The COVID-19 pandemic has affected hundreds of markets, thousands of businesses, and millions of individuals, but perhaps no single entity has been impacted as much as live events. Corporate events, concert tours, sporting events, Broadway theaters, theme parks — all of that, and basically everything else, have been completely shut down for the foreseeable future, leaving event producers, AV and rental shops, manufacturers, and tech, production and design teams underutilized and without work.
But because necessity is the mother invention, a number of live event companies are taking stock of their resources and capabilities and coming up with innovative ways to combat the pandemic and help their community, while at the same time keeping their valuable employees working and their companies afloat. Among those taking this leap are PRG, Upstaging, Tait, Mountain Productions, and All Access Staging, to name a few.
Production rental companies, especially those with a varied inventory of gear, seem especially suited to providing emergency service options; think 3-way radios, microphones, speakers and headset, power distribution, indoor/outdoor and battery powered lighting, etc. Most also have trucking and some temporary structure capability. And while there are myriad rental companies specializing in emergency services, and are likely the first on the list to get the call from large city, state, and federal agencies, smaller municipalities might be more inclined to look locally, providing opportunity for live event AV shops to participate in this fight.
“Our goal has been to shift focus from being dedicated to the live events space to how can we support emergency responders, health departments, etc. explains Alexander Donnelly, VP of Corporate Development at PRG. The company is making much of its inventory available to local entities at its 31 depots around the world. “If there’s a small town in PA with a staff of three, they may not have access to those more emergency response-focused companies,” he explains. “Or they may have access, but then we can be their second choice.”
Donnelly admits their inventory is such that they would need to get creative in some situations. “We don’t have a ton of floodlights, for example, but we can re-purpose our LED box lights for similar functions,” he says. “Or the gear we used to suspend a truck in auto shows could be used to hold generators.”
Production companies with scenic fabrication capabilities have taken things a step further, pivoting to produce vital personal protective equipment (PPE) like face shields. PRG recently answered a call to action in New York state for this vital piece of projective gear; the state predicts it will need 5 million masks, and Donnelly says they have the capability of producing 15,000 per week. “If you have a functioning shop with basic capabilities you should be able to do this,” Donnelly says. “It should only take a few days to set up.”
That’s exactly what Upstaging, an event production company specializing in concert touring, has been doing in its Sycamore, Illinois-based facilities. According to General Manager John Huddleston, the company began having discussions on what could be done on a grassroots level, initially looking at fabric masks (they also have a sewing department), before realizing they didn’t really provide adequate protection.
“Face shields are something we realized people would really need,” he explains, “so we made a prototype, worked all weekend and sent out info and samples to people who might want them: fire stations, police departments, and emergency response places, as well as the state of Illinois.” They quickly generated community interest and started taking orders, a matter of days after they made the pivot.
“We have all kinds of capabilities for our rock and roll clients who call with crazy ideas, and we always have to move fast,” he explains. “Nobody on the live events side has any lead time, so we started moving fast on this.”
Huddleston notes that companies like his also have the capability to provide additional resources should the need arise, such as tents and portable room dividers for temporary shelters. Though of course the hope is such an eventuality won’t happen. For him the important thing is that Upstaging is helping the community as well as his team.
“This is not a profit center for us; this is a survival center,” says Huddleston. “We’re just doing all we can to keep our staff employed [and] on our payroll, instead of the government payroll.”