With venues closing and tours grinding to a halt in March 2020, three solutions presented themselves as alternatives to tide over the live entertainment industry until normality could resume. There were livestream shows in all their various guises; the more high-tech solutions, with virtual productions borrowing techniques from the gaming industry to reimagine what a live show could be; and finally, drive-in shows – a novel idea and a neat solution to keep audiences safe in their vehicles while still being able to gather en masse.
One company that jumped on the drive-in format early in 2020 was Coalition Agency. From a series of events last summer to its successful Car Park Panto at Christmas, the format has provided much-needed income during this unprecedented time. The company and team of suppliers hit the road once again on 12 April – this time round hosting a total of 82 shows for crowds up and down the UK. These productions are made up of two tours with David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy and Horrible Histories, along with a number of shows for SKY VIP. Aiding the production throughout its Spring calendar will be a number of loyal suppliers, including ADI.tv, Encore and PSL Technology Group.
“This is that last roll of the dice for us,” stated Coalition Agency Founder and CEO, Guy Robinson, who admitted it had been a year of mixed success with the format. He spoke candidly about the challenges that come with this style of performance and explained that with drive-in shows, all the regular rules of putting on live events are completely thrown out of the window. “It’s been a big experiment to see what works with this style of performance and, over 2020 and 2021, we’ve found it best suited to family entertainment, which is why we are taking Billionaire Boy and Horrible Histories out on the road with us.”
Looking back, he explained how it had been a series of peaks and troughs throughout the year. “A huge high for us was when we added an extra date in Harrogate for Car Park Panto to make up for a lost date in Scotland due to tighter regulations in the country,” he recalled. “It sold out in less than a week.”
The Coalition Founder outlined some of the logistical challenges he and the team had faced. “The audience metrics for drive-in shows are completely different from normal shows. For every 100 cars, you need 4,000 sq m, which means for our bigger show, we needed a 12,000 sq m area. That is a big plot of land and it means cities like London are out of the question.”
He also emphasised the importance of “the audience experience” from the moment they drive into the site to the moment they leave. “During our panto season, we made a real effort, using snow machines to make the exit a visually stimulating experience. Attendees would then post images on social media, which is how the word really spread with this style of show.”
With varying levels of success throughout the year, Robinson highlighted the importance of “knowing the potential market in each region”. He elaborated: “For example, many people have asked why we are only doing one show at each stop rather than multiple days. In response, I use one of our bigger shows in Bristol as an example. During three days of shows, we have an audience size of 7,200 people. That’s more than you would get during a small theatre run for a week. Doing one show per city then travelling each day is tough, but it would be more expensive to hire a space for multiple days and not sell the tickets.”
As part of this exercise, Robinson and the Coalition Agency have made some predictions about the future of the outdoor market moving forward post COVID-19. “When it comes to the outdoor events market, there is not much of an offering for the 40-to-50 age group,” he pinpointed. The interest that Car Park Party garnered with this group made Robinson suggest that this is a potential market to explore in the future.
But will the drive-in format outlive COVID-19? According to Robinson, the short answer is “no”. He commented: “It’s a novel idea, but it’s a compromise for everyone involved. You lose the community feel you get with a show.”
While the long-term prognosis for drive-ins may not be great, the format has, at least, kept the company working throughout the pandemic. So, has it been worth the stress? “It’s been so important to keep events happening throughout this time,” Robinson asserted. “Despite the stress and the fact that it has exposed us financially as a company, the relationships we have formed with the likes of the team from Knebworth House have been invaluable and would not have happened if we didn’t take a chance on Car Park Party.”
He also stated proudly that Coalition’s work throughout the pandemic has injected over £1 million into the events market during a period when the sector effectively has been closed. “We are incredibly proud that we kept pushing to make events happen.”
With the latest run of shows set to be pivotal to the company’s future, Robinson remains optimistic and excited for the return of live events. “Like many others, I think we’ll be smarter moving forward. The days of having loads of acts on your roaster is over. Instead, we will look at having around 10, all of which we have a clear plan and strategy for.”
At the time of writing, Robinson was pleased to report that 90% of tickets had been sold across both tours, not to mention picking up sponsorship from Coca-Cola and Costa Coffee. “I’m happy to say, assuming the next two weeks go well, the future of Coalition is secured,” he concluded.
This article originally appeared in issue #261 of TPi, which you can read here.