Reno-Sparks wedding, event planners: pandemic fallout has ‘absolutely massacred the events industry’
A longtime event planner, Karen Nichols has grown accustomed to seeing the same array of actions and emotions at a wedding: crying, laughing, singing, dancing — oftentimes all at once.
The wedding that Nichols, owner of Red Carpet Events & Design in Sparks, planned at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe in Incline Village this past March was different.
“Normally, events are fun and happy and there’s tears and there’s laughter and all those different things,” Nichols said. “And everything (at that wedding) was just kind of muted. We could see the writing on the wall. It was just really obvious that it was going to be a different world from that day forward.”
Nichols realized a global pandemic and events that brought people together were not a good match — even when Lake Tahoe is your backdrop.
“I had this sick feeling in my stomach,” Nichols said in a recent phone interview with the NNBW. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, so my go-to is to be as conservative as possible.”
With that, Nichols acted fast to mitigate the loss of events she knew would be dropping off her 2020 calendar. She laid off half of her staff, “to get them in the unemployment line,” sold a slew of the company’s large-scale themed props (an Eiffel Tower here, a Golden Gate Bridge there), and worked with her landlord to decrease Red Carpet’s warehouse space.
“We were able to create revenue by liquidating those items that I knew we wouldn’t be using for a year or two,” Nichols said. “We decreased our expense by about 75% because that’s what we had to do.”
A ‘DEVASTATING’ YEAR
While the COVID-19 outbreak has impacted many businesses big and small, those in the events industry — which thrives on large gatherings of people — were hit especially hard throughout 2020.
Whether 2021 will be any different is too soon to tell, according to business owners in Reno-Sparks who spoke with the NNBW.
Red Carpet, Nichols said, typically produces 400 events each year, from weddings to corporate and social events. In 2020, after roughly 300 postponements, the company was left organizing about 100 events, with 75 being weddings at Lake Tahoe. Those held during the pandemic, she noted, were downsized gatherings with social distancing measures.
As a result, the company’s year-over-year revenue was down 75% compared to 2019, said Nichols.
Christina Perry, founder of Reno-based Quality Event Design, said she “has a fear of figuring out” how much revenue her family-owned business lost in 2020.
The company, which specializes in wedding planning and floral services, had 35 postponements and two cancellations last year. Perry estimates that drop in business puts QED’s revenue down “at least” 85% for 2020.
“All I know is the bills are still paid and the payroll’s on point,” Perry told the NNBW. “I’m very pleased with that. But I know once I look at the actual figures — which is coming up because it is tax time — it’s going to be quite devastating.”
To stay afloat at the onset of COVID, QED turned to making reusable face masks and “good vibes boxes” — which included a mask, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, flowers and more — that are sold on the company’s website. Months later, those items have generated about $40,000 in sales.
“Honestly, the best part of that was our ability to contribute to the community, in a time that there were no masks out there,” said Perry, noting the company donated a mask for each one it sold.
QED also expanded its floral offerings to be year-round and for any occasion, rather than for just events and weddings, said Perry, adding: “We just moved forward with what we could to keep our business alive.”
Events-wise, the company produced five weddings during the pandemic, each one a small gathering in a backyard. Perry sees the trend of “micro weddings” continuing this year and into 2022.
“Everybody’s like, maybe I don’t need to throw a wedding that I need name tags at,” Perry said with a laugh. “That’s a horrible thing for a wedding planner to say, I’m sure, but we’re truly encouraging them with our brides. We’re keeping very focused on the micro weddings.”
Perry said QED currently has 42 weddings on its 2021 calendar, the majority being postponements from 2020.
Red Carpet has 100-plus wedding and corporate events on the books this year, said Nichols, who is projecting to organize a total of 150 events this year. In other words, even with a COVID-19 vaccine rolling out and more gatherings taking place, she doesn’t expect Red Carpet to reach its 400-event annual average anytime soon.
“I’m still looking at a pretty significant reduction in revenues,” Nichols said of this year. “We’re looking to basically just move through to 2022. I think that it was really naive for anyone to think that 2020 was going to be the last of this.”
A FUZZY FUTURE
JoAnne Hill, founder of Bookmark Events and Promotions, which produces meetings and trade shows across Nevada, echoes that sentiment.
Hill said it will take time for clients to feel secure scheduling a big event, in part depending on vaccination rates and because of lingering unease over large gatherings.
“It has absolutely massacred the events industry,” Hill said of the pandemic. “It really hit us working in an industry where you can’t have large crowds.”
So much so that Hill said her company’s revenue for 2020 was down about 90% compared to 2019. Making matters all the more frustrating, Hill said the state’s fluctuating restrictions on crowd sizes caused a lot of starts and stops with clients.
“It ended up being just a hassle — it duplicated work for me,” she added.
In all, Bookmark Events saw nearly 20 events that she booked before COVID get canceled, Hill said. And the meetings she did organize in 2020 were fully online. Those events, she said, had registration fees of $75 — a steep drop from the $400 typically charged for in-person event.
“That impacted our budget by about 75%-80%” Hill added.
Hill said there’s optimism within the industry that organized in-person meetings and trade shows will come back by the third quarter of 2021. However, she said a lot of factors, like mask requirements and crowd limits, will not only dictate attendees’ comfort levels but also whether events will have to be a combination of online and in-person.
All the while, Hill said many of the service providers she’s relied on for years have gone out of business, merged with other companies, or were bought out.
“For me, once the dust settles, it means reaching out and finding out who’s still around,” she said. “Where are my resources going to be and how is that going to impact our budget going forward? All the people that I relied on and were always going to be there for me and pick up the phone — they’ve all been affected. I have to rebuild my resources like I’m restarting my business all over again.”
All of the impacts and uncertainty, Hill said, have caused her to reassess her career going forward.
“I’m looking at my business model and saying, what is the events business going to be like?” pondered Hill, who’s been producing events for more than 25 years. “Do I want to stay in this business? Is this something worth trying to rebuild? Those are the things I’m wrestling with right now while wanting to deliver an exceptional experience for our attendees.
“We’ll just have to sit back for the next few months and see how things go.”
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