As the U.S. economy slowly recovers from the pandemic, one major industry still faces an uncertain future: the live events industry. More than 12 million people contribute to live productions and conference events, including planners, caterers, florists and rental companies.
On Tuesday, a national organization called the Live Events Coalition staged what it calls an "Empty Event" in Tom Lee Park to raise awareness of the job losses. Memphis-based LEO Events partnered with the group to set up 48 empty tables surrounded by chairs, a couple of bars and a vacant stage.
"Each table represents 250,000 jobs lost nationally due to the corona pandemic and the shuttering of live events," said Cindy Brewer, co-founder of LEO Events.
In March, the coalition created a change.org petition for federal relief. Eighty-five percent of face-to-face event companies have had to furlough or lay off employees. The coalition estimates that live events in Shelby County employ more than 11,000 people and generate revenue for more than 3,000 businesses. White Door Events, Holliday Events, Nolan Production Group and Memphis River Parks contributed to the display.
For Kevin Kane of Memphis Tourism, Tom Lee Park came with added significance as the home of two of the city's biggest annual festivals. Memphis in May's music festival and barbecue festival were both cancelled this year, costing the city millions in tax revenue typically generated by tourism.
"If [the virus shutdown] goes on through next spring, and Memphis in May cancels next May, I don't know if they'd make it back a third year," he said, adding that the nature of the business can't be separated from the nature of the virus.
"When you are shut down and can't generate any revenue," he says, "eight weeks of payroll relief, a couple months of rent relief -- that's all wonderful -- but if you've got no revenue coming in, it's only a matter of time before you wither away or disappear completely."
Kane says he's met with the Shelby County Health Department about recent mandates and capacity restrictions.
"I think they're sympathetic," he said. "I think they also feel that unfortunately they know our industry is built on gathering people in groups and crowds, and those are things that make any health department very nervous at this point in time."
Similar "Empty Events" have been held in Washington D.C., New York City, Dallas and other cities.