Event planning industry feels pinch as gathering restrictions tighten

Event planning businesses say the newly tightened COVID-19 restrictions on the size of gatherings are just the latest blow to their already suffering industry.

Alberta event companies expect big holiday losses

Caitlin McElhone, owner of CM Events, said she believes professional event businesses shouldn't be lumped in with private gatherings when it comes to provincial rules around COVID-19 attendance restrictions. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Event planning businesses say the newly tightened COVID-19 restrictions on size of gatherings are just the latest blow to their already suffering industry.

As COVID-19 cases soared to record levels across Alberta, this past week Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, announced new restrictions to help limit the spread.

That includes new 15-person limits in Calgary and Edmonton that apply to most gatherings, including dinner parties, birthday parties, social events, retirement parties and baby showers.

Social gatherings held before or after wedding or funeral services must also be capped at 15. However, the limit does not apply to wedding or funeral services. Dine-in restaurants, theatres and worship services are also exempt. 

For those in Edmonton's live event planning industry, the sudden, immediate rule change is frustrating. 

"Event professionals do not want to run unsafe events, but we do want to be given some recognition and some credit that event professionals exist, professional venues and suppliers exist. And we can run safe events during this time," said Caitlin McElhone, owner of CM Events. 

McElhone said she's lost about 90 per cent of her business over the past several months during the pandemic. Her company focuses on live, corporate events, such as galas, award ceremonies and silent auctions.

She said that she understands that health officials are trying to keep people safe, but she doesn't think gatherings operated by event professionals should be lumped in under the same rules as private social gatherings in individual homes or in community centres.

She said when event professionals are organizing, they would like to see the attendance restrictions based on the size of the venue space. For example, if there is capacity for 2,000 people in a venue and proper safety measures are being followed, she would like to see an allowance for a few hundred people.

"Event professionals do risk analysis all the time. It is our job to keep guests safe at events. And we spend a lot of time analyzing the safety of all of our events," she said. 

Normally, this is the time of year that Special Event Rentals is gearing up for all sorts of holiday parties and events. But this year, COVID-19 means that much of the company's warehouse stash of supplies like tables, chairs and tents will be staying put. 

Lars Erickson, director of business development for Special Event Rentals, said they expect a major drop in normal holiday season bookings. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

"With the current 15-people mandated events, we are expecting sort of a serious drop in business for Christmas and holiday events," said Lars Erickson, director of business development for Special Event Rentals.

He said they were able to run tented, smaller events outside through the summer. But he said any business they get going forward from small gatherings under the new restrictions won't replace income from larger events.

"We'll survive and we're grateful for that, but it will be hard. The hardest part is dealing with employees and knowing that our former employees won't be able to come back to work with us," he said.

At the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, occupancy and events are also down — to about 10 to 15 per cent normal occupancy— but general manager Garrett Turta said they're trying to be innovative and get the word out that the hotel is doing everything they can to provide a safe space. 

He said the new 15-person limit on gatherings will make things tough.

"It sure puts a damper on things, but again we're resilient, we're creative and we'll always try to find ways to keep people safe," he said. 

He said the hotel is cleaned top-to-bottom every hour, everyone's temperatures are taken on arrival, sanitizer and gloves are provided, social distancing is in place, and everyone's contact information is taken in case it's necessary for tracing later on.

"As long as it's done right, we can continue to do it. But I think, as with anything, I think you have to let the professionals do it."