‘Nobody thinks about the tent guy’: Coronavirus cancellations hit Vermont event rentals

CLOSE

A PSA done by the Ohio Department of Health used mousetraps and ping-pong balls to illustrate the importance of social distancing has gone viral. Wochit

In early March, Michael Sorce, owner of Dark Star Productions in Hinesburg, was overbooked and looking forward to a banner year. He had just hired another full-time employee to help with the oncoming rush of business.

Dark Star is one of only two companies in Vermont that provide audio and video for events ranging from weddings to corporate retreats, including staging, screens and curtains. The other is Atomic Professional Audio in Rutland.

“We’re not talking minimum wage employees,” Sorce said of his recent hire. “These are highly skilled, college-educated seasoned professionals. They are very hard people to find, especially in the state of Vermont.”

Then, the pandemic hit. Within 24 hours, Sorce was closing his doors and telling his 10 or so employees they would need to go on unemployment.

“The phone rang and the emails came in nonstop,” he said. “We knew that income was gone. Major productions, major shows have disappeared. We lost concerts, graduations, high-end weddings.”

Dark Star’s story has been replicated throughout the small tent and event rental business in Vermont, which underlies the state’s weddings, corporate retreats, graduations and concerts. All have been canceled to slow the spread of COVID-19, the sometimes fatal disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Nearly invisible, and threatened

Perry Armstrong, owner of Rain or Shine Tents and Events in Randolph, has taken the lead as spokesman for what he says is a nearly invisible, and very much threatened, industry in the state, sounding the alarm for state officials and legislators.

“Nobody thinks about the tent guy,” said Brendon Blood, owner of Blood’s Catering and Party Rentals in White River Junction. “He shows up when nobody’s around, puts up the tent, plops down tables and chairs, and comes back Monday to pick it up. Nobody thinks about it.”

Armstrong said his industry is never mentioned when the discussion turns to the plight of restaurants, beauty salons and other close-contact businesses. Armstrong was scheduled to testify June 4before the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.

Personal pandemic: Short stories of Vermonters facing life in the coronavirus era

“I’m trying to get the state to understand we are the foundation of every event, wedding and corporate retreat in the state,” Armstrong said. “The problem here, as I see it, is a lot of people aren’t thinking about the future of the Vermont tourism industry. If we can’t get support to survive, the foundation is going away.”

Blood is wondering if his 73-year-old family business is going away. He said he has lost 75% of his business, and that’s only if the weddings he’s booked in the fall don’t cancel. It could get worse.

Blood said he just spent $180,000 on two new tents, each capable of housing up to 2.400 people and slated for graduations on the Lyndon and Johnson campuses of Northern Vermont University, which have been canceled.

“Obviously it’s not a great business model to buy something of that nature and not be able to rent it,” Blood said. “Those tents will sit in my warehouse all year. That’s all they’re for, graduations and festivals. All that stuff is gone.”

Blood has nearly 100 tents of different sizes in his warehouse, an inventory worth about $2 million, with the loan payments to go with them. He compares himself to a farmer who loses a crop, except that in the case of the farmer, the federal government generally steps in to help the farmer get through to the next year.

Where are the coronavirus cases?: Four infographics that show the spread of coronavirus in Vermont

“I have a five-month season to do all my work,” Blood said. “It’s going to be a year from now before I make money.”

Armstrong believes that collectively, the tent and event rental industry in Vermont needs $12 million to carry it through to May 2021, when presumably business will return.

The ripple effect

Liane Mendez, owner of Let’s Pretend Catering in South Hero, wrote a letter addressed to the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development on Tuesday, in advance of Armstrong’s testimony. Mendez said her company had been “decimated” by the pandemic.

Let’s Pretend was scheduled to cater 26 weddings this year, and is currently down to three — possibly.

“Those few who are trying to keep their 2020 date are dropping from 200+ guests down to 10-30, depending on what guidelines are in place at the time of their wedding,” Mendez wrote.

Corporate events and family gatherings have “followed suit,” Mendez wrote, with 90% of her business gone.

Fighting coronavirus at home: Vermont Department of Health asks COVID-19 cases to monitor blood oxygen levels at home

“Needless to say, it is going to be a challenge to get through the next two years,” she wrote. “The Tent and Rental companies are directly tied to these numbers. Every event that each catering company loses, is an event that they lose as well.”

And if Vermont loses the tent and event companies? Then it lose festivals, outside graduations, political and sporting events because it is those companies that set those events into motion, Mendez said.

“If my small company doesn’t have these rental companies, we will surely lose our out-of-state clientele who are looking to create a big, beautiful Vermont wedding,” she wrote. “The ripple effect goes out from there and ultimately affects those of you who are reading this letter.”

Who’s going to set up 15,000 chairs?

Many of the tent and event rental businesses in Vermont received federal Payroll Protection Program loans, which are intended to keep employees on the payroll and can be forgiven under certain conditions.

Mike Lubas, co-owner of Vermont Tent Company in Essex Junction, said his PPP money runs out June 12. He has kept on around 20 employees so far.

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

Lubas said he has gotten some work, including setting up tents for hospital testing sites for the coronavirus, and some food service and restaurant work. But it’s a “single digit percentage” of what he would normally do in a given week this time of year.

Lubas too feels invisible.

“Nobody mentions the event rental industry,” he said. “They mention dairy, hospitality, tourism, restaurants. But if we’re not here there’s not going to be somebody to set up 15,000 chairs in a day at UVM graduation.”

Luke Evans of Green Mountain Tent Rentals in Townshend, said he operates on a “much smaller scale” than Perry Armstrong of Rain or Shine Tents and Events or Mike Lubas of Vermont Tent Co., but he has the same business model.

Evans makes money in the summer, his business ends in October and he doesn’t make money again until the following June.

“We’re looking at about 20 months without a profit,” Evans said. “I don’t know any industry that can go 20 months without turning a profit and survive.”

Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or ddambrosio@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanDambrosioVT. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription. 

Read or Share this story: https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/money/2020/06/03/coronavirus-vermont-tent-rentals-event-companies-struggle/3137380001/