Silicon Valley businesses who made their living from tech industry events are suddenly staring at blank calendars and layoffs

Daniel Chan

  • Performers, food caterers, event planners, venue owners, models, DJs and others that rely on the tech industry’s parties and conferences are now staring at blank calendars with no idea of when they will be able to return to their livelihoods.
  • These small businesses have collectively lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in canceled and postponed events.
  • Some of the businesses are beginning to explore how they can make revenue by pivoting their business while others are starting to apply for government relief programs.

Daniel Chan makes a good living doing magic shows around the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2019, he pulled in $160,000 in gross income from performing as Dan Chan Master Magician for the likes of GoogleFacebook and a who’s who of tech companies across Silicon Valley.

But this past month, all of that came to a screeching halt as one by one, tech companies cancelled or postponed their events and sent workers home to shelter in place. In one week, Chan estimates he lost approximately $8,000 in canceled shows.

“I literally have no income for the next two months,” said Chan, who performs with his wife and two children.

Performers, food caterers, event planners, venue owners, models, DJs and others that rely on the tech industry are now staring at blank calendars with no idea of when they will be able to return to their livelihoods.

Some of these small businesses rely on corporate events for as much as 90% of their revenue. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the world and shelter-in-place and work-from-home orders remain intact throughout the Bay Area, many of these businesses find themselves with no source of income.

“When someone complains to me that they’re working from home, I don’t want to hear it,”  said Danielle Gibson, owner of an events planning company based in Napa, California, that has worked with Airbnb, AdobeUber and others. “You have a check coming in.”

These business owners are stuck at home like everyone else, and they’re trying to figure out how they can make money when live events are effectively banned.

Roommates Joshua Weinstein and Basil Alsouqi, otherwise known as JungleJosh & RazzleBasil are a Las Vegas comedy duo. Weinstein, who has performed at the tech industry’s CES conference in Las Vegas, and Alsouqi, who has performed as an Ewok at Facebook for May the 4th Star Wars celebrations, used to fly around from gig to gig. These days, they find themselves stuck at home.

“There’s always another market to go to, and now we’re just stuck at home and there’s no place to go to,” said Weinstein, who estimates that collectively he and Alsouqi have lost $27,000 in canceled gigs. “The whole world is shut down, and it’s bumming us out. We’re a comedy act. We like to be out and having fun.”

Jordan Sofris provides numerous services for tech events, including DJing, photography, videography, lighting and more. Sofris has been unable to work since a bar mitzvah in late February. Instead, he’s spent all of March dealing with cancellations, refunds and postponements. Sofris has heard from one of his peers who decided to go work at a grocery store during this time, but Sofris said he doesn’t want to risk his health.

“If this was something different where I knew that in two weeks if I became ill there was a ventilator for me and there was medical care … I would do it,” Sofris said. “I’d like to work, but I’m not going to risk my health.”

The sudden hiatus on events has forced many of these businesses to lay off employees, reduce salaries and tell their contractors they have no work for them.

Culinary Eye, a San Francisco food catering company that has worked with AppleSalesforce and others, lost approximately $680,000 in cancellations in March, and the company’s next event is not happening until at least August, founder John Silva said. The company has notified hourly workers there is nothing in the pipeline, and it has reduced employee salaries.

“There’s just no clear cut date as to when anything might start up again,” Silva said.

Force majeure and online pivots

The Midway, an events venue in San Francisco, lost the entirety of its second quarter events in the course of one week, said Andrea Kirk, the venue’s assistant general manager. As a result, the company has stopped paying contractors and it has reduced every employee’s pay to the same minimum salary, Kirk said.

The venue is in talks with clients to book events for late in the fourth quarter, but also finds itself looking at the precise working of contracts more carefully than ever before.

Specifically, clients are zeroing in on what exactly constitutes a “force majeure” or act of God, Kirk said. Whereas before a contract might just account for a natural disaster, now the contracts include language for “global pandemic” or anything in which the government could put restrictions on travel, she said.

Entire Productions, a San Francisco events company, has laid off six employees and furloughed three more. Founder Natasha Miller said the company has also been working on applications for government relief programs, including the Emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loan and the Paycheck Protection Program.

“With what we have in cash, what the [Small Business Administration] will provide and with some of the work adjustments in place for my employees, we can survive another few months,” Miller said. “We can make it to the end of the year, but it will put us in debt.”

Some of these businesses are pivoting to try and stay in business.

Culinary Eye, the food catering company, has started a meal program where customers can pick up pre-made meals for two to six people, Silva said. The company will have to hit a high sales point before the business truly becomes viable, but the program is giving employees something to rally around.

“I have a team in place, and as long as I can provide for them — I’m doing my best to do that — they’re all jumping on board to make this new program work,” Silva said.

Others have begun shifting their business online.

Jessica Rae, owner of an agency that books performers for corporate events, has begun booking her artists to teach fitness, dance and yoga classes using Zoom video-conferencing software. She also in the process of setting up a wellness program where companies can buy class credits in bulk to distribute as a benefit to their employees.

“I’ve been on a go, go, go, working around the clock just to be able to provide for the company,” Rae said. “I truly that there’s ways to be creative.”

Christine Lee, a circus performer who does aerial, acrobatics and character work at tech events, has similarly shifted her business. Lee typically works between five and 20 gigs per month, making about $8,000 on average. Having lost all that work, Lee has begun offering virtual classes. This includes classes for groups at tech companies like Google, who are replacing their real life offsite events with virtual offsites.

“The good news is that I’m actually making an OK amount from teaching,” Lee said. “The scary thing is how long is this going to last for, and when will things, if ever, go back to normal?”

For an industry so centered around planning and setting dates, the uncertainty around when normalcy may return is hard to comprehend.

“We don’t live our day now. We are always planning three, six months, nine months, a year out. It’s very difficult for people in this industry to not know,” Gibson said. “The big question is who’s going to be the one that steps up and does the big event? Who’s the company that’s going to say ‘I think this is the right thing to do’?”