Until last March, nParallel was in the business of making booths, kiosks, stages and other equipment that brings people together at trade shows and conferences.

To survive the COVID-19 outbreak and recession, the Fridley-based company resorted to building dividers, shields and other things to separate and protect people.

"By last March, we had trucks loaded with equipment turn around as conferences canceled," said Don Gonse, an engineer and co-founder of the 18-year-old company. "By April, we were scared that we wouldn't be able to come out of this. We had expenses. We were just watching the burn rate of our cash and wondering when business would come back."

The trade show and convention industry is still quiet.

Gonse and Megan Diamond, the other founding partner of nParallel, credit quick thinking and employees who executed brilliantly for saving the company.

To be sure, employment in 2020 declined from 48 to 32, softened by voluntary departures and rolling furloughs to accommodate parents with kids at home. Revenue declined from $15 million to $10 million.

Still, nParallel, which now brandishes a "beyond trade show" plan for customers, has a future.

"Our business is hit right away in a recession," Diamond said. "We also get back earlier in recovery because our clients need to show their products."

The Expo West natural-foods conference in Anaheim, Calif., canceled last winter, has scheduled its 2021 gathering for late May. NParallel will help clients Post and General Mills there. Other conferences are slowly being scheduled for the second half of 2021.

Diamond and Gonse saw a need by last March for protective equipment. Skilled workers who make and market trade-show furnishings pivoted to acrylic shields and desk dividers out of the same inventory.

"We moved fast last year because we could not survive without ingenuity," Diamond said.

Diamond and Gonse went without paychecks and "utilized all available cash savings in the company to pay wages, rent and other expenses," she said. "Additionally, we restructured personal assets to provide liquidity."

The company also obtained a forgivable, $637,700 loan from the Paycheck Protection Program of the Small Business Administration.

The company maintained health insurance, even for furloughed employees collecting unemployment. Its designers, cutters, carpenters and other veteran laborers make $30-plus an hour.

"We relied on our people, expertise, relationships, equipment and inventory," Diamond said.

The first projects included free equipment for Safe Haven women's shelter in Duluth, the Sanneh Foundation in St. Paul and Lift Station for equipment to protect residents, staff and online students.

"We create a temporary experience," Diamond said. "Everything is modular, goes in a crate and is transported. … Amid all of this, it helped us that we could help people in need."

The success of those installations increased confidence and spirit at the company.

"Trade show and corporate event professionals are masters of contingency planning, and if I ever end up on a deserted island, I hope to have a few with me, because they'll whip up a lifeboat with some duct tape and Visqueen," said Travis Stanton, editor of Exhibitor Magazine, in an e-mail statement. "They're scrappy, industrious and inventive, and the best of them will survive this pandemic intact."

Even so, Stanton said his association estimate, based on surveys, that two-thirds of exhibit and event firms have furloughed or dismissed up to 90% of employees. Three-quarters have reduced top-to-bottom compensation and 40% are unsure whether they will survive this year.

Many, including nParallel, have pivoted to protective gear and furnishings.

That ranges from $2,500 "vaccination stations" being pitched to drugstore chains, grocers and health care offices that likely will be vaccinating millions by spring. You can also order online an acrylic shield from nParallel for $29 to $150.

"We've gone from being a business-to-business company to somewhat a business-to-consumer operation thanks to online ordering," Gonse said.

The pivot has changed a company that typically made six- to seven-figure exhibits for trade shows. There's more pop-up kiosks, mobile displays "in a box," mailers and online exhibits.

Diamond, a journalist and marketer by background; and Gonse, a Dunwoody College-trained engineer, once worked together at another event marketer. They are planning conservatively, but with hope.

The demand for COVID-related equipment isn't going away. And work has begun for some clients who plan to exhibit at regional and national trade shows as soon as late May.

"A lot of clients have not showcased their products in a year," Gonse said.

NParallel recently moved from longtime space in Plymouth to a larger, 100,000-square foot facility in Fridley. There's more employee amenities, including a better lounge, fitness center and pingpong tables, and room to grow.

"We expect the back half of 2021 to be good," Gonse said. "But I think it will take until 2022 to get back to where we were in 2019."

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.