When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck the live events industry and put all concerts, sports games, and other mass gatherings out of action, three production companies got together to figure out ways they could spend the downtime helping healthcare workers. Their efforts have quickly evolved into a nationwide coalition of thousands of event workers supplying essential supplies.
Live for Life officially launched on Monday as a coalition of 90 participating companies; by Thursday, that was up to 110. Before the pandemic began, all of the companies were helping prepare conferences and conventions, auto shows, music festivals and many other types of large-scale audience events — putting up tents, graphics and temporary structures. Now they’re offering materials and manpower for 3D-printed medical devices, personal protection equipment parts, and building out larger infrastructure for temporary hospitals.
“What we do on an everyday basis is plan and organize large scale events and experiences,” George P. Johnson CEO Chris Meyer, one of the leaders of the coalition, tells Rolling Stone. “That means using the tools, the processes, the training of our people — this is what we do. We just happen to do that at large-scale conferences or a festival or an auto show or sporting events. But the principles of planning and delivering and moving an event, all of that is transferrable to whatever the needs are.”
Planning began about three weeks ago. The coalition started with three live-event production companies — George P. Johnson, Exploring Inc., and Czarnowski — which specialize in production for large-scale events like music festivals, conference, and conventions and usually compete with one another. Seeking an outlet to keep employees working as their usual base of live events shut down, other companies were quick to sign on.
Coalition members are already working on 40 to 50 projects across the country, organizers tell Rolling Stone, including helping build the temporary hospital at the Javits Center in New York. Live For Life has frontline workers building out infrastructure where possible, and when that’s not an option, it sends parts and engineering instructions to authorized workers like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The coalition has had preliminary discussions with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as FEMA for more national assistance, which could further down the line contribute toward more facilities like mass vaccination centers.
The supplies these companies are producing now are a sharp departure from their day-to-day projects, but given how varied designs may be from one larger event to another, the shift is manageable. The most challenging shift for his team, says Czarnowski Vice President of Sales Nick Simonette, was designing PPEs like gowns and masks. Structures for temporary hospitals, he says, was more straightforward. “We use common materials in uncommon ways,” he says. “People are thinking creatively and critically, and that’s fascinating to see.”
Event cancellations have taken away much of the companies’ business; several of Live For Life’s companies, including all three of the cofounders, have furloughed workers. Czarnowksi has around 800 full-time and 3,000 part-time workers, but its workforce is for now about 40% of its size. Manufacturing PPE and temporary hospital infrastructure has given the companies the chance to salvage at least some work for a fraction of their employees while contributing to the greater need for essential supplies.
Live event companies are versatile, Meyer says, making them a natural fit to supply resources for needed supplies and infrastructure for the pandemic. Organizers say Live for Life is working at a cost rather than profit, making only enough to pay expenses and employee wages.
While the cofounders say pivoting toward disaster response is a relatively seamless shift for live event producers, they hadn’t handled response like this before. There was little outreach from the federal government for assistance — but sensing a need, they moved forward to make themselves known. “They didn’t know about us. We’re the biggest industry you’ve never heard of,” Simonette says. “Our outreach was because we didn’t hear anything. If you look at the methodology to erect these hospitals they’re trying to produce they’re all over the board what the coalition is doing.”
Eventually the crisis will wind down, but coalition cofounders are pondering what’s to become of Live For Life when its services are no longer needed on such a national scale. It’s too early to make those decisions, organizers say, and there’s still much work to be done. Still — the foundation’s been set for similar work in the future. “Do we unwind it, or does it just sit in the background and wait?” Simonette says. “What we’re hoping to do, with disaster recovery — there’s a protocol that was already set, but there was no protocol for pandemic. We want to be part of the solution so if this happens again, there’s already a playbook.”