Stage builder Stageco trades in two years of standstill for 'most complex summer ever'. After two quiet summers, Stageco is once again very busy. The logistical challenges are enormous.
“Hey, the van just left. The part should reach you by 8 p.m.' Tom Bilsen makes a measured call with one of his production chiefs in Paris. In the Stade de France the Belgian Stageco takes the stage for the tour of the very popular Indochine in France. An incorrectly welded part hinders the construction for the premiere concert. It was re-welded this morning in Stageco's workshop, in Tildonk (near Leuven), and sent straight to Paris.
The incident is indicative of the crowds at Stageco, now that the festival season is approaching. Tom Bilsen, director of operations for the Stageco group, shows on his smartphone some images of the Indochine stage, with a cylindrical video screen. Two weeks ago, the colossus was erected in Tildonk for a dress rehearsal. Not all neighbors could appreciate the noise.
Bilsen drives us around the 20 hectare site of Stageco, the worldwide market leader in stage construction. One trailer leans against the other in the large parking lot, loaded with parts that will be transported to just about all of Europe in the coming days. Signs on the trailers tell the destination: from The Barn (the large indoor stage at Rock Werchter), via the stadium tour of Soprano, a well-known French rapper who kicks off in Lyon, to the tour of Elton John. In the welding workshop, the last parts of the roof truss are finished that will hang over Elton John's head within two weeks. All over the large hangars, men are busy loading metal bars and cables into boxes or folding tarpaulins.
After two years without major concerts and festivals, the event sector is about to experience its busiest festival summer ever. The contrast with the previous two summers is great, when almost no festival or major music event was allowed to take place in Europe due to the corona pandemic. It was feared that much of the event industry would fail financially and go bankrupt. 'Most seem to have survived, although I do not know the exact state of the accounts or the debts of other companies', Bilsen expresses his feelings. 'The system of temporary unemployment and other government support – such as the bridging right, the globalization premium and reductions in social security contributions – have helped us, along with the reserves we have built up in the past.'
Although all major festivals in Flanders had been cancelled, Stageco was able to gather some assignments left and right. 'In the summer of 2020 you could hardly travel and everyone went camping in the Ardennes. We have built temporary infrastructure for this. We have even planted cell phone masts there. And catwalks built for fashion shows that kept going, albeit streamed and without an audience. And in the second half of last summer, there were again major festivals and shows in the US. We were also able to build stages for some major festivals in the Middle East, such as the MDL dance festival in Saudi Arabia. So we weren't completely out of work.'
Shortage of hands
Running on limited power for two years has had serious consequences for the sector. The usually technically trained stage builders or lighting technicians were in demand in other sectors. Many opted elsewhere for a stable job with less night or weekend work. 'About 10% of the permanent staff has left us', Bilsen agrees, 'which is not too bad compared to the rest of the sector.' But that's not the whole picture. In addition to 110 permanent employees, Stageco also needs around 350 stage builders during the festival season. 'People who work outside the summer period in other sectors, such as theatre, transport or construction, or even in agriculture. Or they spend the winter in Southeast Asia, where life is much cheaper. About 50 of those 350 temporary workers have not returned.'
A shortage of staff is just one of the challenges the sector faces after two years of shutdown. 'This summer will not be our best summer in terms of turnover – that was 2019 with around 70 million euros in turnover, thanks to a few long-term tours – but logistics it will probably be the busiest summer ever. We now support much shorter tours, which are very close together. Many festivals also overlap in time, which makes it logistically very complex for us. The concert promoters seem to pay little attention to suppliers like us. Especially in the big stadiums, such as the Stade de France, it will be extremely busy this summer, with one big concert following the other. The time to tear down and rebuild the entire stage in between is often too short. You have to work night shifts, which you hardly find.'
'In large stadiums, one big concert follows another. The time to tear down and rebuild the stage is often too short'
The World Cup, in Qatar in November, also throws a spanner in the works. 'As a result, the regular football competition starts earlier in Europe, so that the football stadiums are used by the teams again more quickly and are available for concerts for less time, with the result that everything takes place even more at the same time and there is too little time for construction and demolition. '
Can't order again
Many concerts and festivals in a short period of time require the use of extra material, and that too is hard to find. 'Many parts needed to organize a concert are also used in construction, or are made in China. This ranges from racks over steel road plates to toilet cubicles. That is all very difficult to order. If festivals and events overlap even more, the same toilet cubicle can also be used less.'
The CEO of Stageco does not want to say whether we will see extra long queues at the toilets on the festival grounds. 'But festivals will be canceled this summer because they don't find enough material. For example, we recently received a question from a Spanish music festival that needs a certain stage within a few weeks. But it is impossible for us to supply that material, even if we have fifty large stages. Our competitors may not be able to deliver that either.'
Labor on the meadow of Werchter
Transport is also a main breaker. Specialized transport companies for the cultural sector, such as Pieter Smit, have a major shortage of drivers. 'Shipping is also a problem. We had a major wrestling event (WWE) in Saudi Arabia over the winter. Our equipment is still on the quay there in the port, because of customs formalities and too little space on the ships. Also a stage for a Coldplay concert in the US never reached its destination and we replaced it at the last minute, with improvised material that we still had in the US.'
The war in Ukraine is also having an impact. “Some bands use big cargo planes. These are often Russian Antonovs, who are now being claimed by the Russian army.'
Bread and games
Even more important than the complicated logistical puzzle is the question of whether the public will return en masse after two years. 'I hear echoes that sales do not run equally smoothly at all concerts or festivals. Purchasing power is under pressure due to high energy prices, which means that people are forced to save money, including on concert tickets. And there are exaggerations. Tickets for the Rolling Stones that go up to 700 euros… That's really a lot, only a limited elite can afford that.'
Yet Bilsen thinks that people will continue to need 'bread and games' and live entertainment. Concerts are becoming more and more total experiences, such as Tomorrowland 'dressed up like the Efteling'.
For years it has been argued that concerts are the main source of income for artists. But corona may have changed that too. Music rights are being auctioned for record prices due to the success of streaming apps such as Spotify, which means that some artists have less financial need for concerts. And hijackers are still popping up: 'In 2020 we normally went on a world tour with the wildly popular South Korean band BTS. That tour was canceled. Alternatively, the band gave a big streaming concert. No less than 140 million people have paid 10 euros to watch that concert online. That one concert brought them more than a world tour. No wonder BTS hasn't announced a new tour yet.”
For Rock Werchter, a shortage of visitors does not immediately seem a danger; the main festival and Werchter Boutique are already sold out. Since last week, construction has started for no less than eight concert days in Werchter, a few kilometers away from Stageco. It is the birthplace of Stageco, which arose because the organizers of the former Torhout/Werchter couldn't find good stages and decided to build them themselves and then rent them out to other festivals.
In Werchter, 25 men and a woman from Stageco are laying the sails on the roof of the main stage. The language of communication between the international crew members is English and not Dutch, as in the Stageco warehouses.
“The main stage is our largest construction and was initially used for a Madonna tour. When that is completed within a few days, we will start with The Slope (a large sloping construction), then the crew will spread out over Munich for a concert by the Rolling Stones, and Tomorrowland, where construction will start at the end of next week.'
In the meantime, the crew drags on on the meadow in Werchter with stage material. There is a lot of sweating in the leaden sun. It probably won't be the last time this year. 'Warm summers and fierce storms are a major extra challenge for us', concludes Tom Bilsen.