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September 29, 2020

Event-based businesses struggle to stay afloat

WATSONVILLE—The Covid-19 pandemic has hit businesses hard, from the largest of companies to the smallest mom-and-pop shops. Rules continue to change as cases flatten and then spike, leaving business owners dealing with back-and-forth openings and closures.

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But for those who made their living off of events—ceremonies, celebrations, large meetings, etc.—things haven’t changed much since the initial shelter-in-place order went into effect in March.

Events were canceled across the board, suddenly leaving caterers, party rental stores and event organizers out of work. And without knowing when large gatherings can once again be held, many find themselves in a state of limbo.

“We are basically on hold,” said Marsha Nelsen, owner of M&M Party Rental in Watsonville. “It’s been really tough. I’ve been in this business for 38 years… through the [Loma Prieta] earthquake, economic recessions… but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Nelsen estimated that her business lost at least $300,000 due to canceled graduation ceremonies, weddings, corporate events, baby showers and more. While mid-March is typically a slow time of year, summer through December is the busiest, she said.

“We make the most money between May and Christmas time,” she said. “But we don’t know when things are going to get better. We’re just waiting to see.”

Shaz Roth, CEO of the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, said she has been in contact with a number of event-based companies who are reeling from shelter-in-place.

“It’s definitely taken a toll. If you think about it, one single event can support a number of different businesses and groups,” she said. “People who build stages, lighting technicians and bakeries… everyone is affected.”

The Chamber itself, which Roth said is not eligible for any federal funding presently, has also had to completely refocus during the pandemic.

“We’re usually all about getting people together and networking,” she said. “But we can’t do that right now. Instead we’re trying to be a resource for businesses individually, helping them navigate everything.”

Roth said that she has seen some Watsonville businesses coming up with unique ways to stay afloat, such as Five Star Catering offering Family Dinner packages and Monterey Bay Caterers establishing extended deli and take-and-bake service.

El Pájaro Community Development Corporation (CDC), which offers low-cost and free bilingual business education and training, has also been finding ways to support its entrepreneurs. Executive Director of El Pájaro CDC Carmen Herrera-Mansir said that they’ve hosted various pop-ups, where someone from the group will organize a meal and others will come to support them.

“We’ve been trying to help our entrepreneurs, many who lost a lot of business because of canceled events,” she said. 

For Cinco de Mayo, El Pájaro CDC organized dinners for local farmworker families. Supporters could order food from a certain vendor that would then be delivered directly to a family. The campaign continued into the following month.

“I think we served over 500 meals… people really liked the idea,” Herrera-Mansir said. “It was a great way to help [the entrepreneurs] generate some income, too.”

Still, for many small businesses reliant on events, the future remains uncertain. Nelsen, who is keeping her retail store open with limited hours, said she knows some business owners in the industry who have decided to retire early or even close down completely.

“If people can’t gather, they don’t need what we offer,” she said. “That’s just the reality of the situation.”

But Nelsen said she plans to persevere through the pandemic and start fresh. 

“I’m not ready to leave. I love what I do,” she said. “The creativity, working with people… it’s so fun. We’ve just got to stay safe and beat this thing. We’ll get through this and then people will be ready to celebrate once again.”

Johanna Miller
Johanna Miller
Reporter Johanna Miller grew up in Watsonville, attending local public schools and Cabrillo College before transferring to Pacific University Oregon to study Literature. She covers arts and culture, business and agriculture.

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