It has been a devastating year for those in the events business. Todd Fiscus, of Dallas-based Todd Events, said his company made $2.4 million in December 2019 alone from largely corporate holiday gatherings. But this year, his December revenue will drop to just $191,000.
Between Thanksgiving and the end of the year, Chris Starkey, who co-owns Imprint Group, an entertainment business based in Colorado with outposts in Florida and Nevada, typically would have 15 to 35 corporate events scheduled every week. The pre-pandemic income from these gatherings provided 25% to 30% of his annual revenue of $25 million. While his company has organized some digital events as substitutes for in-person gatherings, the volume is a fraction of 2019.
As companies cancel their year-end events, the 2020 holiday season has made a terrible year even worse for those in the events business. According to a report from job placement and coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., only 23% of companies surveyed planned holiday gatherings this year, and of those, 74% were virtual. In 2019, 76% of companies had parties at the end of the year.
"For the industry, it's a big 'aha' moment," said Amy Calvert, chief executive of the Events Industry Council, a trade organization based in Washington, D.C. "Events touch all sectors — so many who work in events are gig workers, or minority or women-owned businesses. These people are disproportionately affected with the cessation of in-person events."
Fiscus' company, for example, organizes celebrations for an average of 300 people. Those gatherings often employ as many as 58 subcontractors, from florists and cake vendors to lighting specialists. As a result, 150 to 170 people "are living off these events," he said. "With a drop of 85 to 90% in revenue, that's a lot of humans without work."
Some companies have chosen to help these small businesses, and the contractors they use, by rolling over deposits to 2021 or 2022 or working with them to provide alternative ways of entertaining this year, such as virtual events or drive-by or smaller, outdoor gatherings. But without additional deposits, many will be effectively working for less pay in the future.
Seasoned entertainers said that careful budgeting for their businesses as well as their own lives helped them ride out the year, irrespective of whether they received government loans through the federal Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program, generally known as PPP — although the unknown duration of the pandemic makes that a tricky long-term proposition.
"If we can only have events with 30 to 40 people, many companies cannot survive," Fiscus said. "And while some clients would like us to book for parties in 2023, how can we plan for those if we don't know if we'll survive?"
Lucy Wrubel, a DJ based in Dallas, has had a sharp drop in income this year. "I typically do 12 jobs a month; I had at least 100 jobs booked for this year, and all the clients wanted their deposits back." Although Wrubel, a single mother, was devastated to let go of her assistant — her one employee — she said she had survived downturns before and "can handle again." She is sanguine about the quiet. "I finally redid my website and incorporated the imagery from 20 years of jobs. I'm working on a book and a podcast. I'm releasing my playlists on Spotify for free to get my name out there. I'm throwing lots of things at the wall to see what sticks."
Even when the pandemic subsides and events again take place, few expect revenue to match those of the "before times" until 2022 or even 2023, Fiscus said.
It will take time for corporate and personal clients to feel secure scheduling a big event. Additionally, corporate clients have "realized this year that they can retain a lot of profit by not doing events, so we need to stay diverse and continue to innovate," Starkey said.