On Friday I read this article about supporting small businesses and local communities in SmartCompany and it bought me to tears for all the right reasons.
My husband Steve and I own In The Booth. We’re a photo booth hire company with franchise locations Australia-wide. We started in our garage in 2009; we worked hard and it grew.
In mid-March 2020, an atomic bomb called COVID-19 landed, and I’ll be brazen enough to say there were few as close to the epicentre than the wedding and event industry.
Eighteen months ago with our industry in instant turmoil, the majority of suppliers postponed our customer’s events with no fee to the client. Customers stating “we understand it’s not your fault but it’s not ours either” was a conversation we had hundreds of times over as deposit refunds were demanded because “we haven’t even done their event yet”.
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To explain our industry a little, date availability is king. A couple selects the date for the wedding, books their venue and corresponding suppliers. We then hold that date upon receipt of their deposit and take final payment prior to the event. Nothing ground-breaking there.
Enter COVID-19 where bookings are rare, postponements often, income non-existent and customer support requirements high. On any given day, a wedding and event supplier receives dozens of calls or emails from highly stressed couples needing urgent answers regarding date changes and refunds. We have had no choice whatsoever but to strip back our team to the bare bones, keep caring for our customers and franchise owners as best we can, and keep telling ourselves ‘this has to end’.
An industry rendered inoperable
But it hasn’t ended. As of last week, it’s got much worse. I personally spoke to a bride who had her hair and makeup done when the Brisbane announcement was made. I spoke to a bride this morning who is due to get married in a week, who has already postponed once and is very upset she is unable to have a refund.
It is beyond distressing for our couples. For suppliers, we are living an un-ending nightmare with no government support worth a mention since the end of JobKeeper. We work the weeks assisting customers. On the weekends we attend the remainder of our bookings under ever-changing and confusing square metre rules and unhappy people who have forged ahead with their events in the most stressful of circumstances.
“But what about state-based support?”, we’re often asked. Some state based support has been offered when states are locked down, yes. The problem is, weddings and events are affected by each and every state lockdown. A wedding business in Melbourne loses bookings when Queensland locks down because guests from Queensland can’t get to the Melbourne wedding. A wedding business in Perth (virtually unaffected by lockdowns one might think) loses business when the bride’s family can’t get into the state for her wedding due to the New South Wales lockdown.
A lockdown in any state means the next two months (at the minimum) of customers panicking and calling to postpone their events. The entire conversation starts again between a dozen event suppliers, trying to work with their couples to find a new wedding date.
This last months’ worth of state announcements has destroyed the recovery work we have painstakingly rebuilt. We have pushed the ‘postpone’ button more times than we can count, which is into the thousands. We have couples on their third and fourth ‘go’ to hold their weddings. As an industry, we have thousands of future events on the books desperate to celebrate with their friends and family.
I’ll go as far as to say our industry is inoperable right now. Yet, those of us that are left are doing what we can to keep our lights on and answer the phone for the thousands of customers we have postponed in our booking systems.
This line from Eloise Keating’s article struck home, hard:
“Small business owners are exhausted. They’ve adapted and pivoted and pulled out all the stops over the past 18 months simply to keep their heads above water.”
“They sponsor sporting clubs and events. They fundraise for local charities. They team up together when the chips are down.”
This is the event industry to a tee. Not a day goes by where we don’t receive requests for charity events, local school support and countless other fantastic causes.
These events need companies like us to happen. We create incredible celebrations for a living. One of the best parts of life is celebrating — our weddings, our milestone birthdays, our corporate achievements. These celebrations are the reason our business exists, yet for 18 months now has been deemed ‘non-essential’ by our government.
We are not okay
I have started to see the well-recognised ‘R U OK?’ day information appearing for the next R U OK day on September 9. I know I can speak on behalf of the entire event industry to our collection of federal and state governments when I say no. No, we are not okay. In fact, many of us are in dire straits and haven’t received anything resembling a pay cheque since March.
All we want is to be able to get back to work and to have some confidence returned to our market. If we are going to continue to be told we are forbidden from working, we need support — proper support — and we need it now.
I personally can’t watch the press conference when new restrictions or lockdowns are announced anymore. Weddings and events or ‘gathering’ are usually one of the top bullet point-restrictions, yet not a single government package has been tailored to our industry?
That’s the thing, our industry really is ‘small business’. We’re not Qantas or the construction industry. We’re stylists and DJs and hire companies and musicians and photo booths and videographers and venues. We don’t fit into a government category and we get that. But we think that 18 months of business annihilation is worthy of a category being created.
I come from a network of family and friends with small businesses. Throughout this time, I have seen many of those businesses flourish, which is beyond fantastic. My family and friends in trades such as air conditioning and building especially have seen phenomenal growth. I am genuinely thrilled when any small business owner does well — it’s what our country is built on, as Eloise stated:
“It’s true small businesses are the backbone of the economy, employing millions of Australians and contributing significantly to economic activity.”
Unfortunately, my article today isn’t penned due to a story of COVID success. It’s from one of shock, exhaustion and complete dismay that nothing seems to be changing. How long do we need to hang on?
Thank you again for the article last week. In this darkness it helps greatly to know there’s still some people out there who get it.