Event Businesses Plan for Long-Term Adaptations

Event Businesses Plan for Long-Term Adaptations

While almost every business sector has faced disruption during the pandemic, the event industry is certainly among the hardest hit. Conferences, weddings, and mitzvah celebrations were not only put on hold during the early phases of the pandemic; the very nature of social events makes it impossible to know when regular business will be able to resume. From large venues to individual photographers, DJs, caterers, and more, event-related businesses have pivoted to fill the current gaps in their schedules even as they try to plan for a future return to in-person events.

The overwhelming impact of the pandemic is illustrated by the temporary closure of Northbrook’s Renaissance Chicago North Shore Hotel beginning in March, resulting in the canceling or rescheduling of all events through June.  Stephen Barr, the hotel’s General Manager, says the outlook for the rest of the summer remains to be seen. “While some of our summer events have rescheduled for later in 2020 or 2021, we still have events on the books and continue to get inquiries for new business over the summer period,” says Stephen. “We do have some events that are reducing their size at this time, but most are waiting to see what restrictions will be in place closer to their event date.”

With a planned reopening in early July, the Renaissance will be implementing Marriott’s new Commitment to Clean program with a host of new cleaning protocols, social distance strategies, and technology to promote contactless interactions.  Frequent cleaning of public spaces will be enhanced by innovations like electrostatic sprayers to sanitize surfaces throughout the hotel.  Partitions, social distance signage, and hand sanitizers will protect guests and employees, while a new Mobile Key option through the Marriott App will allow guests to bypass physical check-ins altogether.  “From a group and meeting perspective, we will be working with our clients to utilize our versatile meeting spaces to meet their needs while operating within any local or state guidelines that may be in place,” explains Barr.

Barr has an optimistic view of the industry’s ability and desire to restore in-person events. “The vast majority of meeting planners and decision makers we have spoken to are anxious and eager to get back to face-to-face meetings,” he notes.  “While the virtual environment is allowing them to continue with certain aspects of their business, they’ve found that it doesn’t have the same impact and value as collaborating in person.  We feel that the pandemic will drive additional tools and resources from a technology perspective that will help overcome the current challenge and help further enhance the meeting experience when programs move back on-site.”

Marz Lawhorn, Charizma Entertainment, has taken a similar approach of using the shutdown to invest in his business to be ready for the return of in-person celebrations. “We all crave personal interaction.  Doing everything virtually doesn’t have the human touch we all desire.  We’re doing everything we can to be ready for things to come back.”  That has included working to optimize his website’s SEO, sprucing up his offices, and practicing his craft.  “Even after all my years as a DJ, I’m spending up to two hours a day improving my skills and learning about new technology.”

Although most of his larger events have been rescheduled to 2021, Marz will be testing strategies for safe interactions when he performs at a wedding this month in Indiana.  “The rules are more relaxed there, but I’m taking steps to make it as safe as I can,” he says. “We’ll be disinfecting the microphone when people are handing it off, and I’ll have a number where people can text song requests instead of coming up to me.  I won’t be taking lots of photos with the guests.”  He believes that businesses inevitably will have to move forward even as the pandemic persists.

A personal interest and comfort with new technology has helped Howard Wallach, A-Z Entertainment, develop new options to keep his business going.  He now offers professionally produced virtual parties that are worlds apart from the typical Zoom get-together.  “It started in March when I partnered with another business to produce a virtual variety show featuring local entertainers,” explains Howard. “I learned how to master the technology to produce robust video and exceptional audio quality.  The buzz got started as people saw the difference and reached out with ideas for their own events.”

Howard has produced virtual parties now for high school graduations, happy hours, birthday parties and other events.  The legwork to create a successful event is time-consuming; preparation for a recent birthday party included developing a trivia contest about the child, creating a photo montage, planning a scavenger hunt and producing transition segments.  “The end result was a non-stop 45-minute experience that was really special to the family. One great experience begets many more.”

Although the booking of virtual events has been uneven, Howard sees them as a valuable option at a time when traditional events are off limits. “Looking at what’s happening in Florida and Texas right now, I have to think the industry won’t come back to business as usual for quite a while,” says Howard.  “This is just a way for people to be able to celebrate together safely.”

“For the most part, the whole industry is in a holding pattern,” comments Brad Floden, Cobalt Photography.  “The message we’ve been promoting is ‘Reschedule, Don’t Cancel’ — and that’s meant pushing events that were planned for this spring and summer well into 2021 and 2022.”  When the pandemic began to shut down events in March, North Shore event vendors came together to develop best practices.  Brad participated in Zoom conferences with 30 or more businesses to help build consensus.  “It’s a tight-knit business community so that helps us problem solve for our clients,” explains Brad.  “Most vendors are honoring the original contracts when clients reschedule.  The problems have been over people asking to get deposits back when they cancel.”

In the meantime, Brad has put energy into other photography opportunities including family and business portraits, corporate campaigns, and real estate marketing.  There have been innovative events, like the mitzvah parade parties or the ceremony held in a family’s living room while Brad shot photos with a zoom lens from outside the front door. “Pivot is the best word for what we’re doing now.  How do you reinvent your business so you can keep serving clients?”

Similarly, Lisa Piper of North Shore Catering & Events has had to completely adapt her business model.  Prior to the pandemic, her company primarily supplied catered family-style meals for corporate meetings and synagogue social functions.  When those events were shut down, she turned to producing smaller scale take-and-bake meals for customers.  She partnered with Mark Brodson, Resource Commercial Advisors and North Shore Helpers to deliver 50 meals to medical staff at Lutheran General Hospital.

Lisa foresees the need to make more long-term changes to reflect the new realities of her corporate clients. “In the past, a typical corporate meeting would usually mean serving 25 to 60 people. I don’t see those coming back anytime soon,” she acknowledges.  “I’ve been investing more in marketing and social media, which I really didn’t have to do before, and looking for ways that I can make smaller meal orders cost effective for me.”  One possibility is working with apartment complexes to offer themed dinner packages to residents. “I’ve been doing this since 2005 and I don’t want to give it up,” she says. “I just keep trying to come up with ideas to keep going.”