‘I couldn’t stop crying’: Co-op Live workers tell BBC of behind-the-scenes chaos

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By Anna Lamche
BBC News

People working behind the scenes at the troubled Co-op Live arena in Manchester have spoken of what they say were “chaotic” events leading up to the bungled opening of the venue.

Workers involved with the project spoke on condition of anonymity as they did not have permission to speak out. They told the BBC:

Parts of the £365m venue were in a state of disarray less than 24 hours before the arena was supposed to open earlier this weekStaff were left in tears after they were forced to call off American rapper A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s gig at the last minute due to safety fearsNaming rights partner Co-op Group has flagged a “critical” risk of reputational damage to the wider Co-op brandConstruction staff at the venue warned others back in February that works were as much as 35 weeks behind schedule

Co-op Live was heralded as a “world-class arena” that “Manchester deserves” by Tim Leiweke, the American businessman leading the project, in an interview with the BBC last month.

But “the perfect building” Mr Leiweke promised soon suffered fundamental setbacks, with a series of high-profile acts – including Take That and Olivia Rodrigo – having their shows cancelled or postponed at the last minute to the bewilderment and frustration of performers, ticket-holders and staff.

Mr Leiweke has since apologised, and a Co-op Live spokesperson told the BBC events had been paused “to ensure the safety and security of fans and artists visiting the venue”.

One staff member, hired as a “premium host” in the venue’s VIP rooms, told the BBC she was in the building on Tuesday evening – fewer than 24 hours before the venue’s debut performance by A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie was due to begin.

She said: “I think we were very sceptical: that was my first time in the arena and it did not look ready at all… They’re doing everything with crossed fingers: it’s a bit chaotic.”

‘Wires hanging down’

The VIP rooms were still “full of cardboard boxes”, the woman said.

“They weren’t done – there’s loads of final bits [unfinished]. It was filled with workmen who were all still so busy doing random checks here and there, average safety checks… there were loads of wires hanging down.”

She said some stairways also seemed incomplete. “There were wires everywhere and exposed lighting on the floor. It looked very messy. There were gaps in the stairs… it looked like a work in progress.”

The woman, who has been employed on a casual contract, said staff members are still paid part of their wage if their shift is cancelled at short notice. Staff who are on site when a shift is cancelled are paid in full, a spokesperson for the venue said.

Meanwhile, another member of staff, this time working in an operations role at the venue, said: “The root cause of all the problems is coming from the building, not the operations. From an outside perspective, people presume it’s being run badly.”

“In reality we have a building that isn’t ready, and we’re being told it is ready – then things happen out of the blue that cause cancellations”, they said.

Olivia Rodrigo is one of the acts whose events at the arena have been called off – alongside Take That, the rapper A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and the comedian Peter Kay

The staff member said there was relief among colleagues after a piece of ventilation equipment fell from the ceiling on Wednesday night during a sound check.

“From an operational side of things, we saw that and went: ‘Thank God that’s happened [now], we were about to potentially let in thousands of fans into a building that isn’t ready,” they said.

“Yesterday I went home and couldn’t stop crying. It’s not just me, it’s the same for a lot of the team, we’ve put in so much effort,” they added.

The staff member said most public-facing areas of the building are complete – although the offices on the top floor and some premium areas of the building remain “unfinished”.

As of Thursday evening, the dining area in the exclusive Amp Club has “no fixtures, no fittings, no tables there – it’s just a shell,” they said.

‘Critical risk’

For employees at naming rights partner Co-op Group – which has sponsored the arena for a reported £100m but does not own or run it – concern is growing about potential reputational damage.

An internal document relating to risks associated with Co-op Live, parts of which were shared with BBC News, appeared to refer to a “critical” risk – highlighted in bright red – of “widespread, sustained brand damage impacting the Co-op’s future viability” amid the ongoing disruption.

There is another risk, the document says, that a significant number of customers may “stop doing business with us”.

“People don’t know that OVG [the Oak View Group] own the venue – they just see the Co-op brand,” a staff member at the Co-op Group said.

On a site visit in February, the Co-op Group employee said they were told by construction workers the project was running 35 weeks behind schedule, in part due to delays with crane equipment.

“The Co-op’s really disappointed with OVG’s constant delays,” the employee said.

Responding to the claims from the staff members, a spokesperson for Co-op Live said events at the arena have been paused “to ensure the safety and security of fans and artists visiting the venue”.

The spokesperson added: “Our staff are as important to us as our fans and artists. We work with multiple suppliers and contractors to support wellbeing of all staff across the project.”

Tim Leiweke, Chairman and CEO of the Oak View Group, said: “On behalf of all of us at Oak View Group, I’d like to express my sincere apologies to all those that have been affected.”

A spokesperson for the Co-op Group said: “Co-op is a sponsor and does not own or run the venue, and we have made it clear to Oak View Group, who are responsible for the building, that the impact on ticket-holders must be addressed as a priority.”

BAM Construction declined to comment.

Are you a worker at Co-op Live? Or do you have tickets to a show? Have you been affected by gigs being called off?

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