International spotlights were on Rotterdam last May, during the Eurovision Song Contest. What a show, what great exposure for our city and what a fantastic moment for Rotterdam Ahoy, which, after many months of COVID-19 imposed inactivity, could finally shine again. Jolanda Jansen, general manager of Rotterdam Ahoy, looks back on the rollercoaster ride that was Eurovision. A conversation about coming together and getting things done, scenario thinking, typical Rotterdam resilience and co-creation, sustainability and a nice birthday present.
In 2019 Duncan Laurence won the Eurovision Song Contest for the Netherlands with his song ‘Arcade’. Anyone who experienced that moment will be able to remember where and with whom he or she was at that exact moment. That only happens at very special moments, this was one of them. Victory celebrations had barely ended and several Dutch cities started to warm up to make a bid for hosting Eurovision 2020. No one could have guessed at that moment that the world would soon be very different.
Rotterdam was one of the cities that stepped up to announce its candidacy. The city of coming together and getting things done, city of innovation, experimentation and inclusiveness, of actively taking on challenges and coming up with creative solutions. Rotterdam is also the city of major international events, such as the MTV Europe Awards, the ABN AMRO WTT (tennis), the start of the Tour de France (2015), the annual North Sea Jazz festival, but also many leading trade fairs (Europort) and various scientific conferences. Eurovision would be the new showcase of all the splendour our city has to offer and of Rotterdam as event city. And a showcase it was, albeit at a different time and in a different way than we all thought initially.
“City of shoulders together and coming up with creative solutions.”
Rotterdam wins national bid process
In September 2019, Rotterdam emerged as the winning city of the national bid process. It created a sense of joy, pride and excitetement. Jolanda Jansen, general director at Rotterdam Ahoy, remembers the moment vividly. “We heard the news while we were in Ahoy with alderman Kasmi and the people of the municipality with whom we had made the bid. We had the curtains drawn because we knew there was press outside. Then the phone call from Sietse Bakker (executive producer of Eurovision 2020/2021, ed.) to Kasmi came. We listened intensely and then we just burst into loud cheers. Everyone was so very happy and proud! We knew that as Rotterdam Ahoy we have a lot of experience with major events, but this would be bigger than anything we had ever done in our 50 years of existence. We immediately knew that it would be an enormous challenge that would give us a lot of energy, something we would learn a lot from and that would help us further position ourselves as a venue and as a city, internationally and on a large scale.”
Jolanda Jansen about Eurovision, the Rotterdam DNA and co-creation
“Enormous challenge that would give us a lot of energy and put ourselves on the international map as a venue and as a city.”
COVID-19 and lockdown
In the weeks and even month following the bid win, the euphoric feeling remained. But then came February/March 2020. COVID-19 reached the Netherlands and from there things happened quickly. In March, the Dutch government announced the intelligent lockdown. Events were no longer possible. Society was basically shut down and the events sector found itself at the start of a long and dark period. Rotterdam Ahoy was hit hard. Jolanda Jansen: “Everything just seemed to disappear as of March 13: darts, concerts, trade fairs, North Sea Jazz, Eurovision… we were in a crisis, very suddenly and full-on.”
The Rotterdam way: coming together and making things happen
In true Rotterdam style and grounded in the typical Rotterdam ‘make it happen’ mentality, Ahoy immediately turned its eyes towards the future. Jolanda: “We said to each other ‘this crisis will pass and whatever happens, we want this event to happen next year!’ Everyone involved in the Municipality of Rotterdam and other organisations, including the team in Hilversum, thought exactly the same. We also knew then that the easy way is to cancel, but what will give the most satisfaction and result is to overcome any obstacles that we might encounter and just go for it’. And there were a lot of obstacles in our paths… Our motto has always been and has remained: realistic but also ambitious.”
“What will give the most satisfaction and result is to overcome obstacles and just go for it.”
Anyway, Ahoy certainly didn’t just sit down and wait for what would come during the whole lockdown period. They used the time available as positively as they could. Yolanda: “Certainly. We did various projects throughout the crisis, such as various streams where Ahoy was used as a TV studio, for example for the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, we had the ABN AMRO tennis tournament without an audience and of course also the ‘Vrienden van Amstel’ shows.”
Creativity, flexibility and resilience
During the entire process leading up to Eurovision, the project team worked with a number of predetermined scenarios, ranging from an event as originally planned with maximum audiences, to recording and broadcasting everything from a TV studio. For Rotterdamto advance Ahoy, this meant taking into account and preparing for all possible outcomes. This required creativity, flexibility and resilience, aspects to which Ahoy is no stranger. “As Ahoy, we have been in constant contact with the Municipality of Rotterdam and the team at Hilversum, about possibilities and impossibilities within the different scenarios. Of course we have a lot of experience in organizing complex international events, so we were able to contribute well. Think of things like in which scenario is catering allowed if the catering industry is allowed to start up again; how can we provide crew and delegations with food; how do we arrange cleaning adhering to the latest health & safety protocols, etcetera. The concept of ‘security’ became more ‘ health and safety’ than just security”, says Jolanda.
Impressions of event location Rotterdam Ahoy during Eurovision
Field lab event: experimenting to advance
During the crisis, the Alliance of Event Builders came into existence. This is a collaboration of the events industry and the Dutch government, resulting in the special Fieldlab programme. Something that fitted seamlessly with the Rotterdam way of experimenting to advance. Jolanda explains that this was a crucial step. “As early as the autumn of 2020, we realized that ‘rapid testing’ could become the big game changer, but that it was important to scientifically validate our assumptions – that event attendees come into contact with far fewer people during an event than was generally assumed – to be tested using pilot events. Everyone involved, including the Dutch government, understood that it would be fantastic if it would be feasible to have an audience at Eurovision, and that this then would be a fantastic calling card to Europe.”
“Fantastic calling card to Europe.”
“When we heard around the turn of the year that it was possible to let delegations travel into the country, that was the first important step on the way to ‘the best possible scenario’. When it became clear that we would also be allowed to have a live audience at the shows, it was quite tense for a while because the government could potentially still press the ‘pause button’ at the last moment. Only in the last few weeks did we know that it would actually happen. All the statistics were going in the right direction. But we remained vigilant, we had learned from the past year that something unexpected can always happen. I think this is a good example of our ambitious but also realistic approach.”
The Great Show
Fortunately, developments continued to move in the right direction and by mid-May the time had finally come: the great Eurovision Show could start! A year later than planned, Rotterdam Ahoy opened its doors to Eurovision. For 3,500 visitors per show, and for more than 180 million viewers who followed the spectacle via TV and live streams. A tremendous achievement and something that Rotterdam and everyone involved can be proud of, according to Jolanda. “The core of what people see on TV is of course the show itself. The entire creative team from Hilversum deserves that honour, respect and admiration. Rotterdam Ahoy has contributed to achieving the best possible result with our state-of-the-art building, our newly completed new Convention Centre, our knowledge and our experienced team, in collaboration with the Hilversum team.”
State-of-the-art venue for live shows and broadcasts, with Rotterdam as the backdrop in the background.
Rotterdam Ahoy: venue with everything under one roof
Rotterdam Ahoy is ideally suited for an event of the magnitude, allure and with the challenges that an event like Eurovision brings. Jolanda is happy explain what Ahoy has to offer. “It was great for Eurovision that everything could take place under one roof, with the immense and ultramodern stage, the ‘green room’ for the TV shows in the Arena and everything that such an event needs in the six event halls surrounding it. Think of rooms for all the artists and their extensive delegations, the more than 500 journalists who worked in Ahoy for two weeks, hundreds of volunteers, the 3,500 people who were allowed to attend per show, the extensive test location at the entrance, all restaurants and technical spaces… Our new Rotterdam Ahoy Convention Centre with 35 rooms for up to 2,500 people and a total capacity of 7,000 people had also just been completed (autumn 2020). From there, all kinds of live TV and radio programs and daily talk shows were broadcast, with the city of Rotterdam as the backdrop. Technically, our arena is ‘state of the art’, with a roof suitable for suspending the gigantic amount of video screens, cameras, light and sound, which was essential for Eurovision and something that not every venue can offer. And of course, let’s not forget the Ahoy team. Always focused on helping the customer make the best event possible. Nothing is too crazy and we are happy when other people can do their work in good spirits.”
Ahoy’s roof with solar panels makes a sustainable contribution.
Sustainable and circular
Speaking of roofs… an important aspect of the winning Rotterdam Eurovision bid was that the event would be as sustainable and circular as possible. The roof of Ahoy played an important role with regards to sustaiability, says Jolanda. “Recently, a very large part of our roof, including the new construction of the Convention Centre and RTM Stage, was outfitted with 5,200 solar panels. These panels supply energy for our own large events, but part of it also goes to households in the area. In this way we actively contribute to the sustainability goals of the city of Rotterdam. We also did various other things for Eurovision, including collecting plastic drinking cups from the audience and we had water taps installed for all crew members.”
Jolanda Jansen (Rotterdam Ahoy) about Eurovision, the venue, technology and sustainability.
Active collaboration in Rotterdam
A mega event like Eurovision cannot be organised alone, there are a lot of parties involved. “As Rotterdam Ahoy, we were of course part of the team with the Municipality of Rotterdam, Rotterdam Partners and Rotterdam Festivals. It’s fantastic to see how everyone comes together and actively collaborates in this city, even if sometimes it gets a bit complicated. We also think it’s fantastic that the Eurovision Village went ahead in a digital form, which for me is a perfect example of the typical Rotterdam co-creation and inventiveness. Shows that were shown in the online Eurovision Village, such as those of Duncan Laurence, were broadcast from the Submarine Wharf at RDM Rotterdam, a location that we manage as Ahoy. From there, fantastic images with views of the river and the port of Rotterdam were and still are sent all over the world. More than 180 million viewers worldwide have seen these and we will surely reap the benefits as a venue and as a city when the corona measures are further reduced and international travel becomes possible again.”
“This is what it’s all about: people being together and creating new memories together. We knew: this is the tipping point towards opening up the world.”
Goose bumps, thankful and proud
Rotterdam Ahoy turns 50 in 2021. With all the knowledge of today, Jolanda could not have dreamed of a better birthday party than Eurovision. “In May we welcomed our first visitors in almost a year and a half… We personally welcomed the very first visitors for the first jury show. The cheers at that show… and those cheers increased in volume and enthusiasm every day of the week… It was as if the arena was filled to the brim as usual, and normally we can receive 16,500 visitors in the Arena. Imagine… this touched us and gave us goose bumps every show. This had such an impact and made such an impression! I was aware all the time that we came a long way and could have failed on many occasions. Our colleagues who were able to get the bar running again, people who had dressed up to for a night out… This feeling was so strong. This is what matters; people who are together and create new memories together. We knew: this is the tipping point towards opening up the world. It was an honour to be part of such a special event and for this we are very grateful and extremely proud. This was the best gift we could get for our 50th anniversary.”
Header photo and photos in gallery: NPO/NOS/AVROTROS NATHAN REINDS and Paul Martens (aerial photo of Ahoy)