Why the $1.1 Trillion Live Events Industry Is Pivoting to Vaccine Logistics

An army of event planners have discovered a newfound sense of purpose — and much-needed work

Illustration by Taylor Le for Marker

A line of people snakes through the club lounge at Gillette Stadium, where the New England Patriots play. They’re not here for a game, though; the stadium has been converted into the biggest Covid-19 vaccination center in Massachusetts.

Look more closely and you’ll see logos showing that the site is being operated by a company called CIC, which usually manages co-working spaces. Another company, DMSE Sports, which normally directs running events including the Boston Marathon, is handling the logistics.

DMSE’s involvement makes sense, said founder Dave McGillivray, because the vaccination process “is like a race.” He gestures around the busy scene: “There’s the parking, there’s the course they go through, there’s the finish.” A clock normally used to show runners their pace is keeping time for people waiting to make sure they don’t have side effects.

Inside Gillette Stadium.

Businesses like these, which rely on bringing crowds together for live events and other purposes, are finding new ways to stay afloat through the pandemic — including, increasingly, by helping bring it to an end.

About 40 miles from Gillette, another vaccination site is being set up by the conference and events company Conventures. And roughly 1,200 miles further west, a Wisconsin race director is managing Covid testing for a hospital and helping prepare for the administration of vaccines at the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field. Near there, ModTruss, which normally builds stages for concerts — including the CBS set at the Super Bowl — has shifted to making biocontainment units for Covid-19 patients.

“We’re helping bring our own industry back.”

In the warmer months of the pandemic, DMSE managed logistics and operations of high school graduations and drive-in movies and rented out its road barriers, safety barricades, and equipment to restaurants for outdoor dining — all new for the company. Then, when colder weather returned, McGillivray said, “for the second time in only so many months I was looking in the mirror saying, ‘Now what?’”

Running massive testing and vaccination venues not only calls upon event planners’ skills and sense of urgency, he said; by hastening an end to the pandemic, “we’re helping bring our own industry back.”

Concerts, festivals, sports, conferences, and trade shows accounted for $1.1 trillion a year in business worldwide before the pandemic, according to the market research firm Allied Analytics. But the people who run them are, by definition, behind the scenes and have been struggling unnoticed as their work came crashing to a stop.

“This industry has been devastated,” said David Barbour, editor of the trade publication Lighting & Sound America. “It was the first to shut down and it will be the last to go back when this thing is finally over.” As bad as things have been for restaurants, gyms, and hair salons, said Michael Strickland, founder of the Knoxville event lighting company Bandit Lites, many have at least been managing to limp along. But some business is better than none.

“Live events people would love to be in that position,” Strickland said. “Because every day is zero [business].”

Strickland is a leader of an effort called COV-AID that aims to get more people from live events companies involved in building and operating vaccination sites.

Sean Ryan, the race director who has been working to prepare Lambeau Field to be a vaccination site, said all of the races he’d planned to work on in the last year were canceled or went virtual, and he ended up driving a delivery truck before a health care company that was a pre-pandemic sponsor put him in charge of testing and then overseeing vaccine logistics for the health care company Bellin Health.

DCI Management, which makes exhibits for trade shows, also saw demand for its services vanish overnight, said Art Stewart, who runs the company with his wife, Lori.

“Our entire way of life came to a grinding halt,” he said. “First we cried, then we were mad, then we sobered up.”

The Stewarts shifted into manufacturing protective partitions, signage, and sneeze guards using materials that previously went into their displays.

ModTruss, the Wisconsin-based stage-building company started making negative-pressure units in which Covid patients could be housed, which owner and former combat medic Patrick Santini found were in surprisingly short supply.

“The technical people, they’re the problem solvers” in the live events world, Santini said. “They’re nimble.”

Their expanding role in vaccinations gives some of them hope.

“We can literally now be part of the solution to our own problem,” said Ryan as he sprinted off to lay out vaccination stations.

After a few steps, he stopped, paused for a moment, and added: “In six months, I’m hoping I get fired.”

Jon Marcus writes for The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other U.S. and U.K. media outlets.

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