How do you solve a problem like Co-op Live?

As venue openings go, it is hard to imagine how the Cop-op Live arena could have got off to a worse start.

The new 23,500-capacity arena has been plagued by cancellations, postponed shows, falling air-conditioning units, unhappy fans and a high-profile resignation.

The venue has found itself in crisis media management mode and facing massive reputational damage before it has officially opened.

Can it recover? And what crisis communication lessons can others learn from it?

Let’s begin by exploring what has happened in more detail.

The £365 million Manchester arena was originally due to open last December. That was delayed until April.

But opening gigs with Peter Kay were then postponed, and a show with The Black Keys was pushed back until May.

Then, at the start of May, a new opening show with A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie was pulled 10 minutes after the venue opened after part of an air conditioning unit fell down.

And shows with Olivia Rodrigo, Take That, and Keane have been cancelled at the venue since. Some will now take place at the nearby AO Arena, whose owners have argued Manchester does not need two large indoor venues.

The cancellations have not been the only problems behind the scenes.

The arena’s manager and executive director Gary Roden quit at the end of April following a backlash to a BBC interview where he suggested some small music venues were “poorly run” in response to questions about a £1 levy on tickets to fund grassroots venues.

"Why is a small venue failing?" he asked.

"Absolutely, en masse bills are going up and this, that and the other. But ultimately if there are 1,000 venues, one of them is going to be the best-run venue and one of them is going to be the poorly run venue, and where does the money go?"

Accusing other venues of being “poorly run” was probably not the best idea considering the issues that had already impacted the new arena at that point.

And those problems have caused a reputational headache for Co-op.

The brand is the venue’s sponsor. There are other companies responsible for the venue.

But the £100 million sponsorship deal means it is Co-op’s name on the door, in the many damning headlines and stinging social media posts.

Olivia Rodrigo's Co-op Live gigs cancelled in night of chaos for crisis-hit arena Manchester Evening News

Take That move concert from troubled Co-op Live venue after Keane gig latest postponed The Standard

CO-FLOP Doomed Co-Op Live venue suffers fresh blow as Take That moves upcoming Manchester gigs to another arena The Sun

It's the Co-Flop! Fury as Manchester's new £350m Co-op Live arena cancels Olivia Rodrigo's gig just hours after axing another one - while fans were queueing to get in Daily Mail

How Co-op Live turned into £350m disaster as Olivia Rodrigo, Peter Kay and Black Keys gigs cancelled The Mirror

 

Words like ‘chaos’, ‘troubled’, ‘doomed’ and ‘flop’ were surely not what the brand expected when it reportedly spent £100 million to secure a 15-year naming rights deal for the arena.

It doesn’t feel like a great return on investment so far.

And a critical statement it released suggests it is far from happy.

It said: “As the naming rights sponsor for Co-op Live, we are shocked at the incident which has led to late cancellation of tonight’s show at the arena.

“We are relieved that no-one has been injured, but we share the disappointment and frustration of ticket holders, many of whom are Co-op members, with the continuing delay to the opening of Co-op Live and the disruption that this is causing to everyone who has been looking forward to attending events.

“We will be seeking a full explanation from Oak View Group (OVG), who are responsible for the building, to the obvious questions arising from this, together with a clear plan from the Co-op Live venue management team at OVG for opening the venue and postponed and future events.”

That sense of trying to distance itself from the crisis also came through in another statement where it said, "Co-op is a sponsor and does not own or run the venue”.

Tim Leiweke, chairman and chief executive of the Oak View Group, said of the late cancellation: "It was a very unexpected situation but without a doubt the right decision. I deeply apologise for the impact that this has had on ticketholders and fans.”

Few would disagree with the safety-first sentiment. But they might question why a shiny new venue is still experiencing issues so close to opening night.

The negative headlines will eventually die down. Remember, the much-maligned Millennium Dome is now the successful O2 Arena.

But Co-op Live will have to work hard to rebuild trust – an unusual and uncomfortable position to be in when you are yet to officially open.

Will people spend their hard-earned money on tickets when there currently seems little assurance they will get to see a show? Tickets are not cheap, and that’s before travel and accommodation costs are factored into the equation. Getting to a show may also involve taking time off work.  

Punters will also need to be convinced the venue is safe.

As we stress during our crisis communication training, comms alone can’t solve crises, but it can impact the reputation (and financial) consequences.

The comms around Co-op Live has been a mixed bag.

It has failed to get the right blend between optimism and saying things that come back to haunt.

Mr Leiweke said “We’ll be fine” about the Rodrigo gig a few days before they were cancelled.

Similarly, the venue posted on X on April 29: “Let’s do this! A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Olivia Rodrigo and Keane are going ahead.”

These buoyant predictions rapidly unravelled. After a series of delays, a more cautious approach may have been prevalent rather than more backtracks.

The communication around some of the cancellations has also felt cold and uncaring.

When the A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie performance was cancelled at short notice, the venue posted: “Due to a venue-related technical issue, tonight’s A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie show will no longer go ahead. We kindly ask fans to leave the area. Tickets (sic) holders will receive further information in due course.”

An announcement of that nature needs to start with an apology, particularly before people are asked to “leave the area”. And paying customers surely deserve a little more explanation than a “venue-related technical issue”.

A subsequent post from the Oak View Group was closer to what we would suggest during our crisis communication training.

It said: “We are aware our actions have frustrated and angered ticket holders.

“We know you’ve incurred significant disruption, and are finding a way to help make it right.

“We are taking the pause to think about the best way to do that.”

That shows some compassion for those impacted and hints at action to make it right. And the post went on to include an apology from Mr Leiweke.

 

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At some point, those responsible for the venue will need to retake control and reshape the narrative surrounding the arena.

But at the moment, it feels like it is doing that too soon.

New shows have been announced amid the cancelled ones – and without new dates confirmed for the cancelled ones. This just adds to the chaos and makes the venue opening feel increasingly piecemeal.

I get the need for positivity to steer the venue away from the disastrous opening.

But it needs existing bookings to go off without any more incidents first to make that hope feel believable.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience.

We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.

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