Ashton Gate Stadium doing yeoman task


Mark Kelley interview - Bristol Sports/Ashton Gate Stadium Image: Bristol Sports/Ashton Gate Stadium

The outbreak of COVID-19 worldwide is bound to have long-lasting effects on the sports and entertainment industries. Looking at the current situation of coronavirus worldwide – 3,013,803 cases globally and the death count having crossed the 2 lakh mark – 207,894 – nobody knows exactly when normality will return.

In such a scenario, the 27,000-capacity multiuse Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol, England (UK), which is also shuttered due to COVID-19, quickly modified into a hub to provide food relief to the community just like many stadiums worldwide which are being used as makeshift hospitals, test centers, etc., to help the world fight coronavirus.

Mark Kelly, Managing Director of Ashton Gate Stadium and Director of Personal Sport, tells Bristol Sport TV about how the stadium authorities are realizing their vision of serving the community at a time when the fatal virus is taking a huge toll on lives.

Bristol Sports/Ashton Gate Stadium is a member of Coliseum, Global Sports Venue Alliance.

Police-enforced lockdown has hit the month mark in United Kingdom and the residence of Bristol City FC (professional football club) and Bristol Bears (English professional rugby union club) – Ashton Gate Stadium – is bending over backwards to help the community in which it resides.

Says Mark Kelly, “It is bizarre times really (referring to the coronavirus scenario). We closely followed what the rest of the sports and event centers nationally and internationally are doing. We took two weeks to plan how we can really operate the stadium, if we are going to close, if we are going to open. What we are going to do with the 145 full-time staff of the Ashton Gate Stadium. It is a very fluid situation the world over.”

Bristol Sport TV: A stadium that is so busy, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, coming to a complete standstill almost overnight. What was the logistics that went behind in being able to transfer staff where possible to work from home?

Mark Kelly: “We are in the event business and whether it is a football game, a rugby game or a wedding, we are a destination unto itself. It was difficult to really understand how we could operate within this environment. We took two weeks to track in with our suppliers and with our IT partners, and they all did a fantastic job. We did three stages and Stage 1 was our contingency planning, Stage Two was before absolute lockdown, working from office and 20 to 25 percent of our full-time employees were working from home and it was a seamless operation. Looking at the rising cases of coronavirus, we knew that the next step was a full close down and we were ready for a total lockdown. Stage 3 was full working from home for our back office team.”

Bristol Sport TV: Technology helped in this transition to work from home and how did things work out when the whole ticketing customer side of things moved to remote working?

Mark Kelly: When the stadium went into total lockdown, I was sitting at home and wondering how the new world looks like and how we are going to operate as an industry in the new world. We very seamlessly picked up work and supporter services were a great help. Our staffs was essentially able to run the office from their homes and take call from supporters and answer emails, as well as sell season tickets to some effect. It is a great test of perhaps how the future looks like and a lot of hard work went in behind the scenes. The 133-year-old Ashton Gate Stadium is a big part of people’s lives. The stadium is integral to the community in which it resides – the Bristol community per se.

He further underlined, “To shut the stadium, it just doesn’t affect us employees, it also affects the fans and that is something we have to be very very sensitive about. And we have to build up the confidence, that when we open, we have to open with gusto and invite the party back. It is incredible how we made the transition to work from home in one day and all credit goes to our staff.”

Bristol Sport TV: From the final closure of Ashton Gate, you all made a quick transition to open the facility back for charity?

Mark Kelly: One of my objectives since I joined Ashton Gate Stadium in 2015 was to be a part of the community. As soon as the stadium shuttered due to the fatal respiratory disease, and we started working from home, questions started cropping up – what we can do here, what we can do for the community, and how can we go about doing the whole task in a targeted way. Very soon, we were up and running to feed Bristol’s homeless. It is a nice feeling to be able to serve the community during these tumultuous times. FareShare South West – UK’s largest food charity – is using the Ashton Gate Stadium as emergency food warehouse during COVID-19 crisis and it will be redistributed to frontline organizations across the city as the coronavirus crisis deepens.”

The top official further said, “It is nice to be able to support charities like FareShare South West in these times. It’s brilliant. It just goes back to our original vision of supporting the community from where we come.”

Bristol Sport TV: Few words on Bristol Sport group of charitiesBristol City Robins Foundation, Bristol Bears Community Foundation, Bristol Flyers Community – coming together to provide meals to school children during the Easter holidays…

Mark Kelly: I think this is a great example of the power of the Bristol Sporting Group realizing their original vision of helping the community and feeding the school children. All of us came together to see what could we do to get the right level of impact into the local area and using the sport, using the venue and all our contacts, we reached out to the community during this time of acute coronavirus crisis.

Bristol Sport TV: With some European countries saying it is time to ease the lockdown, what are your thoughts on how business is in UK and how will the sports venue sector recover from the coronavirus setback, because we have no idea when the world will get salvaged from COVID-19?

Mark Kelly: No, we have no idea of the timing. The whole situation is still very very fluid and nobody really knows what will happen. From my point of view, we, as leaders in the event industry, whether it be sports, concerts, or just general events, we will have to have this great desire to be able to mix again and get back into entertainment and just be around people. I think it is so important. Look at the amount of jobs we have created in Bristol Ashton Gate, we boast over 600 employees. It is so important to get started for those employees.”

Kelly further observed, “We have responsibilities in Bristol and will have to be able to lead from the front and, of course, follow the advice. We, which includes the hoteliers and the council, will have to all work in tune and exude the confidence to bounce back again. It is important as a venue that we do open as soon as we can and get back to some sort of normality. Five years back, when I joined Ashton Gate Stadium, we revamped the stadium and achieved a lot both on and off the pitch. We will have to remember those days and I am sure we will soon be doing concerts, we will be doing large events, we will be doing sell out crowds for the Bristol City and the Bristol Bears. It is a great reflection to look back on that and to look forward to the future. We are looking forward to lots of acts for next summer but, of course, following the advice of the medical science and the Government.”

He summed up on a positive note by saying, “Concerts will return, we will return maybe a year later than what we wanted to be and we look forward to it over the next nine, 10 and 11 months.”

Coronavirus count

The coronavirus count in UK to date stands at 152,840 and the death toll – 20,732.

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