon McCrea: They are very much our A-listers from a profile but also a strong business perspective.  Westlife are playing with us five times in the summer and every one is a sellout, just as have been their 46 previous shows.  That’s great to have when it comes to forecasting but there is also a huge ancillary lift.

For concerts like these, all the suite holders will be there, the lounges will be full and they give an extra dimension for our corporate partners as well.

Even from a merchandising perspective these are the events that people want to have a t-shirt and bought the reminders that they were there.  The A-list music acts have that as do events like the WWE Experience which is coming this year.

They also give a real buzz to everyone working in the SSE Arena and that’s important too.

How does it feel this year then in terms of having a sharp focus to the programme and it’s only just starting?

Well, we work a long way in advance and being an Arena the kind of tours that we attract tend to have a lot of moving parts, not just on the stage.

It is great to have so many big acts booked in but we are always looking ahead and working closely with our promoters.

Sometimes you might be all set for what you know is going to be a big winner and a record company might delay a release and a tour gets put back.  It’s the nature of the game but once the dates are made public then all the hard work that goes into securing them moves quickly onto the next one.

You’ve three weekends coming up with ice hockey, then Arena Cross, then back to Ice Hockey with the Belfast Giants.  and you have Boyzone in the mix as well. How long does it take to transition across such different setups in the Arena?

We have a brilliant team here and you would be surprised at how quickly they can set up what can at times be an incredibly complex set of different elements.  

The Ice for the Giants is kept active from August through to March to accommodate the Belfast Giants.  They are in the same Odyssey trust ownership as the SSE Arena and W5 and we all work closely together.

Once the first game is played, the operations team will cover the ice with special poly boards and begin to dismantle the Arena infrastructure that’s in place for games from hoardings to different configurations.

With Arena Cross coming we then layer on specially brought in dirt which will arrive with us on Wednesday.  Their experts will build the track on this on Thursday and there will be a practice day for the riders on Friday before the track is remodelled again ready for showtime on Saturday.

When the engines shut down everything goes into reverse.  The poly board stays down for Boyzone who play with us on the Wednesday as part of their 25th Anniversary Tour and then its back to the ice in time for the Giants the following weekend.

It would drive you mad thinking about it but the team are so experienced now that they always deliver.

You have Brian Cox and the Blue Planet Performance coming up.  With Game of Thrones setting up its Experience in Belfast this summer is there a real trend towards the kind of crossover experience these shows represent?

When we were first built as Belfast’s Millenium project Arena’s were really looked on as venues for concerts or sport.  That was great but the way the music business has developed with more and more concerts but at different sizes and with more acts, we as an industry had to look around.

The Festival scene is a bigger competitor now for the kind of acts that we would also be looking for and sometimes they choose to do a summer rather than an Arena Tour.

One of the first ‘crossover’ events came from the X Factor and their tour.  It was immediately popular and then we had Ant and Dec take theirs on the road, followed by Dancing on Ice, which is especially good for us, and Strictly Come Dancing.

We have a fixed venue that needs to be attracting acts and the development of shows like the Blue Planet or like Game of Thrones which we had last year is a really strong positive for us.

We have Marvel back again at the end of 2019 and when you are attracting events of that calibre you really are putting yourself on a world stage in terms of people’s awareness of not only the Arena but of Belfast as a place to go.

Does it require a different kind of marketing and promotion to a concert?

Very much so.  People know what they will get with a concert or a match.  With the Experience shows it’s different.

The marketing has to be really spot on so that people have a very clear picture of what they will get.

Walking with Dinosaurs was a great example here.  W5 had a special show based around dinosaurs and we cross-promoted with them so that people were excited and looking forward in a number of different ways.

Back to Game of Thrones, the Final Season in April and the Show in Belfast for the summer.  Has the relationship between Belfast and the Show been a strong one for the city and you as a key part of the entertainment mix?

The city works really well together as ‘Team Belfast’.  We look out on the Titanic Exhibition Centre and we have W5 as part of our own development.

Game of Thrones is filmed within a stone’s throw and the promotion with the Northern Ireland Tourism Authorities has been great.

We maintain really good contacts with everyone who benefits when crowds are coming to Belfast and yes Game of Thrones being back on screen and Belfast hosting the Experience as only the second venue in Europe to do so will be big.

We may not be the biggest city in Europe but we do put on a very good show and people enjoy coming to us and then coming back.

What are some of the other highlights you are looking forward to?

Ah, it’s a great line up for 2019.  There’s really something for everyone.  Apart from Westlife, we have other acts of even greater vintage that have proven massively popular.  Bryan Adams is coming, and A-Ha.

Add in Little Mix and Marvel and we are rocking.

Another two events that are real winners, and are back for a third time this year are The Farm Bash and Lush Classical.  They both have a real Ulster feel about them and are always something to look forward to.

Tell us a little about some of the commercial partnerships you have in place and how those brands are engaging with your audience?

We have some really great partners that we work with and each of them brings something special.

SSE are our main one and they are a big part of the most popular events through their pre-sale allocation of tickets exclusively for their customers.  Utilities are a loyalty business and having access on an exclusive basis to the hottest tickets in town is one of those money can’t buy experiences that they really enjoy being able to offer.

Aside from tickets, we work with them to provide different experiences, all geared towards the Reward for being an SSE customer.  It works when people are looking at their bills.

The Heineken Lounge has been a great experience for us and for our customers as well.  It adds to the special occasion of coming to an event and is always really popular.

We do a lot with Britvic around Family shows and Dale Farm create a really nice ‘Cool Zone’ for the events on ice.

Dillon Bass will be setting up a special Gin Bar around a couple of the older audience targetted events and because we know our audience well through the use of data we can tailor the right kind of partner experience to the right kind of demographics.

Very little is left to chance and we are always looking to go one step better for the paying customer.

We also have a very strong social media presence and attract huge interest around competitions based on events or with those commercial partners.

From a personal perspective what has been one of the highlights of your time working at the SSE Arena?
I’ve been here from the start5, though it has gone by very quickly.  Probably the one event that really stand out was the MTV Europe Music Awards which we hosted in 2011.  It was a huge job on behalf of the city to bring it to Belfast and how could you not be blown away with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars all performing on the one night.  It was special.
And finally, what would be your own idea of a great night out, away from the SSE Arena?
You know I really love music and discovering new acts.  The perfect night would be at Limelight, the Black Box or the Oh Yeah Music Centre with my husband and a few friends.  We’ve a great grassroots music scene here.  It really is the best City in the world.


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