What’s ahead for 2021?

As 2020 comes to a merciful end, 2021 promises more serious challenges, but also better days. That means it’s time to start thinking ahead so we can plan accordingly.

So I got out my crystal ball to see what it would show me, and here’s what I see. Season by season, quarter by quarter, here’s what’s shaping up to happen, and here’s what we in the live entertainment industry need to be doing.

Winter 2021. The Bottom.

What’s going to happen: Winter 2021 is going to feel a lot like spring, summer, and fall of 2020, but worse. Despite the vaccination push, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are going to be worse than ever, probably right until about February. The possibility of in-person events is still approximately zero. 

What you need to be doing: 

  • First, survive. Mentally and physically, stay sharp. Keep doing the hard work of taking care of your organizations, your people, your audience, and yourself. Some might reach their breaking point this winter, but be prepared and do what you can to get through.
  • Second, keep getting better at your online event capabilities. Remember, this will be your superpower when this is over and it’s a lifeline and stopgap now.
  • Third, start planning in-person events. Didn’t I say there was zero chance of the events happening? Yes, I did, but in order to be ready, you should start planning to do events. When?

Spring 2021. Crawling Out.

What’s going to happen: Many will be vaccinated coming out of winter and even more will continue to get vaccinated. The ‘vaccinated world’ and the ‘unvaccinated world’ will bump up against each other, but the trajectory will be clear. Cases and deaths will drop, slowly at first then faster, like a reverse epidemic. It’s going to be weird, but mostly a good kind of weird.

What you need to be doing: 

  • If you haven’t already, put in-person shows back on the calendar and start selling tickets. Remember: you can always move a June show back to August or September, but you can’t move an August show up to June. If we, as an industry, give the world more reasons to vaccinate, they will! As always, we help bring our cities and towns to life and together.
  • Start thinking about hybrid events. Use online events to complement and enhance your early in-person events. This is a gold mine if you can figure out how to best leverage the combination of in-person and at-home events.

Summer 2021. Dam Break.

What’s going to happen: Lots of people will be vaccinated. With good weather returning, cases on the decline, and the end in sight, the dam of pent-up energy will start to crack. People will want to be out. Not everyone, of course. Those who are particularly vulnerable or shell-shocked by the year-plus of a shut-down world won’t be so eager, but many will be ready. Despite the progress, there will be reversals and occasional minor shocks to the system, but mostly, the world will be revving back up to speed.

What you need to be doing: 

  • Events! Play it smart and stay in touch with peoples’ feelings, but it’s time to get back in business. Notice that I didn’t say it’s time to plan to get back in business. You should have done that already. It’s time to be back in business. Getting here is trickier than it seems, so work backward and plan the steps you need to take to be back by summer.
  • Some organizations and entertainers should focus on drawing audiences online too. Online events will start topping 100,000 attendees, even for non-superstars. And because they’ll often co-exist with in-person events, the budget for this added revenue source will be nominal. Some organizers and venues will be so eager to go ‘back to normal’ that they’ll miss this opportunity completely, while others grow their audiences and their bank accounts.

Fall 2021. Almost Normal.

What’s going to happen: Everyone who wants the vaccine (in the wealthier countries) will be vaccinated. Some people (though not as many as before) will go back to the office. Traffic and commuting become a pain again. Sometime between October and December, masks will start to disappear from public view. The Christmas push in the U.S. and Europe will be bigger than we’ve seen in a while. The economy will start healing, but unevenly, and many will still be struggling. Still, if the crystal ball is right, you’ll feel almost normal by this point and might even occasionally forget COVID-19 exists.

What you need to be doing:

  • Now’s the time for our industry to shine. Do everything you can to dazzle people and remind them — because they’ll be ready — why they love coming to your venue or your show.
  • If your Fall/Holiday ‘21 programming is a duplicate of your ‘19 programming, you should seriously consider another career. This is the most important programming you might ever do. Give people what they want and need for this incredible moment! Don’t play it safe. Don’t tiptoe back in. You’re supposed to have done your tiptoeing in the spring and summer!
  • And if you’ve learned what you need to learn to build your online event capabilities, Fall ‘21 should be the point where your online audience is two to three times bigger than your in-person audience and growing. Why? There’s a world of people who want to see your stuff and not all of them can make it to your venue. But more importantly, your online audience will not only make you money but drive the success of your in-person events too. 

So, that’s how it looks! Of course, no crystal ball is perfect and this one assumes a lot, including that most people get vaccinated. And this crystal ball is mostly focused on the U.S., Canada, Europe, and other developed countries, but with those caveats, that’s how it looks to me.

It’s been a terrible year, and it’s ending. The terribleness isn’t over, but we’ve got reason to stay optimistic that 2021 won’t be anywhere near as terrible. It will be a very strange year, though, and you’ll need to stay aware, stay safe, and stay ahead of the game.

And remember: the world needs us! The world needs this industry to give people a reason, lots of reasons, to come forward into the post-COVID-19 world. Let’s do our part!

–Jim McCarthy, CEO

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