Just over a week ago our company closed its factory doors for the first time outside of a xmas period in 30 years.

All our staff are on ‘furlough’; the government ‘employee retention scheme’ that came too late for some, and just in time for others. It was a much needed lifeboat for our industry which had been suffering for several weeks, but for the whole economy also. Although cash reserves are going to be needed by those organisations taking advantage of it and borrowing the required finance should firms need to might not be as simple as the government hope. We are lucky in that we have the reserves to be able to cope and we hope to get through this initially without borrowing despite our current and imminent plans which are outlined below and will eat into our reserves further.

The last month can be best described as traumatic. Six weeks ago I stood on our factory floor and spoke glowingly of the work we’d undertaken up until that point in 2020, and reassured our 20 something staff that although our busiest period of the year was successfully over, the order books were relatively full until the end of June. We had a lovely steady stream of work, and some great projects we’d worked hard to turn round, had designed and were really looking forward to bringing to life. Nothing excites us more than the thought of making innovative brand led design tangible to our clients.

Then it started.

Each day brought bad news, a project gone, whether by organisers pulling the show, or exhibitors pulling out of shows. Every day we would go home, feeling like the world was about to fall in on us; and every morning we’d wake up determined to go again, bounce back and be positive, but by 10am the next project on the list would go. As Managing Director I like to think I’m a positive person, and I certainly don’t like to show my feelings to staff when they are anything less than proactive and positive, but in those dark days, in our open plan office, I could be read like a book. The uncertainty must have been terrible for all staff as well as directors. There was no way of hiding what was happening because we would be loading finished pre-built, and decorated projects onto vehicles only to subsequently unload them and palletise them, hopefully for future use somewhere down the line. It was clear the world was really in trouble with COVID-19 the sole cause.

It would have been easier had there been a single day that everything stopped. That wasn’t how it was for the events industry. It was the lack of control over events that was like a dagger to the heart, and the drip, drip, drip nature of the events falling one by one was like that dagger being twisted day after day. I had sat with our Financial Director discussing forecasts, and looking at revenues for April, May, and June (July and August are always rubbish) and I recall saying, ‘what if all those possible figures go zero and none of that happens’, and he replied, ‘that won’t happen surely, we’d be in trouble’. Sure enough it happened! (See; I asked 'what if'....you'll see later ;-)

So where do we go from here? As mentioned above, the furlough scheme has seen all of our employees laid off until further notice. Our directors are also furloughed; working only when absolutely necessary for the business, and we have some things to design, and quote on, but not as you can imagine a great deal. We are open for business, in the sense we are connected, and switched on at home, if any of our clients needs something we are there, if anyone wants to talk, I'm here, but to call it 'working' from home......there is not enough work for me to make a valid assessment of whether working from home is productive put it that way.

The 'furlough' scheme came too late for half a dozen employees, and as we forecast coming out of this into one of the worst recessions the country has seen we took the view we could only genuinely furlough employees we would expect to need on resumption, despite it being possible to take some of those back on. It was a ‘retention’ scheme after all. I had spoken to peers, other firms like ours, and most had gone down well into single figure numbers in terms of employees. We have retained 17. Despite our cash reserves and propensity to save in the good years, retaining those sort of numbers with absolutely no income would have seen us run out of cash at some point in the autumn without the ability to ‘furlough’. Thankfully we don't need to ask 'what if' this scheme didn't happen. 'What if' doesn't work looking backwards or you would never sleep!

One thing that saved us making further tough decisions the week before ‘furlough’ was announced was our intention to move premises. We have long planned to move from our 30 year home in Gravesend that we had in no doubt outgrown, to a much bigger space in Sittingbourne, Kent. We have 8500 square feet in our office/factory, and a 3500 square foot store in separate premises 10 mins drive away, and this move will see us in 14,000 square feet, with extra height, where we can bring everything together under one roof. We have been awaiting the conclusion of lease negotiations, change of use planning consent, and agonising it has to be said over the decision as the weeks went by, but truth be told we believe in our business and this is the right thing to do from a business perspective. It’s a genuine no-brainer that will make us in time better at what we do. Although moving and going larger amidst a deep recession is not something many would contemplate, for us it is not in doubt that we should still do it. They may not now be the spanking shiny new office suites we were planning, with all the separate levels we wanted for storage from the get-go. But we’ll grow into it. It will feel like starting a new business which is exciting, albeit we have some great clients, a range of fantastic plant, genuinely committed and experienced employees, and we are (were) hopefully not starting out with the debt many new businesses start out with. So lots of advantages.

This had meant we were able to take a fortnight packing up half the factory ready to move; palletising, removing racking, planning, so we would be ready to go. This was a fortnight during which our peers were decimating the businesses that they had built up over the years by moving treasured staff on without any sign of government support. Make no mistake, without the need to start our preparations for the impending move we would no doubt have been the same.

We had reached a point that we needed to move what we’d packed up into the new premises to make space to continue packing down, on just about the same day as a press announcement by the PM that made it clear the non-essential nature of what we were doing made it feel wrong that we were continuing to work. We had already held extensive consultation with our staff both in groups and individually the previous week, and revised contracts to include the ability to ‘furlough’. It was a simple step to decide to close our doors until the furlough scheme either ends, or the business necessitates our return.

We all know friends, family who work for other firms who have been similarly affected. Including major pub chains, retailers, airlines, travel businesses. What has been shocking to me has been the lack of preparation by these businesses. Myself and our financial director in the last fortnight did nothing for two weeks but run the business; talk to staff; speak with our trade association ESSA, our friends at the Federation of Small Business, keep abreast of the latest industry and economic news, and be honest with everyone. I’m especially proud of how we dealt with events in those final weeks of business activity. Ironically we had very few paying projects we had the confidence to work on, and we had even put those aside to plot the best route forward for our staff and our business because we felt that was the right thing to do.

Since closing our doors I’ve seen major retailers make staff redundant with no consultation despite having hundreds of staff, and AFTER the employee retention scheme was announced, only to later backtrack in some instances when it became clear they would be challenged. Organisations announce staff would be made to take ‘UNPAID’ leave because they did not want to administrate the furlough scheme. Which is tantamount to constructive dismissal in my eyes. I’ve heard of organisations ruthlessly refuse to pay suppliers after due dates in the hope those payments never need to be made. This has brought out the worst of business in so many ways which is often the case when businesses are ‘reactive’ without being ahead of events. I appreciate it wasn’t possible to be ‘ahead’ with any certainty, but you always have to have a plan of ‘what if’ with several different options having been explored given the factors involved, and too many businesses had clearly not done that work.

Now we see our industry step up, and at the same time we see the best of business. Exhibition venues becoming hospitals, firms changing the nature of their production to produce ventilators, masks, PPE, and fighting to prop up the NHS which is as it always does, performing heroics in times of adversity. The NHS is rarely provided with the funds by those that matter to perform as it should, it is always coping with adversity. As an organisation it knows how to do this better than any other organisation in the world I am sure. I hope the weekly clapping at front doors across the land when this is all said and done results in genuine societal pressure on politicians to treasure our health service and invest in it for the future as has rarely been the case in the past.

The last few two weeks have been strange. I’ve volunteered for everything, to help the NHS, the co-op, our local council, all of which has so far fallen on deaf ears….but aside from those efforts I am normally someone that lives life at 100mph with never a quiet moment, always wanting to experience things and learn. There has been little of that for the past fortnight. When I reflect I think I’ve been grieving. For what feels like the loss of our business, and it has to be said what feels like my loss of employment. The business has ‘gone to sleep’, hopefully to awaken along with the whole of the events industry in the coming months. ‘Furlough’ in another sense means being ‘put out to seed’, so with the prospective move what I hope to see is our business and our industry flower out of this with a new appreciation for the power we have to drive the economy forward; help our clients grow on the other side of COVID-19, and work together as colleagues and friends. Nothing has cheered me more than reading comments by industry peers on Linked In, shared experiences, and endless positivity, including a joke a day here and there. Even the worst of times, with businesses folding have been handled with the sort of dignity and pride in past achievements that offer great hope those leaders and staff involved in them will be back with a bang.

When will we be back? That’s the big question, and the big ‘what if’ that businesses now have to face. Again, the lack of control is frightening. If I had to forecast I would say that the government will withdraw the furlough scheme as early as they are able after the end of April, but that has to come with a loosening of social distancing rules. So we may see it extended, the end of April feels a little soon. My concern is that social distancing to some extent will remain a policy well into the summer; enough to discourage event organisers going ahead with the autumn calendar with any conviction, but the employee retention scheme will end before events is back as a viable industry. At that point we can attack our move into new premises and do that work ourselves where once the plan was to have it undertaken by others whilst we did what we are good at. We will in effect be investing in our selves and our staff. Perhaps that was meant to be.

Others will not be lucky enough to find things that can occupy them, and no business can last long paying staff to be unoccupied. Rents, insurances, the cost of operating a business without income is punitive. The effects as we slowly exit our way out of this crisis could be further catastrophic for our industry make no mistake. In those uncertain initial days that offered hope, then saw it dashed on the rocks of epidemic, our industry was amongst the first to feel the full effects of COVID-19 economically, and I fear it will be the last to recover. Without specific industry support and recognition of the role we play, finding a way out of the woods could well be harder and more challenging than the way we found ourselves lost amidst the giant oaks and with no sunlight to call on, only to realise that temporary hibernation was the best and sole solution until the leaves fall in autumn and we can see the way forward clearly.

All we can do is keep asking ourselves ‘what if’ and plan for all eventualities, whilst prompting our trade associations and key stake holders to raise the profile of our industry. Our external workplaces are now key battlegrounds against the virus as precious NHS facilities, and they were turned into these facilities in the space of 9 days. There is nothing that could greater demonstrate the importance of our industry or the capabilities we represent.

In the meantime; enough grieving; and reflections on the trauma of those mad last weeks of business activity. People are losing their lives and there is more important stuff in the world than the ability to turn a penny working in events for now. We can plan, re-train, and make the most of this time whilst helping in any way we individually think we might be able to, even if that is to Stay home, Stay Safe and Save the NHS.

See you all on the other side.

 esm 2020

The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ESSA, its members, board or staff. Our members represent a broad range of views within the event industry, and we have provided this section of the website for their opinions to be openly heard and discussed.

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