CT Consults
9 August 2020

‘What’s on’ in the time of corona

Four members of a chamber orchestra sit in semi circle under four red spot lights

Like for everyone else across the world, things got a bit twisted upside down for us over the past few months. On our consumer-facing ‘whats on’ website, creativetourist.com, we’ve started referring to it as “you-know-what”, but the benefit of those reading in the (hopefully much brighter) future, I am of course referring to the coronavirus outbreak. 

In talking about this, it’s important to take a self-aware moment and acknowledge that we have not been working on the frontline for the NHS, we are not in low-paid service industry roles which were suddenly as dangerous as they were essential and our team are lucky enough to all be healthy and able to work safely at home. We are though, an organisation which specialises in arts and culture, heritage and placemaking – you know, all that stuff that people usually leave their homes for. We are also not publicly funded.

Like many across our industry, the moment the Prime Minister took action to help protect the lives of our citizens had an instant impact. Within 48 hours we had to ask our amazing team of freelance editors on creativetourist.com to stop what they were typing and bill us for the last time in what may have been quite a while. With all the events on our website either cancelled or rescheduled and not a single client in a position to pay for a future campaign, key members of the core team were furloughed. 

So what to do with a ‘what’s on’ website when everything has been cancelled? 

Our first step was to pause and see how the industry reacted – we can only point our audience in the direction of cultural distractions once they exist. It became clear very quickly that there would be an online response from the cultural response and we needed to be ready.

Working with our development team at OH Digital, we moved quickly to upgrade Culture Hosts, our integrated online listings platform which powers CreativeTourist.com, as well as content on other websites including VisitManchester.com, VisitGreenwich.com and the soon-to-be-launched Manchester City Council resident-facing website, Loads to Do. Taking the lead from Google, who had launched new emergency data standards around virtual events, we pushed out a new release of Culture Hosts which allowed cultural partners to upload online events. 

While the upload process remained as seamless as ever for our partners, the changes we applied meant that we were structuring online events with the same data markup which we do for all our other listings – in other words, search engines could now tell which of our events were happening online. We have brought this feature onto creativetoursit.com and it’s something which we will be in place for the Loads To Do website when that goes live. 

The Response

While we were tinkering away on these improvements, venues and organisations across the North of England had started rolling out their programme digitally; from watch-alongs of archived work to Facebook Live and Instagram events via virtual exhibitions and concerts. 

We’ve seen some excellent examples here in Manchester, in particular, the work of Manchester Collective stood out. A comparative minnow to the likes of Berlina Philharmoika who simply switched their paid service to a free one, Manchester Collective are incredibly agile and forward-thinking, seemingly switching onto digital overnight. They suit the online space better than most classical organisations who demand scores of players and a concert hall, they are all about intimacy and performing in found spaces and the sense of occasion isn’t lost too much over a broadband connection.

It didn’t just happen though – they branded what they were doing, Isolation Broadcasts, and put together a schedule of performances alongside a proper marketing campaign. They engaged publishers like creativetourist.com to promote their programme and found trusted voices like BBC Radio’s Elizabeth Alker and their own star violinist and Music Director Rakhi Singh who have big profiles to help extend their reach.

“Our work has always been about forging an arresting, personal connection with our audiences, and we knew that we had to continue in this vein throughout this wild and woolly time” says  Adam Szabo, Manchester Collective’s Chief Executive. “As a small, relatively new organisation, we’ve never had huge reserves or an endowment to fall back on. Any measure of success that we’ve had in this period has been due to the authentic and high-quality way that our artists and collaborators have communicated with our audiences. In times of crisis, audiences and stakeholders will not respond to “woe is me” messaging – arts lovers have always been attracted to passion and vision. Right now, part of that vision has to be about how to work effectively and inspirationally in a totally digital landscape.”

It is the way they used their artists and collaborators, not falling back solely on recorded concerts, but engaging audiences across their social platforms to create interactive content. If anything, it feels like Manchester Collective raised their profile over the last few months. 

We’ve seen similar examples from Band on the Wall who were the first to make an event and schedule around re-watching their archive concerts, and the Old Bank Residency – a twelve-month creative occupation of a disused bank in Manchester – who has shifted their entire schedule of tutorials and workshops online, even moving the focus of their sessions to cover things like mask-making and improving the lighting on your Zoom calls – all more relevant than ever in this new normal. 

We asked partners like these to upload their new programme of online events to Culture Hosts, and we published everything we could for them creativetourist.com without charge. While this completely bypasses our business model meaning creativetourist.com is being propped up out of our own pockets, it felt like the right thing to do. We love the cultural industry and the organisations who make Manchester and the North such a special place, and so does our audience. 

We continued to support these organisations and our audience as much as we could, but without our editors, our content wasn’t quite the same. 

The new normal

We made a successful bid for the Arts Council Emergency Response Fund: for organisations (non NPO) to bring our editorial team to keep audiences engaged with all the great lockdown culture created by organisations in the North and beyond. There have been nearly 300 activities featured on creativetourist.com since lockdown began and Arts Council funding will help us keep audiences engaged into the autumn. What lies beyond then, we are unsure. We know that creativetourist.com is one of the most effective marketing channels for arts and cultural organisations in the North with a click-through rate several times higher than similar sites. However, if can’t welcome back clients in the near future, there is a looming question mark over the longevity of this marketing channel.

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