Covid-19 had an instant impact on London’s West End, and the Royal Opera House (ROH) was no exception. In March 2020, the company took the decision to close the building in Covent Garden and approximately 163 shows were cancelled in the first year of the pandemic. So when James Whitebread joined in June 2021, he could’ve been forgiven for wondering what kind of future lay ahead.
Appointed as CTO, he was immersed in a non-profit feeling the brunt. Through lockdowns and site closures, the Royal Opera House—home to The Royal Ballet, The Royal Opera Chorus, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House—was also forced to make staff redundant, implement pay freezes and reduce salaries, as well as sell a David Hockney painting of former CEO Sir David Webster for £18 million as part of a four-step recovery plan to keep the venue afloat.
Artistic teams adapted to safe working practices with masks, regular PCR testing and team bubbles on set. Yet the loss of income was so stark that the organisation today says it lost the equivalent of £3 for every £5 through the pandemic.
But the show did go on.
Royal Opera House goes digital
In 2019 and 2020, ROH put on 146 performances and participatory events front of house, with 12 productions screened at cinemas and drive-in sites, and 71 productions broadcast across radio, television and streaming services.
The following year saw similar limitations of live, in-person productions. Christmas favourite The Nutcracker, for instance, ran only four performances out of a scheduled 17, but ROH did increase its reach through digital channels, with 15 live streams and 23 previously recorded operas and ballets made available on Pay-per-view, four of which were provided for free. Two-thirds of UK viewers watching the streamed productions lived outside London.
“The lessons learned from streaming and Pay-per-view are feeding into our future plans for increasing our digital output and reach,” summarised the ROH’s annual report.
Despite the fall in revenue and social restrictions, the organisation had to continue investing in the care of the Grade 1 listed theatre in Covent Garden, and production facilities in Thurrock and Aberdare. Chair Sir Simon Robey admitted then the ROH wouldn’t have survived without support from Arts Council England and DCMS through the Culture Recovery Fund, as well as the UK government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
In the technology team, Whitebread says that Covid changed everything. First, there was the small matter of getting up-to-speed with a now geographically dispersed team.
“Getting that opportunity to be in the office and meeting everybody took two or three times the time it would normally take,” he said. “That can be detrimental when you join an organisation because you’re trying to assimilate and understand the direction of travel of the organisation, but also the team. You want to get down to details of problems—areas where we can make improvements and a roadmap for the next two to three years.”
Video streaming success
Shortly after the first government lockdown, the ROH—which employs more artists than any other UK arts organisation—offered an interim streaming service so customers could continue to enjoy shows from home.
In partnership with video hosting service provider Vimeo, the ROH stream was made available to global audiences, allowing them to watch content on-demand and attend live stream events. The non-profit supplemented this with YouTube fundraisers, and its Our House to Your House campaign—free weekly broadcasts from its archive, starting with The Royal Ballet’s Peter and the Wolf.
The success of an interim service—ROH says there were over 9.5m views of streamed performances in the first year—paved the way for the launch of a new ROH streaming service in October 2022.
Whitebread says that Vimeo’s VOD service offered support across multiple platforms, but with limited customisations and fewer controls over marketing, analytics and customer features.
“The ROH Streaming product allowed us to specifically target the needs of our market segment,” he says. “Delivering the feature set, content quality was required, as well as the branding, analytics and overall control over the experience we wanted to achieve.”
Artistic teams recommended, created and approved content; marketing teams worked together to translate the proposition to customers and members; and the ROH stream product team and technology teams worked collaboratively to design, build and integrate the ROH Streaming service into the ROH’s overall ecosystem.
“We realise we’re a physical venue and about getting our content out to our customers,” says Whitebread. “But it’s not just about getting content out to customers in the area. It’s about getting content out across the UK, and our brand known much wider than that.”
Distributed work changes technology leadership
Whitebread inherited a distributed team when he joined the ROH, but quickly set about restructuring the department into three areas for greater agility, speed and accountability: service delivery for customer support; transformation for project execution; and operations overseeing infrastructure and application delivery.
Agile methodologies helped things tick over, too, as well as planning work into weekly chunks, and having the technology team collaborate in daily stand-ups.
“Agile for the ROH was the engine room of our delivery,” says Whitebread. “It has and continues to allow us to plan delivery, share plans and progress with our own team and other interested teams, as well as provide the reporting we need, particularly focusing on continuous improvements. Agile was in use in pockets when I joined and we’ve subsequently rolled out more widely within the technology teams. As we now move to deliver projects across the organisation, agile as a methodology and some of the tools associated with agile project management such as JIRA are becoming more common place outside of the technology teams.”
The distributed workplace has, however, put a greater onus on welfare. Whitebread has changed his leadership style to accommodate. He could more readily pick-up signs in pre-pandemic office environments, but that task became challenging when staff moved to remote or hybrid models.
“When you’re not all together in the office, you’ve got to be more emotionally intelligent as to how the team is working and how they’re feeling,” he says. “You’ve got to pay more attention to people’s problems, whether they are work or personal.”
Digital transformation takes flight
For Whitebread, a new three-year business and technology transformation has just been approved, and it’s segmenting his work into four areas: physical and digital customer experience; improving back-of-house digital and retail technology; modernising core enterprise applications; and infrastructure.
There are ambitions to engage and retain the existing customer base, attract new customers, build better services and develop a data-driven approach for the future as well. Whitebread also talks of collaborating more effectively with front-of-house and HR, leveraging cameras to improve artistic endeavour, and expedite show refreshes. There’s also the push to trial new technologies such as Lidar to scan auditorium, stage and backstage areas and create 3D digital stage set designs.
With between 30 and 40 digital projects in flight, Whitebread admits it’s all in the pursuit of better customer experience. “We want to better understand our customer to make sure we’re delivering the best possible service and creating those opportunities for incremental revenue,” he says.