3 Independent Event Suppliers Share How COVID-19 Has Changed Their Businesses

June 16, 2020

Since the coronavirus pandemic brought face-to-face events to a halt, larger event industry suppliers such as major convention centers, general service contractors and product manufacturers pivoting to parallel industries or side businesses have garnered much attention. While smaller, independent suppliers may not be capturing all the headlines, they, too, have been trying to switch gears, sometimes with mixed results.

We talked to three independent contractors in the events industry to find out how they’re managing their businesses during this challenging time in our industry and world.

Selvis Morales, Devil’s In the Details

Before COVID-19 impacted the events industry, independent event planner Selvis Morales, founder of Devil’s In the Details, was looking to move from Chicago to the West Coast or abroad to refocus on planning international events. After spending most of 2019 working on local business events and fundraisers, Morales was excited about her future business plans. But everything changed when she started hearing reports of the virus late last year. 

“Most of my clients are in the tourism and nonprofit industries, both harshly impacted by COVID-19,” Morales explains. [They] have had to either cancel all contracts with independent contractors or place all future in-person meetings and events on tentative hold… with most of their events switching over to digital-only experiences or being postponed until 2021.”

Without new business prospects on the horizon, Morales took advantage of the CARES Act’s SBA small business loan programs such as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance to get financial relief. 

“Every independent planner has an area of expertise or services, and mine happen to be project management, logistics and strategy,” Morales says. “Unfortunately, at the moment there is no strong demand for my core services, other than companies looking for strategies outlining how to pivot their meetings to digital/virtual events. 

She added, “When your brand’s strength is services rendered, like consulting or sourcing for in-person events, it seems like clients are enacting a wait-and-see policy until people become comfortable to meet face-to-face once again.”

While the current reality can be depressing for independent planners, Morales isn’t resting on her laurels. She’s spent the last few months focused on building her skills and staying on top of industry trends, as well as learning about risk management protocols and safety standards so she’ll be prepared to help her clients execute successful events in a post-pandemic world.

“I recently became certified with Cvent’s Event Management platform, have immersed myself in fabulous industry webinars from PCMA [and] recently joined a wonderful community of freelancers called Soundings Connect – they’ve done a fantastic job supporting independent event planners with complimentary skills-based webinars and supplier demos,” she says. “These member-based communities have allowed me to stay relevant and prepare myself once we come out of the viral darkness.”

While Morales says that life as an international business event planner won’t be easy in 2021, she believes that staying level-headed, flexible and ready to pivot to meet client needs will be crucial moving forward.

“It’s easy to fall into pessimistic despair when it seems like our industry is on feeble legs, but the truth is that board meetings need to happen in order to keep business going; trade shows will eventually come back when the public feels it’s safe, and experts will continue to present their research and data in conferences worldwide,” Morales says. “In the short term, digital/virtual events will be filling the gaps before live events can safely take place, so if you’re just starting out, jump on the digital events bandwagon to stay afloat in the interim.”

George Burns, George Burns Photography

In previous years, George Burns, owner of George Burns Photography, would photograph at least a dozen large shows throughout the country during the first quarter. The former official Oprah photographer was accustomed to scooping up at least 150 jobs per year. But with event photography dependent on face-to-face events, there hasn’t been much work for Burns lately. 

“COVID-19 eliminated all of my scheduled work in a matter of 2-3 days for the rest of the year,” Burns says. “The thought that an invisible force has brought the entire world to a halt boggles my mind.”

With no live events on his calendar, little cash flow and few possibilities for shifting his business model, Burns says the current reality has been a tough pill to swallow as he waits for the industry to stabilize.

“My biggest challenge is not being able to plan and budget,” Burns says. “I did get some PPP money, but if this virus continues through the fall, we will run out of funds. Most of my clients think that it will be Q4 this year [before] they’ll be able to have people meet in groups, as companies are not ready to assume the liability of having their people fly and meet again in large groups.” 

Meanwhile, Burns says he’s staying in close communication with his core network of fellow event photographers, remaining hopeful that there will be a pent-up demand for his services when the industry is able to move full speed ahead.  

“Some days, it feels like we photographers are all fighting a losing battle, and what our industry will look like after this is a scary thing to think about,” Burns says. “Perhaps a shift to more video-based services could supplement some of the lost revenue, but I expect all of our incomes to be reduced substantially this year.”

Larry Blocker, Media Stage

When event cancellations and postponements started becoming widespread this spring, Media Stage, a mid-sized audio-visual company based in Sunrise, Florida, had to rethink their approach quickly, says Larry Blocker, vice president and general manager. While the company has been able to shift its focus to live streaming and webcasting to stay viable, navigating uncertainty while anticipating ever-changing client needs hasn’t been easy.

Other challenges include clients withholding payment while they wait to assess their economic impact of this pandemic or on pause until travel restrictions are lifted,” Blocker explains. “We are having honest conversations with our clients so they may consider all options outside of cancelling. Many have been open and flexible to restructuring their planned meeting or event and choosing a virtual or hybrid alternative.”

Meanwhile, Blocker says his employees have been taking advantage of educational resources, including vendor/gear rental supplier training; LinkedIn and software training; and event industry association offerings, such as MPI’s updates on the state of the industry.

Besides staying updated about the latest CDC guidelines and mandated procedures and protocols, Blocker suggests independent suppliers leverage this slow period to consider ways their companies can stand out from the pack while also keeping client relationships top-of-mind.

“Take this time to sharpen your skills so you’re ready when there is, hopefully, an influx of rescheduled events,” Blocker says. “Reach out to contacts and clients to ‘check in’ on them. People will respond to this positively and remember long after this passes that you cared.”


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