The voice of Chris, an Event Management business owner, who lives in Melbourne.

Scrappy. Fucked. Lucky. My year of 2020.

Just before COVID hit, my small business was flying. I lead a small team that plays in a niche part of the events management industry. My background is in building and most of my team are predominantly tradies. We create custom temporary builds for major music and sporting events, including the Flemington and Caulfield races, the Australian Open and Formula One. We fit out the interior and exterior of marquees, create stages so they can be rolled out quickly, and make structures that create an experience for the patrons. We have built a reputation as a trusted partner to support the events industry.

In February 2020, we were incredibly busy. We had just finished the main stage for the Australian Open amongst many other builds and had invoiced eight different clients. On top of that, I was preparing to be married soon after the Australian Open finished. My partner and I had just started to hear about COVID on the weekend of our wedding, it was just a murmur at that point. We went away for our honeymoon and shortly after our return, Australia went into lockdown. We thought it would be a short, sharp disruption but it wasn’t. It has been vastly different!

At the time, we had been supporting the stage production for the Robbie Williams concert at the Grand Prix. I was really looking forward to the event and was proud of myself for coming up with an innovative solution to get trucks on site. I took our crew to the event on the opening day – the bands had started up and the stalls were nearly complete. We had around an hours-worth of work to complete.

On the second day, we were at the factory with the remainder of the equipment loaded up and ready to go, when we heard the Victorian Premier’s announcement that the Grand Prix was cancelled. At first we thought, oh well, let’s just have a day off. Then the phone calls started coming through, one after another, cancelling event after event, until there was no work left; it had all been cancelled.

Everything I’d worked towards had suddenly disappeared but I’m not the sort of person that reacts negatively, so at first I took the opportunity to do work around home and clean up the factory. My staff did the same thing, taking the same opportunities. A month or two down the track, I realised that I needed to do something else as the situation wasn’t improving. I caught up with a friend who is a Property Manager, and we started doing real estate maintenance jobs. The Government’s Job Keeper and other grants also helped during this time.

Just before we went into lockdown, I invested in a large truck to move the equipment and custom-built structures. My company had been spending a lot of money on transportation, and I also needed to guarantee that the equipment could arrive on time to increase reliability. So when we plunged into lockdown, and I had this $100,000 truck stationary at the factory. I started to think about how I could use this vehicle, which led me to doing home relocations. People were moving from Melbourne to Perth, Sydney, and Brisbane. Even though we were in lockdown, I was able to move around. The person I bought the truck from ended up passing on many of his clients, including the ABC and Museum Victoria.

We started to get back into events around September as Melbourne started to open back up again. We did the next Australian Open, albeit much quieter than the previous season. We had a really good experience and it felt great to be back in the events industry again. We needed to stay flexible at all times to keep up with the changing government restrictions and health advice. The main stage was originally not going to go ahead due to COVID, then four days before the finals, Tennis Australia advised that they wanted a stage. We are always working quickly in our industry, and this event was no different.

I was one of the lucky ones, and my team has been lucky; we found something else to do with our skills. We could pivot because of our building background. Many of my friends and colleagues in the industry lost everything, there was nothing for them to do. They were literally sitting at home unable to do anything at all.

 

Uncertain. Depressing. Breathing. My year of 2021.

2021started off differently. We were back into events; things were going well. We were on the road to Brisbane to do an exhibition when the Victorian Premier announced the third lockdown. We arrived in Queensland and received a notification from the Department of Health Services that we needed to abide by the Melbourne lockdown restrictions, which included a 5kms radius from our hotel and only takeaway food.

We then started to get Sydney-based work including the staging for the State School Spectacular event, Aspire. We started to hear about Coronavirus cases popping up around Sydney. In our industry, you can’t just stop; you need to keep working and be fully prepared as if the event is going ahead. We built what we could and loaded the truck up in Melbourne with the equipment. Then, as I was literally closing the truck doors, I received a phone call that the gig was cancelled. Most of our upcoming work at that time was in Sydney, and it was all cancelled.

This year has been very uncertain but Lockdown Six has hit harder than the others, it’s hit the psyche hard. I have continued working on our house, but the reality is that I have had no work for a month. We are carrying two factories, trucks and equipment, so we need an income. I needed to get out and find some domestic building work, however I’ve found that I am competing against many other trades. We are keeping as busy as we can, and we are still smiling most days. In my industry, we are used to living with uncertainty, but it has still been tough. I’ve been lucky to get out of the house, however I still feel a little cramped.

Before COVID I had reached a point in my career where I could ‘pick and choose’ the type of work my business focused on. We took on events that I was passionate about – rock ‘n’ roll and sports. I really enjoy working incredibly hard towards an event and then when it’s over in three days’ time, moving straight onto the next one. I’m missing that.

On the one hand, I feel exhausted, as I have been trying to keep the company afloat for the past 18 months and we have had to scramble at times. On the other hand, I am proud of what I have achieved and I know that we will get through this. Many similar businesses have not lasted, and that for me is bittersweet. It has made me realise that I have built a robust model; even though we are working much harder for less money, I have learnt that for the most part, we have been okay.

I have been the Production Manager for the AFL Grand Final in Melbourne for the last eight years, however last year the event was held in Brisbane and this year it will be in Perth. For the Grand Final this year, I prepared the equipment including a gold stage, and sent it over to Perth in a container to be assembled by a different team.

It is hard to say what the rest of the year will bring. I have just put in a quote to build a dream home for a local family. Whilst for now, the domestic building jobs are giving me the lifeline I need - and I am extremely grateful for this - my heart is hoping that the events industry will get back up and running soon. I need to be prepared for anything. I need to have the same mindset every day that I have when working in events – thinking of all the scenarios, the possibilities, and the solutions to complex problems. I have extended these skills to all aspects of my life now and now it’s just a matter of seeing what the future brings.

 

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