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San Diego Event Coalition launches campaign to highlight plight of live-events workers

The San Diego Event Coalition has launched a new campaign featuring billboards.
The San Diego Event Coalition has launched a new campaign featuring billboards aimed at highlighting the plight of the live-events industry.
(Courtesy photo)

22 billboards across the county aimed at bringing attention to events professionals who have been affected by the pandemic

The San Diego Event Coalition — formed last year to advocate for local event professionals — has unveiled 22 billboards across the county, from Lemon Grove to San Diego to National City, to help bring attention to the plight of the 200,000 people locally whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic.

The billboards, funded by member donations, say: “SD Events Industry: Going out of business — give us a pathway back ... doors are closing.”

The billboards, the latest of which were launched March 1, can be found on high-traffic thoroughfares like Balboa Avenue along SR-163, Home Avenue at Fairmount Avenue and Imperial Avenue along the I-5.

The San Diego Event Coalition has unveiled billboards highlighting the challenges facing the live-event industry .
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Since last spring, the pandemic has forced the cancellation of thousands of events in the region — everything from Comic-Con International and Gaslamp Mardi Gras to Mission Federal Artwalk and San Diego Pride, with Pride alone having an annual economic impact of $26.6 million, according to figures compiled by the coalition.

Members of the live-events sector of the economy, meanwhile, have stood on the sidelines watching other industries slowly return or reopen as mandated by county and state guidelines, Kevin Hellman, treasurer of the San Diego Event Coalition, said Tuesday.

“We’ve been told we couldn’t work for a year,” added Hellman, owner of SDS Events USA, which has produced iconic events from San Diego Music Awards and North Park Festival of Beers to the highly popular LSU Alumni of San Diego Crawfish Boil. “We are asking the governor, the county supervisors, the mayor of San Diego to help us find a pathway to work. It doesn’t mean today, but sooner rather than later. We need to be able to get back to work.”

Fellow events producer Mike Kociela agreed.

“There’s an enormous amount of live-event business affected by the pandemic — from electricians to caterers, laborers, florists, van drivers, site coordinators,” said Kociela, CEO of Westward Entertainment, which has produced events such as SoCal Taco Fest and Downtown Throwdown.

“In any one event, you might have anywhere from 100 to 5,000 people working it. The number of companies and individuals affected is insane. It goes so far beyond an event in a park,” added Kociela, vice president of the San Diego Event Coalition.

Since last spring, the San Diego Coalition, whose members include event producers, planners and venue managers, has been actively lobbying on behalf of event workers, whose roster includes professionals tied to such annual events as San Diego County Fair, Chula Vista HarborFest, Gator by the Bay and San Diego Bay, Food & Wine Festival.

The coalition’s members and leaders have met with local officials and have held rallies in support of the live-events industry. One such event last August — staged at Waterfront Park, in front of downtown’s San Diego County Administration Building — was designed to heighten awareness about the pandemic’s devastating effect on the nation’s live-events workers, with an estimated 12 million left unemployed by pandemic-induced cancellations.

The San Diego coalition is part of the national Live Events Coalition, which has held similar Empty Event rallies in New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the numbers behind these canceled events are people — stagehands, musicians, fine artists,” Kociela said. “None of these people have been able to work. Guess what? You still have to pay for your rent.”

Advocacy work by the San Diego Event Coalition, which has applied for a nonprofit designation, is invaluable and a necessity because the “events industry has never had an advocate to speak for itself,” Hellman said. “The restaurant industry has groups lobbying on their behalf that found a way to do outdoor dining. We had no one speaking for us.”

The coalition, Hellman said, has “had some very good conversations” with local officials, including the offices of San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and County Supervisor Jim Desmond.

Members of the coalition, he said, are hopeful their pleas are being heard.

“Our group is not made up of people putting on three-day stadium events. We’re people who put on community outdoor events and street fairs. We want to be able to return to that, following safety protocols,” said Hellman, who added that the local coalition has created a 38-page guide to safely reopening outdoor community events locally that is available on its website, sandiegoeventcoalition.com.

“All we are asking is a dialogue to get us back on track,” Hellman said. “We’re looking for a pathway back.”

By the numbers: Events industry

12 million: Number of event workers left unemployed by the pandemic nationally

77%: Number of industry workers nationally who have lost 100% of their income

74%: Number of local businesses that had more than 75% of 2020 projects, clients, gigs and events canceled

60%: Number of local businesses that anticipate losing more than 50% of 2021 income

Source: San Diego Event Coalition, based on October 2020 survey


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