Home / Business Spotlight / New ways to gather: For those whose work depends on events, staying afloat means adapting or reinventing their businesses

New ways to gather: For those whose work depends on events, staying afloat means adapting or reinventing their businesses

Kelli O'Neill Wenzel-Erin Gamble-Josh Horn-Tanisha Watkins

From left: Keli O’Neill Wenzel, who sits on the board of the International Festival and Events Association; Springfield photographer Erin Gamble; Josh Horn, co-owner of PPE Events; and Tanisha Watkins, a Jefferson County photographer (Provided photos)

For Becky Brown of Cakes Reanimated, it was every baker’s worst nightmare.

“For a couple of days, I couldn’t find powdered sugar,” the Cape Girardeau cakemaker said, recalling the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring.

The pandemic has triggered shortages of many products since then, but one thing Brown hasn’t been short on is customers — which even she finds surprising.

“It was bizarre,” she said. “I thought business was really going to suffer, but because we’ve adapted and started offering different sizes of things, that’s really been a huge deal.”

For Missourians like Brown whose livelihoods depend on events, adaptation has been the name of the game through the past year. From venue owners to videographers, everyone is looking for new ways to survive a strange time when the gatherings that once marked the milestones of life now can be harmful to one’s health. Along the way, some have altered their business practices, while others have changed their models entirely to suit a new era of social distancing.

Creative solutions and hybrid approaches

“I’ve kind of avoided indoor situations,” said Donald Wesley of FReSh RAiN, a cover band he manages in the St. Louis area.

Wesley said he has known people who died as a result of the pandemic, and he does his best to watch out for himself and his bandmates during gigs in settings ranging from birthday parties to corporate get-togethers.

He recalled one job where the band was supposed to play a set outdoors. On arrival, however, he found an earlier downpour had made the area damp. The owner wanted him to set up the band in a building instead. He refused.

“There were just way too many people not wearing masks inside a small space,” he said.

Other performers, too, have found themselves in a quandary as they search for the best ways to protect themselves and their co-workers. For planners of large gatherings, though, it’s an even bigger challenge to protect thousands — or even tens of thousands — of potential attendees.

“We’ve been creative in the fact that we create events for a living,” said Keli O’Neill Wenzel.

You may not have heard of Wenzel, who sits on the board of the International Festival and Events Association, but if you frequent the Kansas City area, you might have attended some of her work. O’Neill Events & Marketing and its six employees have had a hand in everything from the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl parade to the Royals’ World Series celebration. The company typically handles some of the biggest gatherings in the area.

Obviously, some of those had to be cancelled altogether last year in the immediate wake of lockdowns. But autumn events provided a bit more time to make adjustments and get inventive to keep the spirit of the gathering alive while keeping everyone virus-free, Wenzel said.

Kansas City’s Irish Festival, which in past years has attracted as many as 80,000 people from 40 states, was a case in point. The September 2020 get-together featured a hybrid approach with virtual whiskey tastings and streaming cooking classes. Participants could use ingredient kits to make scones via Zoom with acclaimed chef Shaun Brady or tune in from home to watch an Irish fiddling workshop and improve their musical skills. There was even a “Golden Ticket Cow Plop” in which livestreamed participants could watch and win prizes if a bovine evacuated itself on certain numbered squares.

“You could still have some physical elements that made it feel like you’re not just watching TV,” she said. “One of the things we’ve learned with a lot of our clients is, let’s not make it virtual-only. How can we have elements of physicalness?”

Wenzel also has worked with the city of Leavenworth, Kansas on its Camp Leavenworth event, which was introduced in 2019 as a two-day downtown festival with music, food, drinks and fireworks. In 2020, organizers rebranded the event as “Lovingworth,” featuring such happenings as “dinner/date night in your driveway,” a sidewalk chalk-art contest and socially distanced yoga.

O’Neill Events & Marketing also is working with nonprofit organizations to help them switch from their traditional ballroom fundraising galas to virtual gatherings or hybrids.

New realities, new businesses

While some companies are adapting to the new environment, others literally have been created because of it.

“It is very unique,” said Josh Horn, co-owner of PPE Events, a St. Louis-based company that came into existence after he and others were laid off from a DJ/entertainment organization at the beginning of the pandemic.

“At this point, there are only four of us in the entire market that actually run this [kind of] service,” he said late last year. “The DJ business really went down very, very quickly.”

By July, he and his co-workers founded PPE to livestream events that, in the past, people would have attended themselves. He said the enterprise is now the largest in the region and even donates money from each event it handles to COVID-19-related philanthropic endeavors. Horn said PPE has worked with businesses, schools, charities and youth sports groups.

“Primarily, it is weddings. However, we have done a fair amount of funerals,” he said. “Unfortunately, most of them have been COVID-related deaths.”

But these days, even virtual events can get too crowded.

“For instance, in a lot of spots in Illinois, you can have [only] 10 people at any event,” Horn said late last year. “In a lot of cases, that includes any kind of event staff. For us to do a full production, typically we have to run a three-person crew.”

Horn and his colleagues also have found that masking at such events is often limited and face coverings are often removed during the reception.

“It depends upon the group of people,” he noted. “We’ve been to weddings where it seems like social distancing never was a thing.”

The company now is trying to do events with one person on-site and others working electronically. Horn said he recently streamed one wedding to six nations and another to grandparents who were themselves in quarantine.

“They had been exposed to COVID and didn’t know if they had it,” Horn said. “Without the video, they wouldn’t have seen their granddaughter’s wedding.”

Horn said he hopes to start a trade organization in the St. Louis market, saying he believes that, long after COVID-19 is just a memory, the practice of livestreaming events will be going strong.

“I think it is something that is going to stick around for the long term,” he said.

Orders ‘through the roof’

Back in Cape Girardeau, Becky Brown has been baking a lot of cakes, even though COVID-19 has entailed some changes.

“It has slowed down in one sense, but in another sense it has sped up and been crazy,” said Brown, who opened her storefront in December 2019 and was in business for only a few weeks when the pandemic forced her to close down.

“We don’t have walk-ins anymore, but all of my custom orders have been going through the roof,” she said. “They’ve gotten smaller in size, so if we used to have a 20-person party, it would be like six to 12 people.”

In response to less-crowded events, Brown began promoting two-layer cake options in addition to her usual three-layer offerings.

“It made things smaller for smaller parties and adapted for the customer’s needs,” she said.

Her custom orders skyrocketed, and she began having trouble keeping up with the volume. She said she believes her social media and radio advertising campaigns may have helped to grow her business, along with a general rejection of big box stores during the coronavirus era.

“I think people just wanted to stay out of Walmart,” she noted.

Brown also offered cookie project kits for Easter in 2020, and she said she may try something similar in the future. She now delivers curbside and wears a mask. She isn’t especially concerned with whether customers follow suit, she said, because their interactions take place in the open air.

“I haven’t had anybody get out of their car and try to hug me or anything like that,” Brown said. “Sometimes they wear masks. Sometimes they don’t. It is just whatever they are comfortable with.”

In the southwestern part of the state, Springfield photographer Erin Gamble said she has seen only small events since the lockdowns — frequently with 20 people or less — in a significant switch from the 150- to 300-person weddings she was accustomed to booking.

“I’m starting to have some of those bigger weddings,” she noted last fall. “But I’m also still having some couples totally reschedule for [2021.]

For some event vendors, last fall meant a compressed schedule of busy weekends to accommodate multiple ceremonies that were rescheduled after cancelled spring dates. Gamble said about half of her wedding clients cancelled in 2020, which the other half just delayed their events.

“The one thing [I’ve done] to get by is pushing 2021 and how it’s going to be a new year and how hopefully it is a new beginning as well,” said Gamble, who has been a full-time photographer for eight years. “Hopefully, there aren’t as many restrictions [later this year], and we can go back to life as it was before.”

In the meantime, she’s trying to use her time productively.

“Especially when we were shut down, that’s when I took the time to set up a new marketing plan, edit my website and get everything kind of systemized, so that whenever I do become busy again I’m able to handle it,” she said.

Hectic weekends

St. Louis makeup artist Mary Shope of MW Makeup Designs said most of her clients postponed and rescheduled their 2020 events rather than cancel them altogether. That’s been a financial blessing, she said, but it’s also resulted in schedule compression. She’s pretty much given up on taking any weekends off this year, and she’s already booking into 2022.

“There will be weekends where I have Friday, Saturday and Sunday weddings,” she said.

Shope, who opened her business in 2011, said she’s trying to reach cooperative arrangements with other providers in order to keep clients happy.

“Some dates they are wanting to reschedule to are already booked for us,” she said. “So I’ve been trying to reach out to vendors who I think have a similar aesthetic or can offer services most similar to mine whereas in general, prior to COVID, that wasn’t something we did, to be quite honest.”

She also developed a general policy of returning deposits for cancellations in light of the pandemic situation.

“I just thought that it would be best for my business reputation in the long run,” she said, adding that she was able to do so because she had some financial reserves.

“Luckily, there is not a ton of overhead in this business,” she said. “I know for people who have more overhead — like caterers and venues — they are not doing as well.”

Tanisha Watkins, a Jefferson County photographer, said her business of five years hasn’t suffered too badly through the past year, with no cancellations and only a small reduction in volume.

“Wedding-wise, I haven’t been extremely unfortunate,” she said. “Most of my weddings have still been happening. I have just been looking at a few that have been rescheduled.

“I do believe that I’ll be able to maintain my business,” she added. “I just won’t flourish as much as I had hoped to in the New Year.”

Watkins, who photographs weddings in both St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, said she’s found that face coverings are definitely optional at events in the latter community.

“I’m one of maybe 10 people at a 200-person wedding wearing a mask. Five of those 10 people are the caterers or the bar service or the videographer,” she said.

“I’ve also had a few people move their weddings to St. Charles County when they were supposed to be in St. Louis County or St. Louis city because they don’t want to follow the mandate for masks or they don’t want to follow the maximum number of guests they can have,” she added.

Laura Kirk, co-owner of Brookdale Farms, a venue that hosts weddings and other events, reports a similar experience. Based in Jefferson County, Kirk said she’s seen a lot of event-refugees from counties to the north where COVID-19-related restrictions were more strict.

“We’ve picked up a lot of weddings that were in St. Louis city or St. Louis County because their venues either shut down or were really limited in the amount of people [they could hold],” she said.

In fact, event business has increased at Brookdale, Kirk said. Masking is optional at the 300-acre site, and many clients have expressed gratitude for that, she said.

“The biggest thing that we’re hearing from brides is, ‘I don’t want to look back at my wedding pictures in five years and everybody is wearing a mask,’” she said.

Though bookings are up, wedding sizes have dropped as people try to minimize crowds, Kirk said. Staff members wear face coverings if desired by the client, and organizers of some events do ask for various precautions to be taken — including the use of extra tents to accommodate greater social distancing. In addition to employing such health measures as hand sanitizer stations, Brookdale is using more of its land to keep patrons spread out, she said. The aim is to provide freedom and flexibility for patrons while keeping everyone safe.

“We leave it up to our brides,” she said. “It is their choice. It is their day.”

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