Three days after leaving university, I joined the entertainment industry and 13 years later, I’m still in it. I’ve worked for AEG, which owns the O2, I was part of the team that set up Winter Wonderland, and been part of many, many festivals and shows. After all that time running outdoor venues, the Royal Albert Hall was a pretty nice roof to come and work under.
How do you choose who can book the Royal Albert Hall for an event?
After 141 years, we get a lot of phone calls from producers and artists who want to book the Hall. Demand far outstrips the number of days we have to play with: we do 365 shows in the main auditorium each year. We simply can’t fit any more in.
This is a public venue, so anyone must be able to buy a ticket for most of the shows we put on (if they’re quick enough). But for one week a year, we lay a dinner floor for private functions – awards or charity events usually. We don’t do 50th birthday parties or AGMs – not just anyone who’s got the money can book us.
What are the challenges of running such a huge space?
The most important thing about seeing a show in this building is the atmosphere. That’s created by the performers and the audience: 5,000 people and the people on stage. If the seats aren’t full, you’re missing some of your atmosphere.
We also require an enormous amount of time and money to stay looking good. In 2011, I spent roughly £12m from a total income of £16m. All of that went on the building or into the reserves. With 5,000 people touching the walls, treading carpets and sitting on the chairs every day, you can imagine the wear and tear.
What are the benefits of running a charitable organisation over a private company?
The Royal Albert Hall is a charity so I don’t have shareholders to whom I have to report or deliver dividends. Instead, I have trustees. But that does not mean I don’t have to act commercially. Throughout the history of the venue, we have been a financially independent institution. We don’t get government or Arts Council funding; we live or die by how successful the hall is. Everything we make goes back in. But that independence lets us take the decisions that right for building and for the legacy of the RAH. Very few of my peers are in the same position.
How do you keep the lights on?
We make most of our money through ticket sales. Corporate/public catering/sponsorship are worth about 25% of turnover, split evenly between those three.
There were just two sponsors when I started and now there are 17. Sponsorship can be a difficult way to make money. It’s much easier if you can sell the title rights to your building - like the O2 – but we are called the Royal Albert Hall and we’re not changing that.
The sponsors we bring on board have to enhance our customer’s experience. I had to find people who didn’t just want to sell more of their products but want a brand alliance, an understanding of each other’s values. Some people just want advertising but we don’t put up hoardings and banners, or logos on our staff uniforms. This is not a football stadium, it’s a national treasure.
What next for the Hall?
At the moment, the Hall is only open from 6pm to 10pm at night. The rest of the time, it’s a closed building, used only as rehearsal space for our visiting artists. But we have an incredible building here with extensive archives and so much art and memorabilia too. We’ve had everyone from Albert Einstein to Jimi Hendrix and Wagner here. We’ve hosted productions from every genre, whether spoken, sung, or danced.
I really want to open up the building during the day so that people can learn more about the great history of the place. It will cost us but this place belongs to the nation. It’s not a museum – people have to rehearse and need privacy, but there’s still room for people to come and see the magic we’re created here. We’ll do tours and open up the archives - we are digitising them at the moment. The Royal Opera House has over 300,000 people coming through their tour programme, we have just 30,000. I’m going to change all that.
Find out more about the Royal Albert Hall