Hospitality in the Time of COVID
We are all on this collective journey-maybe a collective trauma depending on who you are talking to-but we can’t ignore the fact that we are all going through it, together. COVID has been by our side faithfully for the past two years. It put a pause on our day to day functions, it wreaked havoc, and caused panic in Americans. We couldn’t find toilet paper. We are STILL in this pandemic and it has made a lasting impact that will affect us for some time to come.
Social industries like hospitality and events were affected heavily by COVID. As large crowds are gathering and people are wearing masks less, I think we can all agree that the world has shown us that human interaction is more important than being locked inside and isolated. Naturally, I wanted to talk to a few people and get insight on their experiences through the worst of the pandemic, and how they are making a comeback as regulations are loosened and gatherings become more frequent. These people have something in common: the film production world. Though they don’t work directly in film, they have a huge impact on the industry and are thankful that productions stuck around and found a way to keep people employed.
Karyn Kotler with Live Nation
Karyn Kotler is a Senior Director of Sales at Live Nation. “When I started 10 years ago, I had one venue, The Tabernacle… We have six venues in the market. The indoor theaters are The Tabernacle, Buckhead Theater, and The Roxy. Outdoors are Chastain, Ameris Bank Amphitheater, and Solaris Bank Amphitheater.” Kotler explained that in March of 2020, everyone thought this virus would be short lasting, but then quickly realized that was not what was going to happen. When the world went under lockdown, her company furloughed the majority of their employees, and she was “the last man standing” because of her senior position. Live Nation kept only 10% of employees during this time, and Kotler was one of them. As grateful as she was to keep her job, times became stressful as she fought to keep business coming in.
“The first furloughed employee came back in March (2021), but that was one person. By May, we got most of our furloughs back. There were people who were laid off that didn’t come back and there were positions that were just eliminated. Where I had one venue then, I have three now, and that’s permanent.”
“Out of the six venues, I was the only person booking for events and filming, but also postponing other clients that had events at that time. I was so busy throughout the entire pandemic… Fortunately, because we had dates available for all of our venues and we didn’t have any concerts going on, I was able to capitalize on the film industry…I’ve done filming events throughout my career, but availability is always an issue. We did television, catering holds, and live streaming concerts where it’s just the performer streaming from the venue.” As concerts were phased out due to increasingly strict regulations, Kotler made adjustments that really worked in her favor. They had more time for people that typically wouldn’t get a spot in these venues because of concerts and conventions being canceled. These venues were able to hold weddings and church services, on top of the productions. She says conventions are just now coming back in March of 2022 and beyond, so she is seeing another shift in the industry that went away for quite some time. Companies are still doing virtual events, so it may take a while to go back to the “old normal.” “...Conventions postponed to future years, and that’s what I do. Mostly convention events…the filmings sustained us and kept some of my people employed. If it wasn’t for the film industry, a lot of people probably would’ve been laid off.”
Something Live Nation adapted to was the virtual event. “As soon as we knew we weren’t going back to work, we were on the forefront of creating new event types because nobody was doing anything. People couldn't gather, so that’s how we created, what we call, ‘socially responsible events.’ We created the micro wedding…virtual events, regional events, and drive-in events…So it’s like creating a whole new paradigm. Did people do virtual events before? Sure, but now everybody’s doing it. There’s a virtual proponent to everything. Graduations were virtual, or they were socially distanced and streamed so people who couldn't come could still watch it.”
“The pent up demand for concerts is so big there are no dates available for me to book anything right now. I book 6-16 months out…so if I’ve got a client calling me today and they are looking for dates in May, there’s not a lot going on. There’s not a lot available even in October. We are a year round business, so that’s the challenge now…Concerts are booking in a shorter time frame and canceling also because of Covid…The booking window is shorter for all of us and it’s a lot of last minute stuff. You don’t have as much lead time anymore…The other thing that changed is that the cost of doing business has increased by 20-30%...Things are backordered. We have a brand new screen that we want to hang but we can’t hang it because we don’t have the motor. The motor is sitting on a ship somewhere in the middle of the ocean. So it still affects everything.”
“As a company we joined forces with our competitors. Having a unified message to appeal to Congress because there are a lot of gig workers and they’ve all just completely lost their income and they didn’t qualify for unemployment…That’s the majority. So we created a fund called Crew Nation. So there are really good sides to it as well. You see people reach into their pockets to help.”
Kotler has clients that work with her time and time again. She states, “The relationships are my favorite part of the job. I got to work with some of my favorite film scouts that I hadn’t worked with in a while or that I wanted to work with and it just hasn't worked out. The other cool thing is that they would book The Tabernacle and then two of my other venues, so we got to keep it in the family...I think working with some of my favorite people over multiple times for multiple venues was probably the best part of it.”
“We had to follow government guidelines all along…You have to social distance. It was constantly changing. You can have up to 100 people, now you can have up to 800, but you have to be six feet apart and you have to wear masks unless you’re eating or drinking. All of our staff are still required to wear masks, and for our public events, like concerts we are requiring vaccines or negative covid tests within the last 48 hours. Company wide. Now, private events, we leave it up to that production…The film industry gets tested at least three times a week and they’re very safe. Which is what is great about our venues. 40,000 square-feet, you can definitely social distance! …I think that was a big factor in people selecting our venue as well,” in addition to their event spaces being so unique.
Kotler’s outlook on the event world is positive; “I think people are dying to come back to what we know as normal. I think the future is bright. It’s not gonna stop. People were sitting in their houses for two years. They haven’t traveled for two years. They want to have fun. They want to celebrate, they want to have a party, and we sell fun.”
Steven Eisenstein with Classic Tents and Events
Speaking with Steven taught me that not everyone’s business struggled during the pandemic. At Classic Tents and Events, they flourished. Eisenstein is the Chief Event Officer and part owner of the company. Classic Tents and Events has been around for over 20 years, but he purchased it with Karen Alcock in 2010. “We serve the sporting market, concerts, retail, movie productions, educational events like graduation ceremonies,” as well as many other event outlets.
During the shutdown in Georgia when everyone else stopped working, Eisenstein’s team was put to the test. Business did slow down a bit, but they were able to take that time to focus on enhanced employee training. Most of the time, their training takes place on site, so the pandemic was good in the sense that they were able to unwind and make training a priority. Classic Tents cross-trained their employees to be more versatile within the company and capable of fulfilling multiple roles. If someone is unable to work because of illness, someone else has the ability to step in, which wasn’t possible before. So, in this time, they became more prepared for the business to come, and they did their best to stay ready. Their typical clientele made quite the shift as annual festivals were canceled and hospitals needed tents. Fulton County contacted them requesting tents for their COVID testing sites; they’re still in use to this day! When people were trying to figure out whether or not to cancel weddings and bar mitzvahs, a lot of them decided to cancel their venues and planned their events at private residences with added tents.
“We are in touch with the people in our industry, so when we all hunkered down and tried to figure out what was going on, we all relied on each other. We talked to other industry professionals in other cities and had daily discussions…where we all tried to figure out how to get through this. It strengthened our relationship with others and we all kind of went down this rabbit hole together and helped each other the best we could…we added new equipment that we didn’t have in our inventory…We added a lot more handwashing stations with hand sanitizer. We added different types of walls. We used to use pipe and drape. Those pipes now have vinyl on them so it’s able to be cleaned easily. We came up with a lot of separation tables, like little dividers so people could have their own little sections… There’s been a lot of new items that have come through covid that were also added to our inventory.” Eisenstein believes these new additions to their inventory will be around for a while because of their usefulness.
The biggest challenge he said they faced during this time was the unknown. Not knowing anything about this virus. Not knowing who might get sick or what might get canceled, along with the uncertainty around how they could adjust. Because they were so busy, they couldn’t stop the show, which is where their training came into play. What really helped was that they were able to apply for and receive a PPP loan, and although there were a few employees that they were forced to part ways with at the beginning, they were able to add fifteen more jobs in the past few months.
“I think people are going to still want to continue to do stuff. There’s a lot of pent up demand and a lot of events are gonna go on now, a lot of festivals are happening, they’re on the books, the annual events that used to happen, are going to go on again. I think different events will think of things they need to be wary of and be proactive to make sure people are safe and comfortable enough... So we are trying to take those precautions to make sure people keep going to events.”
“We’ve got a great staff here and we are still looking for staff, but we’ve also found ways to be more efficient by adding more mechanical systems. We are also members of the LMGI, which is the Location Managers Guild International. We typically serve the location managers for what we do. They tell us all the different scenes that they’re going to be working on and we help them solve their needs and figure out what size tents can fit there and provide different equipment that we have or inventory to help them. We’ve been blessed to have the movie production business here in Georgia and we know it’s here to stay for a long time and we are glad to be part of that and enjoy working with movie productions here in town. We always try to help others as well so if we don’t have something, we like to tell people where to get it or we’ll rent it for them and bring it over to them. We like to try to be a solution based company to help make memorable events.”
Ms. B with Ms. B’s Craft Services
Ms. B’s time during the pandemic hasn’t been easy, but it has been steady since Film and TV productions came back after a long hiatus because of Covid. She founded Ms. B’s Craft Services in 2008 while working in event catering.
“I was asked to do a wrap photo shoot for a Tyler Perry production and it was for brunch. One of my clients asked me to do this for her in 24 hours for 75 people, so I did. And it was an overwhelming success to the point that the executive producer wanted to see me. And when I went to see him he goes, ‘Oh my god that was some of the best food I’ve ever had.’... So he hired me to work on a TV show. That’s how I got into the production industry. After I worked on that show, we disbanded and people were calling me to work on different shows and I never looked back. It kept growing and I realized, this is a business. And that’s when I decided to get more trailers and I got vans and I grew with each show. And that was back in 2008. Film wasn’t as big here back then so I got in at the right time. It was different in how I did it because people in crafty typically were not chefs and I’ve been to culinary school…my passion has always been food.” It’s clear Ms. B is very proud of the business she’s grown and the hard work she has put into its success. It goes to show that if you put in the time and effort, people will always flock to you. But even with a strong passion and work ethic, it’s still difficult to stay afloat at times..
When the pandemic started, her team was working on three to four different productions and everything was brought to a screeching halt. One day they had work and the next they didn’t. It was a very scary time for Ms. B. “Thankfully there were all these programs coming out for small businesses and I was eligible because I had been in business for so many years. I went through all the steps and they looked at my company as if I was a viable business.” That helped keep Ms. B’s Craft Services afloat until productions came back by mid-September and October of 2020.
Once they began working again, Ms. B says, “We immediately learned that we had to have more people on set. Typically an average crew would be just two people, one on set and one in craft services. We could no longer do that because everything had to be handled by craft services only…We used to have big bowls or salad or hotel pans of food. We could no longer do that, we had to individually package everything. So it was not as easy as it once was. Then we would have a runner because someone had to be there to hand everything to everybody. One of the things I initiated before the pandemic was that I didn’t like everybody touching forks and straws and so I always used covered flatware. I think that’s a good change because of COVID. So it was an easy transition... At the beginning of 2021 the shows were going down a lot because somebody tested positive. And they were testing Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, sometimes Tuesdays and Thursdays. I would try to keep the background separate from the basic crew because I didn’t want any cross contamination. It was trial by error and we now do it that way.”
Ms. B doesn’t work on set anymore, and does mostly administrative work for her company, but she makes sure to hire trained chefs, as she feels it really makes a difference. One thing that has changed is she can no longer visit the set. They don’t allow visitors anymore due to COVID. If she wanted to check on her team or talk to the producers like she used to, she’s not allowed. The camaraderie with the crew isn’t the same for her anymore. It’s straight to business, so she hopes that does change one day. “I miss having beautiful presentations because I think food never makes it to your mouth if it’s not pretty. Now I’m talking to my people about how the food has to look in the packaging. I really love what I do because it’s food. I loved that the trailer was a kitchen and all my trailers have a prep station. It’s a salad and sandwich prep station and I used to have all kinds of sandwich meat and salad fixings. And they could go into the trailer at the prep station, put on their gloves, and make themselves a sandwich. And I loved it.”
“I think that we've come a long way since the beginning and I feel like we are on our way [to normalcy]. You can’t ignore it, we are just learning to live with it. The difference between 2020 and 2021 was that we had to learn how to work with it. It’s just working smarter.” All I can say is I hope to be on one of Ms. B’s Craft Services sets one day-everyone has such great things to say about her food. She has high standards and sticks to them.
It’s clear that in spite of tough times, we can always find ways to adapt. As humans, we are built to go into survival mode and do what we have to do. These people and their stories of adaptation and innovation show us what is possible. As we tread further into 2022, and (hopefully) further away from the pandemic, we are adapting more and more to our changing environments. Rest assured that if you are ready for an event large or small, you can rely on these great people to have a venue prepared, or a tent if you want to be outside, and the food to complete the day.