When it comes to the live events industry, COVID-19 has well and truly dominated the conversation. However, in any discussion about the future of touring, the inevitable topic of Brexit eventually rears its head, and that’s exactly the reason TPi was on the phone to KB Event’s Stuart McPherson. Like many within the industry, KB has experienced an incredibly hard time, and although diversifying, regrettably many elements of the company had to be mothballed while it rode out the COVID-19 storm. Yet in the past few months, McPherson and his team began working hard to ensure they were show ready when the inevitable calls from their loyal roster of production managers started to come in.
“I’m pleased to say that 80% of our team has now returned and we’re now interviewing for new positions within the company,” enthused McPherson. As well as running the company, McPherson was out on Ed Sheeran’s last stadium tour. “I got to the end of 2019 having been with Ed, while also overseeing KB’s handling of other tours such as Little Mix, Rod Stuart and BTS,” he explained. “When we got to January 2020, I was really ready for a break. Of course, looking back now, I’d give anything to be back at the tail end of 2019!”
With only occasional work coming from some of the company’s long-standing clients, such as Little Mix and Niall Horan for livestreams during lockdown, when furlough looked as though it was winding down last September, McPherson had no choice but to reduce the number of staff. “We managed to keep the core staff working but it was by no means the levels we were used to,” he said.
However, as KB moved into the New Year, it began to see signs of improvement and was recently able to provide its services for the G7 summit. McPherson and KB Event have worked on these large government events since 1992, and for G7 in Cornwall he said. “We worked on that show from May to June and that certainly blew the cobwebs out!”
As well as taking on some big contracts, KB has been on a recruitment drive, bringing back some familiar faces, along with looking to fill new roles needed to deal with the changing political landscape.
“We’ve just brought a new team member who is heading up our EU Brexit Documentation and Carnet Department; a new division of the company to deal with the more complex admin that is now involved in logistic moves into Europe,” McPherson explained. “Historically, before 1 January, we would perhaps be producing 10 Carnets a month. Now, I predict that we’ll be doing 40 to 60 a week.” With this increased pressure, KB was keen to develop this new department and make it part of its service.
KB is bringing in new blood in other areas of the business including new operations coordinators, an operations manager, along with new warehouse staff. “We’re on the lookout for more drivers,” stated McPherson. “There were a number we simply couldn’t keep on as they had no interest in doing general haulage during the COVID-19 period.”
Among KB’s massive recruitment drive, an even bigger undertaking has been happening behind closed doors – the opening of a brand-new EU branch of KB in the Republic of Ireland. The move effectively means there are two distinct companies – KB Event Limited in the UK and KB Event Trucking Limited in Ireland.
“Since the referendum, we’ve spent years considering our options on how we’d be able to operate in the EU, but it’s only in the past 12 months that we’ve had to accelerate our plans,” stated McPherson before explaining the frustration of having no idea how the negotiations between the UK and the EU would go. “We spend the last eight weeks of 2020 working very closely with the RHA (Road Haulage Association) and the DFT (Department for Transport) to try and work out a solution, but up until December, we simply couldn’t call which way the negations were going to go, and therefore had to have several plans in place depending on the outcome.”
Following the announcement, KB realised that the only way it was going to be able to continue to offer a touring solution in Europe was to open a business on EU soil, as the logistics of sending UK trucks into Europe was steeped with issues, such as the infamous three drop rule, which would see vehicles having to turn back after three unloads and a seven day time limit. Not exactly ideal for touring.
However, opening up a new company in the EU was not the simplest process. First, McPherson and his core team of upper management had to ensure that they obtained their EU Transport Management CPC’s, which involved 100 hours of coursework-based training followed by two in-country exams and the quarantine that this involved. His crew of drivers also have to obtain an Irish Drivers Professional Certificate of Competence, which is gained over a five-day course, to allow them to drive European registered vehicles on an EU Operators Licence.
Although McPherson is satisfied that KB is ready to offer a European touring solution to clients, there are still challenges ahead. “The setup we have does not mean we have complete free movement in the EU. Currently we are limited to three moves within a territory in a seven day period, before we have to leave,” he explained. So, if there was a four-date tour in France, after the third show, the trucks would have to cross the border into a neighbouring country before coming back into France for the fourth date. “Right now, having worked closely with a number of clients planning tours for next year, we have been able to provide routing options.”
He explained that moving forward, there is going to have to be a closer relationship between logistic providers, production and promoters to avoid spending an extraordinary amount of money to make tricky schedules work.
Sadly, despite creating a solution for clients, there are even more issues on the horizon, namely a new law due to come into effect in March 2022 where vehicles in the EU must return to their home state every eight weeks.
“This is something I’ve been making some noise about as, from a cost and environmental impact, it makes no sense whatsoever. Having to send an empty truck back to Ireland only to go straight back out again is nonsense. Although the justification for the law may be to maintain the vehicles, for years we’ve been able to service KB’s vehicles to the legal standard and timeframes with registered dealers all over Europe.”
The environmental impact of touring is something that McPherson takes very seriously – from KB’s Environmental Accreditation which it received 15 years ago, to moving the entire fleet to be able to run on the clean sustainable fuel solution of HVO Biofuel (hydrated vegetable oil) – the company’s founder sees this new law as impractical not to mention undoing of all the hard work KB have done to create a more environmentally friendly solution. “The issue is that there is not an appetite for either the UK or EU governments to engage in further negotiations around the TCA or other Transport Law, there are currently more pertinent issues in implementing the deal as it stands . As touring is not happening right now, it’s not at the forefront of their minds.”
With some tricky times ahead, McPherson is still excited to see some return to normality at least within the UK as we move into the third and fourth quarters, with a few local tours already on the cards such as Olly Murs, Bring Me The Horizon, Fat Boy Slim and JLS. Then as we move into 2022, you’re bound to see a number of the company’s trademark blue trucks make their journey over to Ireland as KB begins to split its fleet between two companies so artists and crew can hit the road once again.
This article originally appeared in issue #263 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos: KB Event