Almost everything about Feld Entertainment is big.
The company’s monolithic, 580,000-square-foot headquarters in Palmetto rises dramatically over the horizon on a stretch of U.S. Highway 301. Giant gold letters proclaim “F-E-L-D.”
In the lobby, there’s a tire big enough to take a nap in. The Monster Jam monster trucks parked inside are not far from the glittering, 250-pound elephant blankets that once adorned Feld’s largest performers in the now-retired Ringling Bros. circus.
The most sprawling part of Feld’s business, though, is the touring apparatus that usually produces around 3,500 shows annually in 75 countries. In February, the company behind Disney On Ice, Sesame Street Live and Marvel Universe LIVE! had 25 tours on the road, packing big venues with big crowds eager for big spectacles.
By mid-March, the coronavirus had fully hit, and big was suddenly bad.
The live events industry halted completely. Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld was in the boardroom when the call came that New York, where Feld’s Jurassic World Live tour was hours from showtime, was shutting down for quarantine. Then all the other dominoes fell.
“It was a logistical nightmare,” Feld said. More than 1,500 performers, crew members and other staffers had to be brought home, along with a fleet of semi trucks, buses and literal tons of electronics, sets and costumes, all in various stages of transit around the world.
Feld scrambled to pull performers out of Indonesia and book others on planes home to Russia, Australia, Ukraine and Japan as borders were closing and flights were being canceled. Feld’s team was working around the clock for a week.
Things got rougher. With no revenue, the company laid off or furloughed a couple thousand employees around the world. “It’s just devastating," Feld said, “Our biggest concern is our people.”
But seven months after the shutdown, schools have reopened and in-person dining at restaurants has returned in many places.
Now, Feld is poised to be the first promoter to bring arena-sized entertainment back to the U.S., possibly leading the way for the whole industry.
The company announced last week that giant trucks will again fly high over the mud, when Monster Jam plays AT&T Stadium near Dallas on Oct. 24 and 25. A Disney on Ice tour will kick off at American Airlines Center in Dallas on Nov. 6, with dates to follow at indoor arenas in San Antonio, Des Moines, Iowa and other U.S. cities. Rehearsals start soon in Manatee County.
The company wanted to bring Disney on Ice to an arena in Tampa Bay — presumably Amalie Arena — but “ran into some hurdles locally,” a Feld spokeswoman said.
Feld is starting slow, with just the one announced date for Monster Jam and one Disney On Ice tour hitting the road in what Feld described as a “traveling bubble.”
“It’s like a new baby,” Feld said. “You crawl before you walk, and you walk before you run, but then you run like crazy. And I think that’s going to be the process.”
Jim Digby, the Philadelphia-based chairman of the Event Safety Alliance, said Feld appears to be the first promoter making a move. “I don’t know that we’ve seen arena shows with an audience,” he said. “I’m not aware of any, and we’re closely watching everything that goes on.” He was anxiously awaiting the results of a German experiment where scientists staged a concert in a closed arena with thousands of masked fans to see if the virus spread.
Digby, who manages tours for bands like Linkin Park and Bon Jovi, said an estimated 12 million people who work in live entertainment remain unemployed. In April, experts expected the industry to lose $12 billion — if a shutdown lasted only through July.
The alliance is developing safety protocols for the industry. Digby said his organization encourages “safe and competent” attempts at live events. “Don’t do what Sturgis did and create a hot spot,” he said, referencing the August motorcycle rally held in South Dakota.
That does greater harm to the industry, he said.
“So as long as they take all safety measures, we applaud what Feld is trying. We have to keep trying to find the formula that gets us back to work,” he said. “It’s dire. There are people in our industry who have no other means for income, and no way to feed feed their families with winter coming, and Christmas coming. There are stories of people being worse than desperate, taking their own lives.”
Digby, 57, added that based on his own “risk threshold,” he would not sit through an arena show just yet, even with a mask on, “but that’s just me, personally.”
Feld said his company has devoted months to figuring out what’s next, and has learned, in part, from hosting the successful WNBA bubble in one of the two arena-sized rehearsal spaces at the Manatee County headquarters. It also has hired an epidemiologist as a consultant.
The Disney on Ice tour, Feld said, will involve frequent, rapid testing for everyone and use more buses to increase social distancing. It also will travel with more crew, to reduce interaction with local crews at the venues.
He said the tour will be staying in hotels where “we will pretty much have the run of the place,” and strict codes of conduct will require people to stay isolated with the group.
“People really want to get back to work, so they’ll become this traveling family,” he said, and “the stronger that group is together, the safer and the healthier they’re going to be.”
The audience will have to wear masks, and the merchandise and concessions will be contactless, allowing people to pre-order, then pick it up, pre-packaged and waiting. Only families, and “known, pre-existing groups,” will be allowed to sit together.
Feld said safety measures will “go beyond” local requirements, because they need consistency as the tour travels to different jurisdictions.
He thinks that the professional sports leagues have set a good standard for bubbles.
“They’ve all had varying degrees of success, because let’s face it, no one can guarantee 100 percent that someone isn’t going to test positive,” he said. “But when we go out, whatever the most rigorous restrictions are ... that’s what we’re going to do."
The company also intends to plan for alternate tour stops, so that if the COVID-19 situation changes in one city, the tour can head somewhere else.
Coming up with tour dates so far, Feld said, has required navigating the varying rules and requirements between states, counties, cities and the venues themselves.
Multiple touring promoters and event producers have contacted Amalie Arena about putting on live events, but nothing has been added to the calendar yet.
“Both on the Amalie Arena and Yuengling Center side, we have kept in constant communication with live event promoters and agents to ensure we are looking at any and all touring possibilities for the future,” Angela Lanza, director of event marketing or Vinik Sports Group, said via email. “Where those tours fall into the 2020-2021-2022 calendar is up to reschedules, dates available, comfortability and many more factors due to COVID-19.”
Gov. Ron Desantis announced Friday that Florida entered phase 3 of its reopening plan, meaning there are no state restrictions on crowd sizes at entertainment venues such as arenas. He said he hopes to see concerts in the state.
Hillsborough County commissioners recently approved $2.4 million for modifications to Amalie Arena including 262 sneeze guards, sanitizing equipment for escalator handrails, contactless payments and improved ventilation.
“We’re ready whenever we can get out there and the public is willing to come,” Feld said. “I’m as bored as you might be, and I’m more excited about going to the next Monster Jam event probably than any person on this planet."
He anticipates a huge demand, "because it’s the one thing that has been totally cut off during the pandemic.
"We need it, and I think people realize now it’s not discretionary, it is a necessity.”