Westlife becomes the first global act to tour China post-pandemic

In a world-first, Production Manager, Toby Johnson reflects on the tour’s remarkable success, revealing the pivotal role played by the crew and technical suppliers in navigating the unique logistical and production challenges.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, it is rare that post-lockdown firsts are still prominent. However, this is not the case for Westlife’s The Wild Dreams Tour, which became the first international campaign to tour China since the grounding of live events. With meticulous planning and a dedicated team, Westlife’s production defied expectations, showcasing to the vast Chinese market and setting a new standard for international tours to come.

“It’s a testament to the band, the fact they have been together for 25 years and have just done the biggest tour of China for an international act – it’s crazy,” said Production Manager, Toby Johnson, who has been a key player in multiple touring milestones for the group over the last two years.

According to Johnson, the tour’s success depended on the pivotal role played by vendors 24/7 Productions (with tour direction by John Pryer), Adlib (audio), Equinox (travel agent) and Freight Minds (logistics).

With China divided into provinces, Johnson highlighted the difficulty of freighting and how simple switches to technical equipment – namely the choice of media servers, SMODE – significantly reduced the amount of kit that had to be freighted while still being able to run notch effects. “Freight Minds also made my life a lot easier,” he remarked.

Johnson was meticulous in ensuring that the production was secure and easily transportable. The team brought along media servers that required two small cases, along with six Peli Cases containing wardrobe props and three production cases. The audio kit from Adlib was also compact and fit for air travel in six Peli Cases.  

“It was nice having that bit of breathing room because if I had a big production case that I have on shows at home, everything would have had to be freighted. The small pack meant I had options. You don’t need all the bells and whistles, in my opinion, if you’ve got what you need,” said Johnson.

The PM also touched on the cultural differences pre- and post-pandemic. “I thought the country would be a lot more cautious, like the UK in the beginning, and there certainly were more people wearing masks. However, it felt normal. There was an eagerness to work.”

Advancing was a challenge for the camp due to the scale of the production. Traversing through different provinces meant that each show had its own quirks that local teams hadn’t seen before. “Each region had its own way of doing certain things which is where the advance team were a real advantage. They know the show and know what is expected but the local teams really did do a great job,” Johnson explained.

The PM led a team of around 10 dedicated members who have been with the camp for the entire duration of the tour. They work together to put on the show, while two other members travel ahead to prepare for the next stop and ensure the tour runs seamlessly, shown by the band doing three stadium shows back to back.

“Every time the lights go down and that excitement builds it’s just amazing,” Johnson enthused, praising the lighting design by Tim Routledge. “It is an impressive and impactful design that works in completely different venues, both arenas and stadiums, and that in itself a big achievement.”

Johnson had already prepared his team to excel knowing the pressure that awaited them from tours that wanted to explore into China. “I knew that different production teams and promoters out there were looking at us to see how this was going to go, so we had to be on our A-game.”

The wider production team included Production Coordinator, Becky Brylewski; Production Coordinator, Siobhain Brackenbridge; Stage Manager, Stuart Watson; Lighting Operator, Morgan Evans; Media Server Engineer, Jade Parsley; FOH Engineer, Chris Pyne; Monitor Engineer, Becky Pell; Playback Technician, Luke Oldham; Head of Wardrobe, Natasha Spano; Venue Security, Shae Stanford and the Advance team of Sam Savile and Paul Sadler as well as Travel Agent, Lisa Liguori.

In closing, Johnson believed the tour set a precedent for international artists, displaying the huge market in China and the fan bases that exist there. Johnson concluded: “I’m sure that Westlife’s The Wild Dreams Tour will provide an example for future world tours.”

Words: Alicia Pollitt

Photos: Nikki Zeng (@Nikkiiz)