The shows don’t go on: Event industry was hit early and hard

“We lost $35,000 in the course of three days”

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(Photo: Las Vegas News Bureau)

Sarah O’Connell’s husband was finishing the final touches of the lighting design he was doing at trade show in Orlando when he was notified the event, and its subsequent payment, was canceled. 

The couple’s Las Vegas based-company Axislights, which gets contracted to do lighting and production design for trade shows, had booked gigs around the country. In the course of three days, all the events it was contracted for had been canceled.

“I knew the minute the first client called that this was going to be a tidal wave hit,” she said. “We lost $35,000 (of revenue) in the course of three days.”

As social distancing has taken on more emphasis in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, conventions, events and even entire sports seasons are being cancelled, businesses are reducing hours, and some lucrative and worker-driven operations are coming to a screeching halt. 

Those relying on income from those job opportunities, along with low-income communities that already live paycheck-to-paycheck, are left worried about how they will survive financially. 

The conversation usually focuses on gig-economy workers like rideshare drivers or service workers. O’Connell noted it should also include people working trade conventions and running production for shows.

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), a union that represents more than 2 million people nationwide in stagecraft, production and trade show industries, released a statement Friday warning of the financial hardships members will soon face.

In Las Vegas, these workers are a vital part of the economic engine in the Entertainment Capital of the World. Since the numbers of workers who take jobs at trade shows cross different skills sets — production, lighting design, carpenters, models, etc. — O’Connell said it’s hard to tabulate just how many people’s livelihoods are at risk.

“It’s so expansive, you can’t get a number of how many people it affects, and that says a lot,” she said. “They have no idea of the ripple effect this will have.”
“The bulk of our money in Las Vegas comes from spring and fall tourism,” she added. “We use what we make in the spring and stretch it through the summer.”

With spring lost, O’Connell knows small businesses and workers are going to suffer. And she isn’t the only one who foresees how the health crisis is going to take a financial toll.

“From our experience dealing with the Great Recession of 2008, we expect to see an increase in evictions, foreclosures, car repossessions, wage garnishment and debt collection,” said Christine Miller the Director of Community Initiatives and Outreach at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada in an email. “Legal Aid Center is prepared to provide legal assistance to those individuals who are unable to protect their rights because they cannot afford an attorney.”

There are steps government officials can take to help these workers. Around the country, civil rights and homeless advocates have been pleading with lawmakers to put a moratorium on evictions during the health crisis. Several cities including Miami, San Francisco and San Jose have already put moratoriums in place.

O’Connell joined in and sent letters late last week to Gov. Steve Sisolak, as well as City of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, asking them to consider the impact the health crisis will have on renters and those struggling to pay mortgages. The letter, which was posted on social media, collected about 5,000 endorsers in the two days it was available. 

“We are asking for you to put a moratorium on evictions and enact a plan to forgive rent and mortgages for wage workers and local companies who will be unable to make the income needed to pay their bills until the outbreak is under control and business is able to recover,” the letter stated. “We ask that necessary relief for landlords who also shoulder this distress include a mandate to preserve their current occupants.” 

When asked during a press conference if he would put a moratorium on evictions during the health crisis, Sisolak said it was “one of the issues we are looking at moving forward.” “We are exploring all options so that we can protect our most vulnerable citizens,” he added. 

Sisolak Sunday urged “businesses, HOAs, banks, and landlords to be patient and understanding during these unprecedented times.”

The Nevada Homeless Alliance is also submitting a letter Monday asking lawmakers to halt evictions.

The letter provides 13 additional recommendations that include:

  • Prohibiting camping bans to prevent sick people from being forced into crowded shelters or of the open-air Courtyard Homeless Resource Center.
  • Emergency funding to provide motel vouchers for individuals on the streets who are infected and those at-risk of infection.
  • Coordination with the health districts to provide street-based medical services.
  • Establishing a fund to provide emergency rental assistance to people with lost income and at-risk of eviction.
  • A moratorium on terminating of Medicaid/TANF/SNAP benefits.

Halting evictions is just one step, O’Connell said. 

For a family of four like hers, O’Connell said a monthly premium through the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange, the state-based marketplace created through the Affordable Care Act, costs about $1,000.

Many people who rely on ACA insurance, she noted, are going to have to choose between paying that monthly cost or paying rent. “People shouldn’t have to worry about whether they should pay for health insurance, during a health crisis, or having a roof over their head,” she said. 

Whatever economic relief comes from the state, O’Connell hopes it isn’t aimed just to help casinos and developers, but also small businesses, nonprofits and the workers from production industries like hers.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.