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 Event Companies Surviving the Pandemic

Posted on: 3/3/2022

This is dialog from a Peer Talk episode between Dan Crowley, President of Peer Executive Groups, Jeff Crotto, Owner of All About Events and Brandon Ahlgren, Owner of Elite Events and Rentals.

Dan Crowley: Welcome to peer talk, everybody. My name is Dan Crowley and I am here today with two outstanding individuals from the area of party and event rental. The first is Jeff Crotto from Jacksonville. He is the founder of All About Events in Jacksonville, Florida, a former ARA of Florida president, and current Region 3 director. We also have Brandon Ahlgren with us from Elite Events and Rentals in Tampa, Florida and he is the current ARA of Florida president. Welcome, excellent to have you here. The topic we want to address is, how both your operations responded to the crisis that you went through in 2020 and the obvious ups and downs. Also, the personal impacts and business impacts. Brandon, tell us about your journey up to 2020. What was your business like? When did you find it? I think it was 13 years ago. How did you get to this point in 2020? Beginning of 2020?

Brandon Ahlgren: Thanks Dan again for having me on today. I appreciate it. We were just experiencing rapid growth. Take every job you can get. Our numbers were speaking for themselves. We were heading to not having enough rental assets or warehouse space, which we never have enough warehouse space. We were just in the growth mode, always growing, then March 2020 happened. We wanted to go into detail about that?

Dan Crowley: We are looking forward to hearing about that; what your business did, did you start with tents or did you start directly in events involving tents? Give me a little background on your type of business versus another company.

Brandon Ahlgren: When I started the business, I went in with tents, tables, and chairs, and I was working a full-time job when I started it. I finally was able to take a leap and leave my full-time job to grow elite events and rentals. 48% of our business is now tenting. From there, its tables, chairs, and staging dance floor. We are your standard full party rental company from anything from backyards to the large structures.

Dan Crowley: Jeff, you are on the other side of the state in Jacksonville, and you started up about ten years ago. Why don’t you tell us about your path to 2020?

Jeff Crotto: I started the business in 2010. I was working for another event rental company and my background was in customer service. Starting the business in 2010, literally the tire inventory was in a 10 by 10 storage unit. Like Brandon said, you just took the work that came and rented everything. I did not really give any consideration to whether it made money or not, or whether it makes sense or not. We just said yes to everything. Just in the last couple of years, prior to our 2020, 2018 to 2019 we started to be a little more selective of what we were doing and grew to more than thirty people with inventory that is everything from tents and everything under the sun. Our focus is more weddings and such. We have done more weddings. Around 55% of our business is weddings. Our inventory is reflective of that. We have a pretty extensive linen inventory, and all those things factor into how we came down the path to the pandemic.

Dan Crowley: So Jeff, for you mid-March, I am coming back from California. We literally finished a peer group meeting on a Tuesday, and I think the shutdown happened Wednesday, or it might even have been Tuesday. I was flying from West to East. What was it like where you were when it happened? What were the immediate reactions for you and your employees? 

Jeff Crotto: So, you know it’s funny. I’m in a peer run, in which Brandon and I are both in the same group and there’s nine of us in our peer group. And we have a group text thread. We constantly are talking about problems that we have and telling jokes but sharing stories and stuff. And when this all happened, 

Jeff Crotto: In one night, I think it was March 11th, the NBA suspended their season and the NCAA tournament was canceled. And then, Tom Hanks got COVID and the first reaction was basically like, “what the hell is going on”. Over the next couple of weeks, we just saw everything starting to cancel. Initially started where their rides were canceled. Prides were trying to have their event in those middle two weeks of March, but their venues were basically campus on them. I’ll never forget, the CDC on a Sunday night, the 15th of March, made the rule of no gatherings of ten people or more.

Jeff Crotto: I texted the bad group. It was like, my literal texts were game over. If you’re not going to let people get their groups of ten, I got no shot. It was scary. We ended up closing the office for a month. I frankly did it because I was trying to be ahead of it a little bit. We didn’t have any work to do at that point. I figured that our governor or the president would shut everything down. Whichever really happened. It was scary. It was like, everything you worked for for ten years is going to go out the window. No one fell swoop and had gone through slowdowns. 708, when I was in the industry before I started my business, we went down 25%. It wasn’t like literally the spicket got turned off and we were off by a hundred percent overnight. So it was, it was dark days. Dan replied,  “in your case, Brandon I know a couple of your employees, but were they in on it too? Did you share right away? Like, Oh my gosh, we’re headed for trouble”?

Brandon Ahlgren: You know man, I’m just reliving that through my head right now, and it’s just crazy listening to Jeff repeat it all. I can remember clear as day, two days before it happened or when it started. I was like “they’re never going to shut us down. That would never happen”. And then it happened, and I will tell you from the moment I decided to start making decisions, hard decisions, decisions that were going to affect the families that worked here, it was pretty hard and it changed rapidly. I thought I was going to keep my sales team longer than I did. We started letting people go from the back as quickly as the jobs were canceling. It was just crazy.

Brandon Ahlgren: The amount of jobs was just canceling. I remember saying, “okay, we’re going to let go of five people today”. And one was a really hard one, but it was a position that wouldn’t be needed at the time. I looked over those five in my time I was done. It was getting worse on the news and stuff. I’m like, “oh, we gotta let it go more”. It was just rapid and then before we knew it, it was less than a few days and everybody got laid off until we got our PPP money.

Dan Crowley: Your businesses are very rare in that because of the governmental policies, you were probably one of the industries most hit hard by the immediate policy changes. And not only that, but as individuals operating your businesses, you were dealing with the back end, which is the employees. Give us a couple of stories from the front end, when the customers are hitting you with a landslide of cancellations and so forth. What was that like Brandon?

Brandon Ahlgren: Well, that was the hardest part, dealing with customers and cancellations. I had a staff of about fifty. I was at forty eight or so right before COVID happened. We were literally gearing up to hire five or ten more because we needed more help for the big jobs that were coming up in April and May. When the cancellation started rolling in, we were considered a central if we were going to be doing anything related to the government, COVID, CDC stuff. There just was no work at that point. So, we had an in. I always feel like with the rental, we always take 50% deposit and the other 50% is due ten days before delivery.

Brandon Ahlgren: There came a point where it was like, if we had to give all that money back, we wouldn’t have had it. So we had to make a decision that was hard to say, “hey, we’re not giving back any refunds. We’re going to give credits and we’ll work with every customer as best we can”. That’s what we’ve done. I would say 98%, maybe 95% have been very fair and understanding. Then you have that couple of handful of people that are not going to do their wedding. Now we’re trying to figure out how we can work with them and give them additional credits or use it for future events and stuff.

Dan Crowley: Jeff, how quickly did you move to layoffs and did either one of you do layoffs prior to knowing about PPP? Just before we get into that, the spigot gets turned off. You guys are now facing total pandemonium in your business. Did you go forward with the layoffs prior to understanding there might be some kind of help?

Jeff Crotto: Yes, they were obviously talking about a lot of things at that time. They were talking about the expanded unemployment benefits. I remember my GM at the time came to me and asked basically, “they’re going to do something extra on unemployment where you wait to lay me off until that happens” and things like that, but it was moving so fast. On a Friday, we had a new sort of productive manager. We had hired a salesperson, both of them were working out a notice that was their last day. I thought the saving on Monday and the savings of those two people would keep us where we didn’t need to make a bunch of other drastic changes. And then three days later I decided we’re going to close the whole place down.

Jeff Crotto: It was just happening so fast and there may be help coming, but what does that help look like? This is where our peer group helps. If that’s a half a million dollar loan instead of a loan to a grant, do you want to pay for that loan for the next ten years to keep these people around with no work? The answer is probably no, as awful as that sounds. We didn’t know at that point what it was going to look like. Good point, Brandon.

Brandon Ahlgren: I agree with Jeff. We didn’t know what kind of help we were going to get at that time. As we know, they can’t make any decisions half of the time. We made the decision immediately. We figured we needed the cash we had in the bank. We needed it to live that long or last as long as possible. It sounds horrible, but there was an incentive to let your staff go at the beginning. They’ll make more potentially, or they’ll make what they were making, our good amount. If we lay them off, there’s no work. There’s nothing to do. So, with unemployment benefits in Florida, they were doing pretty decently. I think they were making $875 a week. We didn’t realize how that would be a problem trying to get staff back when the PPV did come through. It was an immediate decision for us.

Dan Crowley: Then, obviously we then saw the PPP money come out or the presentation around it. There was also EIDL money that was being made available kind of separately, which would have been more. This would have created a little bit of forgiveness, but more of a potential loan there. Then uniquely, they also went back. I know the small business administration went back and looked at their existing 504 loan programs. I think you had one of those, Brandon?

Brandon Ahlgren: I did, it was the SBA, 504 or 505. We did and we were very thankful that they would go ahead. I think it was six months of payments they covered.

Dan Crowley: It looks like it’s the 7A and the 504. So, they were able to kind of give you a little bit of a break there in the interim. I know that affected just a few of our members because they were sitting on those types of loans, but the EIDL money obviously. Did both of you guys take EIDL money or was it strictly “how many personnel do you have? We’ll give you ten grand in EIDL grants money”.

Brandon Ahlgren: We got the PPP money on April 14th. After that, we got the EIDL grant of $10,000. We also elected at the moment to take the $150 EIDL money also.

Dan Crowley: Similar, what did you do, Jeff?

Jeff Crotto: Basically, the same thing. So we got our PPP about ten day after Brandon, around the 23rd or the 24th of April, the $10,000 from EIDL. Then we went through some stuff with the idea. We actually didn’t get it until about a month ago or six weeks ago. There was an issue with something in our file they saw and flagged. We had to prove that what they had wasn’t right. But, we did finally get that about six weeks or so ago. And that was in the news.

Dan Crowley: When that money came across, I know a lot of people were happy to have that kind of breathing space. If it was going to be alone, it was decent enough to keep things going through the summer. So let’s talk about summer. Things started to change. I saw pivoting happening inside of the rental industry with party and event. Jeff, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your pivot, what you were facing in terms of potential customers, and getting some work going finally.

Jeff Crotto: We got some long-term work early on such as restaurants. Those States went for varying lengths of two, three, or four. Events that we typically did or would do got moved outside in the world of COVID. There is one County in Northeast Florida that we did all their high school graduations over a few days, moving stages around to different football fields and stuff. She did some of that stuff. Then as the colleges went back, we got some work done for one of our local universities. The blessing for us from the beginning has been that we got to do so many weddings.

Jeff Crotto: So those are the first things people were able to do. They are personal events that are able to be done as long as it’s allowed. Luckily in Florida, for the most part, our governors allowed them to do those things. So we’ve had weddings all through the summer. The weddings were smaller, but the fact that we do so many weddings normally, has been a bit of a blessing for us as we’ve moved through the second half of the year.

Dan Crowley: Jeff, before we move over to Brandon on the same topic, give us a picture of, “you’re going into shutdown in the spring, now you’re opening up in the summer and fall”, tell us how your revenue started to come back and what percentage it is of your normal compared to 2019 data.

Jeff Crotto: April and May, we got the PPP towards the end of April. We didn’t work for about the first three days a week or so, we were only here for a week or so. In April we were down 94% effectively closed and May was similar at about 92%. Then when we got into the summer, we got a new June, July and August. We were 50% to 60%. Then it was more like 60% to 70%. Some of it depends on the month. Typically in Northeast Florida, July and August are slower. Those numbers historically are smaller. It’s a little easier to get to 60% or 70% of those numbers first. Right now we’re doing about two thirds of what we typically would do in October and November.

Dan Crowley: Have you adjusted your staffing to match that? Or are you still borrowing or banking?

Jeff Crotto: When we first came back, we brought ten people back and then we gradually added a few more eventually to the point where we brought everybody back that we were wanting to bring or would come back. Since then we’ve added to it. So we’re doing about two thirds of the work with about two thirds of the staff currently.

Dan Crowley: Brandon, in your case, what did the rebound look like?  You came back a little bit quicker than some others in our market because you were pivoting on some business, doing some new things.

Brandon Ahlgren: We’re able to reach out. We got one COVID drive-through test site which was amazing. We had another rental company that hired us to go down South and do some work. Additionally, working with all of our local restaurants, doing some tents in front of the courthouse. Our long-term rental tents were very beneficial to help keep us in this area. We brought back nineteen when we got the PPP and we’re down to around eleven. We’ve adjusted based on what we’re looking at, keeping it slim at the moment and doing the business that we can handle. Everyone that goes, “are you busy”?

Brandon Ahlgren: And I said, “well, we’re busy because of the short number of staff that we have in place. The normal number of staff would allow us to have all the trucks running then we wouldn’t be that busy at all. We’re keeping ourselves busy by not allowing us to just take anything”. The long-term tent part had been very, very helpful for us. So we’re happy about that. We are seeing a lot of that long-term stuff slowly come down, such as all the test sites and things that all came down now. Now we are starting to pick up. The nice thing about our busier seasons, which are usually October, November, and December and we get a little slow in January. Then in February and March we’re really busy.

Brandon Ahlgren: We’re seeing things move. The last event we did before the week COVID hit was a grand Prix down in St. Petersburg, Florida. The event got canceled. So we set up this huge job. Well, I’d like to report last week, we just did the event. They rescheduled it and they allowed 20,000 people to attend it. It wasn’t to the scale that we did the first time, but it was a good scale of tents and tables, just not as big. It was nice to get back to normal. In a way it feels like we’re getting back to normal somewhere else. It’s still a long way to go.

Dan Crowley: We know a bit about what happens state by state with COVID, what was the reaction? How was your company fair? Let’s start with Brandon, in your case with your employees, do you have any policy changes? Are you doing anything different?

Brandon Ahlgren: We decided when we brought people back, to get the best for the job. We had a good group of people and everybody we brought were good people. Everybody has bad habits so I brought everybody back and said, “I know you guys have a way to do it, and there’s a right way to do it”. I basically just told them, “we’re going to start doing it the right way. And if we’re not doing it the right way, and if you’re not going to be a team player, then you don’t need to work here”. Everybody was pretty much on but I weeded out a few.

Brandon Ahlgren: I’ve seen the morale change within my staff, which is for the better. With that we developed more policies on how to handle things and took the time. In Florida, people laugh when I say, “I wish we had a winter sometimes because we never have time to catch up on anything”. I feel like we’re always- go, go, go. We don’t have an extreme or slow season. I’m not complaining about that. I’m just saying, we don’t have a lot of time with your job. We basically spent the first eight weeks cleaning everything, painting, trimming up tables, all those kinds of things. We cleaned a lot and a lot of guys didn’t want to just clean, so I understand why they left. Regarding health, we’ve put in place for people to stay healthy by providing a mask for the staff and overall working to make sure that everybody is keeping healthy.

Dan Crowley: It’s a fascinating change this year. It’s like everybody’s sort of slowed down and said, “hey, we’re going to be safe”. I know the ARA had some initiatives. Jeff, why don’t you talk a bit about your company and the ARA. What the safe initiative is, and now they’re doing a preparedness series and all that. Do you feel like your employees have taken it seriously?

Jeff Crotto: Well, I would have probably said no, but then I actually got covid. It was a little bit of a wake up call for the staff. The first day I felt sick, I stayed home. It was over a weekend, I stayed home and it didn’t get better. So I got tested and we have the results. I sort of quarantined and nobody was really around me. I think it was a little bit of a wake up call that it’s not as abstract on the news kind of thing. It’s not a “hoax”. So far I’m the only one, but others got tested and were negative thankfully. That was all good. That made us start doing some other things. From the time we came back, we would typically have three guys in a truck but we stopped that. Now it is two guys in a truck and if it needed a third guy, they brought a separate vehicle. We require customers to wear masks if they come in to look in the show room and obviously our staff did wear masks.

Jeff Crotto: Mirroring them exactly as assigned to pick the stuff up without staying in your vehicle and the guys load it. There’s a fatigue part that’s come along as we’ve gone through. That’s true in the business. I think all of us in society have done a pretty good job of taking it seriously. Being on the board of directors was part of the ARA- the clean, safe, essential rollout. We took that early on and that helps give some other perspective of things that we need to do, like cleaning a certain way. We now are wiping tables down more frequently than we would have and things like that. It’s just an awareness. We realized that what we were doing before is probably not the “right way”. Like Brandon said, we’re doing it one way, then there’s the right way.

Dan Crowley: That’s excellent. It’s the fact that you’re pausing and making sure that you’re being responsible, looking at your environment, and responding to the environment that works. You guys have found your way back to two thirds of where you were. So now, the plan is going forward. Where do you go from here? I know the initiatives in the NRA is to look at preparedness over the next quarter. With the peer groups, we talk about business planning. We’re like, “hey, how do you plan for 2021 when it comes to asset refresh”? Are we going to go with what we have or are we going to buy new tents? What’s that going to look like? What do you do? Let’s start with Jeff. Tell me a little bit about your thoughts. Obviously we just hit November, I’m not sure that you have a 100% dialed in a plan for 2021, but give me your initial impressions as to how you’re going to plan for that for next year.

Jeff Crotto: For us here, part of it is the state you’re in and all those kinds of things. Florida, having a Republican governor- he’s been pro-business and uses it from his perspective. There’s no restrictions in Florida now at all. It’s pretty much, let’s just do this. That makes it a little bit easier becuase you don’t have fear that your governor is going to step in and shut you down. Being a region three director and being on board calls of other people in the region. I hear of governors that are much more aggressive with shutdowns and things like that. That makes it harder to plan.

Jeff Crotto: I assume that if we don’t have another major spike in Florida, we’re going to continue to move in the direction of being 100% open. That is the way we’re focusing in terms of preparing for it. We’re not going to buy a bunch of equipment to do that necessarily, but that’s what I believe will come in the spring. We’re going to be back even further, maybe not to a hundred percent of normal, but back to 85% or 80%.  I think those are sustainable numbers compared to 25% which is not sustainable. Getting 75% and 80% is doable. You have to tighten your bootstrap or pull your bootstraps up, but I think it’s doable.

Dan Crowley: That’s great. Do you see similar things, Brandon?

Brandon Ahlgren: I thought the governor has done a really good job of enabling us back to a normal track and we’re very thankful for that. There’s no doubt about that. I have thought a lot since covid, and it taught me something like, enjoying spending time with my family. I’ve been planning a lot and I think that’s what it’s giving me the opportunity to do. We don’t know what sales are gonna look like in the next year. I think it’s even hard to predict. We have a ballpark idea of where we’re going to be.

Brandon Ahlgren: I’m taking a little bit of a different approach and I’m going to. I don’t find myself falling back into old habits, but I’m not really interested in taking on every job that comes through the door. Now, I’m looking at taking the staff who we have, growing them and paying them better and then bringing a few more staff on, but making sure we are doing what we can handle. I have this mentality that it’s not about how much we can do in sales, it’s about how much profit we can make. This should always be the right idea but when you’re in that growing stage, you never think about that. We’re talking about no more Sunday pickups and getting strict on our Saturday delivery and pickups. Therefore, we can have a little bit more quality of life.

Dan Crowley: That brings up the next point. When we have Zoom happy hours with the party and event groups, we see a lot of people right now talking about, “how do we keep the employees motivated”? Are there plans where there would be raises? Probably not, but tell us a little bit about that. Your staff is not getting the OT they used to get, all those kinds of things. How are you communicating with the staff and working through it as a team? Let’s start with Jeff on that one.

Jeff Crotto: I’ve said several times to people in different places that this has been a really good kick in the tail for all of us. It has made me appreciate where we are. You’re not going to do 25% and 30% growth year over year. It just doesn’t work like that. This has been a good reset  for us and for our team. I think for the staff,  a lot of them are appreciative to be here. Obviously, when from thirty or forty to zero, and then when you bring not all of them back, it’s the people who are the most invested and things like that.

Jeff Crotto: It’s been pretty easy to motivate them and they’re all seeing it come back to normal. Back to our roots that originally were doing two thirds of the work with two thirds of the people. It feels just as busy. I did payroll today and there’s guys with 58 and 59 hours this week. Those guys are not upset. I think it’s been good in a lot of ways. Obviously none of us wanted COVID, but one of the silver linings of it is I do think it’s been a good reset to make people realize how good that they had it. Brandon and I both are good people to work for and take good care of our teams and all that stuff.I think people take that for granted to a point when I can promise you, they don’t take it for granted anymore.

Dan Crowley: Brandon, can you add anything to that? What’s the morale been at your place?

Brandon Ahlgren: We don’t really have anyone working here that just wants a job. They’re actually here for work and for a real job. The morale is good. I believe they’re glad to have work because they know it’s not easy to find either. We are working really hard to keep everybody positive by bringing lunch in once in a while. We are having conversations about, “hey, this is what it looks like, this is how we can do different things on getting people their potential raises” or anything like that. Everybody kind of knows what the deal is. I have a staff here that are younger, but they feel very calm. They feel happy to have a job and it’s been a little bit different for us. We’ve not paid out much over time. Everyone’s getting close to almost 40 hours or maybe a little bit of overtime since COVID hit. Basically, we only paid out 120 hours of overtime. That part has been interesting, but like I said, the staff seem appreciative.

Dan Crowley: I can imagine. Last question here for both of you. What in the short term are you most looking forward to? This has been a very optimistic podcast, so I appreciate both your time,  but short term, what are you looking forward to? And long-term, what are you looking forward to? So let’s start with Jeff.

Jeff Crotto: Having things back the way that they were. Being able to gather with our friends and  go to ARA events where everybody comes and no one has to do it virtually because they’re afraid. Our bad group is meeting in a couple of weeks and some of the guys can’t come because their family doesn’t feel safe for them to travel. I’m ready for that stuff to be over. We’re looking forward to it being over.

Dan Crowley: Excellent. How about you, Brandon?

Brandon Ahlgren: I look forward to getting back to the social events with  all of the friends that we’ve met through the rental groups. I do worry a little bit to see how different it’s going to look when we go into our next rental show or our next event. It’s going to be interesting to see who’s like hunger games, who survived it. I am looking forward to slowly getting back to normal. I’m looking forward to focusing on the business, trying to make it stronger and not bigger. I’m also looking forward to getting back to a point where we’re not always doubting our decisions because we don’t know if COVID is going to mess it up or not.

Dan Crowley: We appreciate both your words of wisdom, especially the conversations around reset and having a stronger business in the future. That’s just tremendous. Again, thank you both for being on the podcast today on peer talk. Thank you.

Brandon Ahlgren: Thanks Dan. We appreciate you very much. You and your group. You do a great job.

Dan Crowley: Thank you right back, take care guys.

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