Touring during COVID -- What’s protocol like for this multi-city tour?
Guest Feature: Cole Kegans
With today’s uncertainty in the live events industry, visualizing what the future looks like is perhaps the most difficult task for even the most experienced production crew. The pandemic has impacted not only how many of us plan for the future, but also how we anticipate building the foreground for a sustainable industry moving forward. In the production industry, we are accustomed to and even invigorated by a world dominated by moving parts, but nothing compares to the kind of unpredictability and lack of room for error ascribed to tour life during a pandemic.
Working multiple roles in production has trained me to expect the worst and prepare accordingly. But nothing like what the entertainment and events world experienced in March of 2020 could be expected and prepared for. Working for Fortune 500 companies where I held positions as lighting design to master electrician feels strangely forgotten compared to the mandated system of operations now. When I received the invitation to go on tour in October 2020, I was of course excited to finally work again, but the anxiety of traveling the country through the midst of a pandemic soon set in.
Imagining going back to the world I love was a daunting idea. I was dreaming of the world I hoped to return to, but knowing that in reality it would be a completely changed industry space. But I took the opportunity to face the new world, and here I am today, several months in and enthusiastic about the foundation being made to foster a new world for live events and entertainment to be propelled into.
The nitty gritty: How things are functioning
Productivity is down a bit. It’s hard to communicate with masks on, but most people are actually so glad to be back working that people are working quite hard which I believe evens out the playing field.
I’m apprehensive about flying, but found most airlines are still using the “open middle seat” policy, which helps to ease some concern. Most airlines have been lenient about switching flights last minute and giving flight capacity updates, which also helps in planning.
I average around 4-5 days in each city and I am lucky to be in 4-star hotels for the majority of my stays. I take advantage of grocery delivery often, which feels like a newer luxury for touring staff and a handy tool during a pandemic. A lot of hotel and local restaurants are closed entirely or on reduced hours, so if you have very early calls or late builds or show times, a little extra planning is needed to ensure there will be food options at needed times.
Interestingly, some tours are requiring shared hotel accommodations, which complicates safety while touring, but we’ve begun to commit to the same roommate each week to minimize the risk of spreading COVID. The crew tends to have meals together, possibly creating another point of risk during touring as we all fly home to different parts of the country after each weekend.
Mostly, the tour is operating per usual. This one particularly is at a reduced amount of gear -- one semi vs the usual two or sometimes even three. The amount of local hands hired reflects the workload, sometimes placing more work on staff.
I work with a crew of eight, and with an additional staff of 20. The pandemic has manifested a standard of living and working that is now vastly dependent on how teams communicate and function cohesively. I was lucky to find a job with a driven and hardworking group of guys. Our team brings in stagehands at each city, usually a crew of 20 to 25 people during builds and strike. Everyone is required to wear a mask at all times while in the performance hall. During the actual show, the setting of audience seats is distanced but attendees are consistently trying to rearrange seating. Polite and frequent reminders are made over the main PA. In between acts (every two hours ) we take 15 minute sterilization breaks. The entire room is emptied and two staff members spray the room with electrostatic sterilization sprayers that we travel with. That isn't where PPE ends though. We bring in sanitizer stations that we place at every entrance and exit to the main room and our breakout rooms. Additionally, we use wrist scanning temperature stations at all entry points for attendees.
Overall, I have had a really good time on this tour. I hold the role as lighting director as well as assistant production manager. I have made new friends and learned new things, mainly on how to best maintain safe working conditions. It was originally supposed to be 28 dates and as of now were slated for 20 which will have us operating through the end of May. We visit most major markets including Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Denver.
Back-up Plans and Stand-Ins
As I was working on putting this article together at home, my partner tested positive for COVID, forcing me to turn down my next set of tour dates. Thankfully, our system prepares for obstacles like this, ensuring that someone is on standby at the home office in Los Angeles. This person can temporarily serve in the majority of roles on the tour, giving us flexibility and coverage. I’m looking forward to returning to tour, but for now it’s really just a waiting game. As much as I’d like to say a tour turned out to be a ‘stable’ option for work throughout the pandemic, it still has its major uncertainties and obstacles. As COVID numbers continue to decrease and vaccinations become more common, I’m certain we’ll see a correlation in stable gigs in the events industry.
You can’t prepare for everything, but you can continue to stay positive and think outside the box to build a safer environment for everyone encapsulated in this new world. The way we are going to create a sustainable model for this industry is to be at the forefront of COVID compliance and try to be a leading example for the world to make a safe event environment. I am beyond grateful to have been given this opportunity to work during such a precarious time. It has been a painstaking yet eye-opening venture into the future of production post pandemic.
Cole Kegans is an event professional who has been working in the live events industry for eight years, specializing in lighting design and production management. Cole's company, Blink Lites, has designed and provided gear for a wide array of concerts and corporate events ranging from small backyard shows to sold-out shows at Red Rocks. After taking a position on a national tour during a pandemic we wanted to sit down and ask Cole a few questions.