‘Cut off at the knees’: DC’s event industry takes a major coronavirus hit

All sorts of live events, from concerts, to conventions, to festivals, have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and D.C.-area companies that produce them are feeling the hurt.

Annie Senatore, CEO and creative director of Hyattsville, Maryland, event company Design Foundry, said February is normally when they begin to get busy.

“So we really just started ramping up in February, and then…we just got literally cut off at the knees,” she said. “A couple of hundred events literally went away over the span of two, three weeks. Maybe a month.”

The company typically puts on more than 300 events a year, ranging from tiny up to the size of an inaugural ball, large conference or trade show.

Senatore estimates that so far this year, her company has lost at least $10 million.

She normally has 90-95 employees who are a mix of full-time and hourly. Since the pandemic began, there have been four rounds of cuts, leaving just a skeleton crew.

“It looks like we’re not even going to be able to have events of any kind of significance until next year,” Senatore said about the District.

Senatore did receive a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, and she hopes that going forward, programs like that will be better handled. “It would be great if the federal government or local governments would actually pay attention to who needs the money.”

Philip Dufour is president and creative director of another event company, The Dufour Collaborative based in Arlington.

As 2020 began, with nearly 60 events planned, it looked like the company was in for a record year. Now, most spring events have been moved to the fall, and fall events moved to next year.

Dufour said three to five events, ranging in size from 100 to 3,000 guests apiece, have been cancelled. Another 12 to 14 scheduled between now and fall have gone virtual.

“We have had to rethink…what an event looks like. You’re basically producing a television show,” he said. The switch to virtual also means numerous vendors, such as caterers, are no longer needed — and that has wide-reaching effects.

“It’s not just the people who own the catering company, it’s all the waiters who wait that event. It’s the people who deliver all of…the rental equipment and who pack it all up when it’s over. It’s all the kitchen staff that gets hired for that event. It’s the valet people and all those two dozen attendants that don’t have a gig that night. It’s the bartenders. It’s the coat check people,” Dufour said.

One of the events that’s gone virtual was originally supposed to be a 1,000-seat gala. As many as 500 to 600 staff would have been working on preparations for the in-person event, and about 300 to 350 would have likely been on site for it.

Both companies are part of the D.C. Events Coalition, which is lobbying to get more federal aid for the live events industry.

Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter turned morning anchor at WTOP News.

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