Producing live events takes hiatus during pandemic

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 985 views 

Cameron Magee leads an event production for avad3, which produces the audio, video, lighting and streaming of large events across the country and in Northwest Arkansas. On-site you can find him in the back of a room wearing a headset, getting the crew ready for what comes next. (PHOTO courtesy Curtis Myers.)

Like many small-business owners in Northwest Arkansas, Cameron Magee navigates uncharted waters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The same goes for others who make a living in the industry: producing live events. Due to shutdowns, social distancing and other safety measures, large public gatherings in the U.S. — anything more than just a handful of people — were among the first events to go when the pandemic arrived.

They may be among the last events to return, which affects a lot of people’s livelihoods. According to the nonprofit Live Events Coalition, based in Washington, D.C., and formed in response to the pandemic, roughly 12 million workers who support live events have been impacted by the pandemic. The group says the live events industry contributed approximately $1 trillion to the U.S. economy before COVID-19.

“This is a difficult time for our industry and our clients,” Magee said. “I’ve seen some of the most respected professionals I know forced to start over. Some event employees have to look for a new job, or even local production owners are closing shop and walking away from the fallout.”

Magee, 30, is the founder and owner of Lowell-based event production company avad3. Since its founding in 2011, avad3 has produced hundreds of events for academic institutions, retail and supplier brands and nonprofits. In the six months before the pandemic, Magee said avad3 traveled coast to coast to support various events.

“In the past five months, we haven’t left town once,” he said.

Magee has grown the business to also include a separate enterprise, Element Studio, which shoots high-quality videos for several companies, including Walmart and Tyson Foods and nonprofits like Scott Family Amazeum. Magee houses the two companies in a 10,300-square-foot building he owns in Lowell. The company’s revenue hit approximately $2 million last year.

Since March, though, live events have ground to a halt. Pandemic-induced shutdowns have smacked galas, business meetings, fundraisers and awards shows.

Throughout the state, there are numerous examples. Walmart called off its annual shareholders’ meeting in June at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. That’s an event avad3 has helped support for the past five years. Officials with the Pine Bluff Convention Center said revenue fell markedly during the past five months, with more than 25 revenue-generating events canceled. Gretchen Hall, CEO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in mid-August that convention and facilities cancellations had totaled 316 so far this year. And in northeast Arkansas, the Embassy Suites-Red Wolf Convention Center on the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro has, for the most part, been dark since opening in December.

Many associated companies that relied on those events and gatherings for revenue have felt the pain.

“When a conference, corporate meeting or gala is canceled, the impact is far-reaching to the faces behind the event,” Magee said.

In Magee’s case, that’s the technical side of an event that goes on behind the scenes. Audio, video and lighting. Staging, set design and streaming. Magee takes pride in his business and 11 employees who take care of those details to make “event day” hassle-free for the organizer.

2020, unfortunately, has been anything but hassle-free for event producers. When the pandemic arrived in March, Magee said, the direct impact on avad3 was clear.

“Going back to March 16, a Monday, in 48 hours, three months of events in April, May and June — our biggest months — were essentially canceled,” he said. “And rightfully so. Those were smart decisions.

“We typically do about 140 events a year, and in the past five months, we should have done 60. We’ve done 10. All but one has been virtual.”

In the absence of live events and the uncertainty about their return, Magee says avad3 is taking a “war room” approach to ensure the business survives. Out of necessity, transitioning the company’s studios to a virtual event venue is one innovation that’s happened, to help nonprofit fundraisers and other essential events occur.

Springdale-based Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkoma held its annual Red Shoe Soirée fundraiser as a virtual event on June 5. The live stream program originated at avad3. In less than an hour, the event raised $80,000. In October, avad3 will support the seventh annual Northwest Arkansas Tech Summit, which will happen virtually for the first time.

“We’re doing a lot of streaming and creating a lot of videos,” Magee said. “In the past, for example, the CEO steps to the podium to give a five-minute address. Now, we shoot the video of that five-minute address. Some are in person. Some are over Zoom. We’re recording speakers from all over the country for the Tech Summit, and those will be over Zoom.

“We’re putting our heart into every event and are looking at how we will continue to serve our clients based on their changing needs and our new normal,” Magee added. “I still stand on the belief that live events happen for a reason. They mattered before, they matter now and they’ll matter in the future. In the meantime, I’m trying to preserve what we have as much as possible, and be here when needed.”

Because of the Momentary, 2020 was going to be one of J.T. Huff’s best years. Maybe the best.

Huff, 70, owns JTH Productions in West Fork, an event management company catering almost exclusively to the music industry. He’s spent half his life as a sound technician, beginning with a George Strait concert at a nightclub in Springdale.

He started his own business 25 years ago. He built it into a $1 million company, supporting concerts and musical performances at a variety of entertainment venues including the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP), Walton Arts Center, George’s Majestic Lounge and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Huff said company revenue was approximately $1.2 million last year. This year, with 10 employees, he was expecting to top that number, mainly because of an agreement to support all of the musical programming at the Momentary, a new international arts venue in Bentonville. It opened Feb. 22 and closed March 15 due to the pandemic. It reopened June 10 but without any concerts or programming that would involve Huff and his company.

In a recent interview, he said the last event JTH supported was March 7 — the Starlight Gala benefiting the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter. In July, he provided some technical work for the live music that was part of An Evening at Orchards Park-Bentonville’s 4th of July Fireworks Celebration.

For all intents and purposes, JTH Productions is closed.

“This year has been absolutely nothing,” he said. “When the pandemic came down, I heard from the Momentary, Crystal Bridges and Walton Arts Center all asking me not to quit. They were still planning to have events in August or September. As the pandemic went on, those started falling by the wayside. Just no work whatsoever.”

Huff said he used a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to keep six workers employed, mostly just taking care of the company’s large inventory of equipment. He said he didn’t apply for additional federal funding to stay afloat with no events booked for the rest of the year.

“That made no sense with nothing going on,” he said.

Huff said he takes phone calls almost daily asking about purchasing specific portions of his equipment. It’s all stored in two 14-foot-high metal buildings totaling about 5,500 square feet. He said he’d rather sell everything to one buyer, rather than piecemeal.

An orderly sale would be the antithesis of a chaotic year.

“I’m just confused,” Huff said. “I don’t know what to do.”