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Events Business Owners Assemble For Virtual 'WTF Summit'

DERRY — About 40 event production company owners and venue owners from northern New England joined a video conference, and about 10 gathered in person at the Events United headquarters in Derry, to discuss the sudden loss of business caused by the spread of COVID-19, preventive shutdowns and rules against large gatherings.

“A couple weeks ago, we were all competitors,” Events United owner Tim Messina told the group. “Now, we’re all allies.”

The meeting was first suggested by Dan Bouchard, the owner of AE Event Systems in Chelmsford, Mass., when he turned to Facebook recently to ask his industry friends if they’d be interested in a “WTF Summit” to talk about the issues everybody in the events industry is experiencing, and brainstorm ways to weather the storm.

“Most of us have lost 90 to 100 percent of our income,” Messina said.

Bouchard said he has 10 employees, but he expects he will have to lay off half of them by Friday.

Messina said Events United had to lay off four full-time employees, bringing their total remaining full-timers to 12. Executive staff cut their hours to 32 hours per week, and remaining technical staff were cut to 24 hours.

Messina found other ways to cut costs, and reduced his overhead from about $100,000 a month to about $75,000.

“We’re all gonna make some hard decisions now, if you haven’t yet,” Messina told the group.

Jon Sharpe, the owner of United Staging and Rigging, with offices in Haverhill, Mass., and Bridgeport, Conn., said he has a combined 32 employees. So far, he’s already had to let go of six freelancers.

Owners discussed ways to help their employees by getting those laid off connected to unemployment services, and talked about services that will allow them to get unemployment benefits while getting paid a small amount by the company for reduced hours.

Daniel Willis, the owner of AV Technik in Portland, Maine, said they were able to keep their employees by cutting their hours down to one or two days a week and outsourcing them to work side jobs with partnering companies outside of the events production industry, such as in print shops, during the rest of the week.

“It took a lot of work. We had to find the right partners,” Willis said. “It’s allowed us to maintain and carry on.”

Still, companies are looking for ways to bring in revenue to make up for the business they’ve already lost, and with high school and college commencement season on the horizon, expect to continue losing.

One business owner said his company is making up some of its business by focusing on sales and installs of AV equipment, but that was still a small percentage of overall income, and coronavirus shutdowns have likely paused several potential projects that would bring demand for that.

Some other ideas floated at the meeting included doing more online and virtual streaming services, partnering with other companies more, and reaching out to lenders to defer payments or to refinance debt at better rates.

Representatives from the Small Business Administration and New Hampshire Employment Security joined the call to answer questions about emergency resources at their disposal.

Pamela Szacik with Employment Security said the department has set up a call center to respond to a high volume of applications and have taken about 9,000 claims in the last two days.

SBA representatives talked about the availability of disaster loans with a fixed rate of 3.75% and uncollateralized up to $25,000, with a maximum of $2 million, but business owners expressed little appetite for taking on more debt.

For anyone interested in learning more about the loans, the SBA will begin hosting webinars on the process about once or twice daily starting Friday.

U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas was on the call to listen to business owners’ concerns and answered some questions about what’s being done on Capitol Hill, such as a direct stimulus package that would send money to individual workers and small businesses, which he expects will be passed sometime next week.

“These are extreme measures. This is something we never thought would happen in the United States,” Pappas said.

Pappas said any money pulled from Social Security to fund relief aid would need to be backfilled, and he said payroll tax cuts is also one of the ideas being discussed, but no decisions have been made on that yet.

One likely side effect of a temporary downturn in the events industry will be the businesses that have tightened their belt and contracted won’t likely have the capacity to meet all the demand when things pick up again, according to Bianca Mauro, owner of BRM Production Management in Lowell, Mass.

But she said that could be an opportunity to help other businesses by making referrals.

Moving forward, Messina said he would like to keep the group connected, even after the current crisis passes.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity,” Bouchard said. “We’re a market that requires each other quite a bit.”

Messina said a lot of companies already rely on one another by renting equipment and subcontracting, with each company often able to fill a certain niche that the other can’t when working on the same production.

Bouchard said partnering up as a group might help them share ideas and better advocate for their industry, which often by its nature operates anonymously behind the scenes with black shirts.

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