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Gold Coast company cracking the code for staging safe events

Nick Nichols | September 2020

Breaking natural human habits is one way to describe the work of a Gold Coast company that is cracking the code for managing big events while keeping people COVID safe.

In August, eps Australia devised a strategy that would bring rugby league fans together for NRL games on the Sunshine Coast while still complying with Queensland’s health directives on social distancing.

It came after the controversy of 5500 fans disregarding the rules as they crowded the eastern hill of Sunshine Coast Stadium one Sunday afternoon to watch a clash between Melbourne Storm and Newcastle Knights.

“Watching a game on the hill in that environment is such a natural thing because humans are a very social bunch,” says eps Australia managing director Andrew Stone.

“The problem with the game that day was that the organisers were within legal patron capacities but didn’t have a suitable plan for managing them once inside. We proactively approached the stadium with whom we had recently worked with on the Elton John Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour and devised a strategy to get people safely into venues while keeping them socially distanced – and keeping families together.”

The success of the plan has set the standard for eps Australia in managing future events, including international concert tours once they are permitted to resume.

“If anything, the past six months have shown is that we all like to be entertained,” says Mr Stone. “While we probably won’t be seeing any major artists touring for some time, people will still want to get out more. It just won’t be in the way we are accustomed to doing so.”

Despite the impact of COVID-19 on its business this year, Mr Stone and the EPS Australia team is gearing up for a busy time ahead in the sporting arena. It is currently planning events for this year’s Melbourne Cup and next year’s Australian Open and Formula 1 in Melbourne.

“We are lucky to service these events with mostly temporary infrastructure rather than crowd management consultation. However, what we are discussing, working on and learning across the wide range of events that we service, we can confidently bring this to the planning table as well as our NRL experience on the Sunshine Coast.

“Essentially we went back to the drawing board to devise a strategy to hold these events safely. This will hold us in great stead once artist touring resumes,” says Mr Stone.

“Everything we do is about risk management and for many years that involved everything from crowd control to anti-terrorism safety measures. We still have those concerns to manage, but now we also need to mitigate risk during a pandemic.

“The idea is to bring people into venues without having them sitting shoulder to shoulder like we’ve all become used to. General admission with standing room only doesn’t work in the current environment.”

Changes that eps Australia implemented to the NRL games were introduced after liaising with the venue and their ticketing agency. This largely involved grouping people into smaller numbers of two, four and five and safely separating those groups from each other.

“We built the seating plan in rows and we repeated the process over and over. It was very unconventional, but it worked. If regulations are eased even further next year, we are working on a plan for venues to accept even bigger crowds, although not yet at their peak capacity.”

Mr Stone, a born-and-bred Gold Coaster, began his career in events management about 20 years ago with IMG, the company that ran the famed Indy car series through the streets of Surfers Paradise in the 1990s and early 2000s. He later took up the position of events operations manager for Supercars Australia, where over eight years he helped stage the country’s biggest touring car race series.

“I was lucky to be with Supercars in the noughties, which was an amazing ride,” he says.

Mr Stone took the helm of eps Australia nine years ago, managing the international company’s Australasian operations initially from its headquarters in Melbourne. The company moved its base to the Gold Coast two years later in 2013, co-ordinating a national team in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne from its Southport office. The company is a subsidiary of a private German-owned group that has been successfully staging events globally for almost 30 years.

Its most recent portfolio included the tour of legendary rock band Queen across nine cities and 10 shows in Australia and New Zealand, Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour and U2’s 30th anniversary Joshua Tree Tour.

The eps Australia team was also involved in staging events during the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, working on every Commonwealth Games venue, even as far north as Townsville. It followed this up with representation at SportAccord which brought together 1700 key representatives and decision makers from the global sporting community to the Gold Coast in 2019.

The company’s head office currently employs a full-time staff of five, although it also can engage up to 25 freelancers and 2500 casual workers during a normal summer.

“We managed more than 600 events out of the Southport office last year alone in Australia and New Zealand,” says Mr Stone. “You could say we’re a small business doing big things.”

Under Mr Stone’s leadership, eps Australia has ridden a wave of success, growing revenue more than fivefold over the past decade.

“We may not be at dizzying heights at the moment, but despite the disruption of the past year we still managed to achieve record revenue,” he says.

Mr Stone is currently preparing eps Australia for improved conditions for the events industry next year and beyond. As he sees the Gold Coast shaping up for a major share of the multibillion-dollar market, eps is planning to establish a warehouse in the city to accommodate events infrastructure.

“The Gold Coast has come a long way in the past 20 years, and it’s become a serious contender in the global events market.

“The Commonwealth Games have played a major role in this, giving us sporting and events infrastructure that is second to none. So has the City of Gold Coast which has been very proactive in exporting local companies with world-class skills and products. Its capacity to attract events to the city has been amazing.”

To demonstrate his personal experience of how far the Gold Coast has come, Mr Stone recalls the first event he attended in the newly commissioned Robina Stadium, then known as Skilled Stadium, nearly 20 years ago. It was a sportsman’s lunch that he says ‘barely filled six tables’ – or about 60 people.

“We’ve come a long way since then. I have travelled the world and worked on major events everywhere but when I look at my own backyard, the Gold Coast is punching well above its weight.

“I believe we are in a prime position to grow well beyond where we were then. There’s no doubt that the Gold Coast will go gangbusters once we get through this.”

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