Thursday, November 26, 2020
Nov. 26, 2020

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Empty seats still plague Clark County’s event industry

Easing of restrictions allow more to attend, but slow season likely to keep business down

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:
3 Photos
Staff at the Hilton Vancouver Washington prepare for an upcoming socially distanced meeting. The hotel is starting to see some meetings return to its convention center, Mike McLeod said, the hotel's general manager. It has allowed the venue staff to hire some banquet workers back who were furloughed.
Staff at the Hilton Vancouver Washington prepare for an upcoming socially distanced meeting. The hotel is starting to see some meetings return to its convention center, Mike McLeod said, the hotel's general manager. It has allowed the venue staff to hire some banquet workers back who were furloughed. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s no surprise that Vancouver’s in-person events have mostly evaporated, but looser regulations are allowing a slow trickle back for some events as others have shifted to an online platform.

According to some local companies’ management staff, event-industry businesses have seen a 70- to 80-percent decline in revenue during the pandemic, which is reflected in the decline of jobs in the industry.

Since the year’s slow season for events is just beginning, things aren’t likely to improve soon.

Until three weeks ago, only up to five people could meet for business meetings, training and testing in Phase 2 counties, including Clark County. But on Oct. 6, Gov. Jay Inslee allowed indoor occupancy for up to 200 people or 30 percent of the fire-marshal occupancy for the building — whichever is less — as long as a 6-foot distance can be maintained.

Meetings returning

The Hilton Vancouver Washington is starting to see some meetings return to its convention center, said Mike McLeod, the hotel’s general manager. It has allowed the venue staff to hire some banquet workers back who were furloughed.

McLeod said the convention room at the Hilton has had a few meetings of larger group sizes; next month, it will host an event with 120 people, who will also be renting rooms from the hotel.

“Fortunately, we are big enough. We could go up to 200 people,” McLeod said.

Wedding and funeral venues, indoor or outdoor, are limited to 30 guests or 25 percent of maximum building capacity, whichever is less.

Slow season

Events are entering a slow season during the colder months. With a spike in COVID-19 cases and the lack of holiday parties, industry workers aren’t expecting a bounceback soon.

“Typically, this is where we start to wind down,” said McLeod.

Holiday parties would typically bring in revenue going into the next few months, but parties of that manner aren’t permitted.

Revenue at Your Party Center, a Vancouver-based tent rental company, is down about 70 percent, said Pauline Mulcahy, head of marketing and sales.

“You can mirror us with restaurants,” she said. “We are all hanging on the best we possibly can.”

The business, which usually provides tents at the Clark County Fair, has only 15 of its 80 tents rented out right now. Much of the company’s work is in-kind donations to nonprofits and churches, she said.

Despite restaurants needing tents for outdoor seating, there’s no demand for tent rentals because restaurants don’t have money, she said. If restaurants want a tent, they’ll likely buy it, and Your Party Center has been helping its clients connect with tent manufacturers and used-tent sellers.

“We all have to work together,” she said.

Pivot to virtual

Wager Audio, a Vancouver-based audio and video company, was working at 400 to 500 events every year before the pandemic, said owner Brad Wager. The company has been able to shift gears, offering live virtual events for companies. They host about 10 virtual meetings a month, but revenue is still down about 82 percent, Wager said.

“A lot of groups didn’t want to adapt. A lot of folks were hesitant,” he said. “But the groups that have moved forward with virtual gatherings have reduced expenses, including the catering bill. The sponsors are still on board, from what I’ve seen.”

(Disclosure: The Columbian employs Wager Audio for its annual Economic Forecast Breakfast.)

Catering cuts

Scott Bailey, regional economist for Southwest Washington said that about half of the workers in the catering industry have left: 48 people in Clark County worked in catering in 2019, which fell to 26 in June. In April, a dozen people who worked for catering companies filed for unemployment, which declined until a few weeks ago when four catering workers filed for unemployment.

“I think people will still be very cautious about anything,” Bailey said. “Some folks will dip their feet in and go for it.”

McLeod said that he expects a slow start to 2021, but in-person events will return in strength eventually.

“The whole idea is networking,” he said. “Standing and talking to everybody: that’s not allowed. That’s what I think will bring things back. People like to be around people. You can’t do that on a Zoom call.”

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