Event industry in Ontario says they're at risk of losing everything and need help
It's been a year since Toronto's multi-billion dollar events industry came to a screeching halt, and entrepreneurs in the sector say they've gotten little financial support compared to other small businesses.
Rental companies, production teams, venues, caterers and countless vendors working in Canada's conference and event sector—which brings in more than $40 billion a year, according to Oxford Economics—are being squeezed out of business under Ontario's COVID-19 gathering restrictions.
Toronto, home to some of the country's largest annual events, has been hit hard.
Massive venues in the city have lost nearly a year's worth of bookings. Event supplies are moldering in warehouses. Companies have lost huge contracts to conferences that won't happen this year thanks to the pandemic and Ontario's ongoing lockdown.
Elle Cuisine, which Lauren Mozer started fresh out of George Brown College at 23 years old, has been offering catering companies for weddings, corporate events and private functions for nearly 12 years.
Two years ago, the business really took off. Revenue doubled, and thanks to some catering contracts with tech companies like Uber, Mozer was able grow her staff from 20 full-time to 45 employees.
She says last year was promising to be her best year yet.
Then COVID-19 hit. Mozer says that within days, Elle lost millions. Weddings that had pre-booked years in advance and massive corporate events planned for hundreds of guests were cancelled. Longer-term contracts with big corporate accounts were taken off the table.
"The reaction was survival mode," Mozer says. "I had to lay off 90 per cent of the team, the most difficult day of my professional life by far."
To get by, Elle Cuisine has pivoted to offering prepared foods, meal kits, virtual experiences, and prix fixe dinner experiences. But the company now finds itself competing directly with restaurants who have also shifted to catering.
"We've been completely left out of the reopening plan," says Elizabeth Clark of the company Chair Decor.
Clark runs Chair Decor, a supplier of linens, napkins and tabletop accessories to event spaces across Southwestern Ontario. For the past five years, she's been employing up to 15 people to help out during the summer season. This year, she's working at Chair Decor alone.
Clark is currently paying rent for an 18,000-square-foot warehouse in Vaughan that's packed wall-to-wall with fabrics, from tabletop whites to sequined cloths, and 5,000 chairs, none of which will be filled anytime soon.
"We're dealing with thousands of pieces in inventory just sitting there," says Clark.
Given her particular service, it's hard for Clark to pivot. Unlike restaurants, who have other streams of revenue like takeout and delivery, Chair Decor is utterly dependent on weddings and in-person events.
Clark and venue companies including Pegasus Hospitality Group, Chateau Le Parc, The Avenue Banquet Hall and Arlington Estates have recently launched a petition and a new hashtag, #savetheeventindustry, in an attempt to raise awareness for "a prejudice against the Hospitality sector."
The petition points to Ontario's Red Control framework, which before the most recent stay at home order restricted restaurants and event spaces to 30 per cent capacity indoors and 100 people outdoors for ceremonies.
The petitioners want the government to allow event spaces to determine their own maximum number of patrons and be permitted to operate above 50 per cent capacity if they have the space to abide by physical distancing requirements.
"Small businesses in these industries are bleeding money every day," the petition says, "and are provided no guidance from our government in terms of our reopening timelines."
"The longer we remain closed, the greater our debt load becomes, and the greater our risk of permanently losing all our employees and/or our businesses."
The collective is also calling for rapid testing tools in hopes that the live event industry can reopen and be profitable by as early as this spring. That seems unlikely now, since the City has announced large-scale events have been cancelled until July 1, at the earliest.
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