“We’ve lost a lot”
The precarious situation for events industry workers has motivated many Germans to get active in initiatives such as #AlarmstufeRot (English: red alert) and #Ohneunsiststill (English: All quiet without us). Regional publicity campaigns are showing images of arts workers, mostly tagged with postal codes as well as names, to spotlight the many individuals hit by the crisis in the sixth largest branch of the German economy. With a turnover of approx. 130 billion Euros per year, the sector is staffed by some 1.5 million people, most of whom are self-employed.
Without them, all the shows, concerts, parties, clubs, and trade fairs would not be possible. “We are still in lockdown, many of us are living on the breadline,” events industry worker Patrick Berg pointed out during a campaign organized by the KulturgesichterNRW initiative in Essen city centre in late May. Berg has worked in the industry for over 20 years and is co-founder of the initiative.
The extent of the damage in the sector is being quantified by the national association of event industry members, Forward (‘fwd’, formerly FAMAB), via a website launched in March 2020 where organizers can enter cancelled events for audiences of over 100 (https://schadenserhebungveranstaltungswirtschaft-corona.famab.de). By mid-June 2021, the website had recorded almost 100 cancelled trade fairs, and losses of over 3.5 million Euros, and that’s not even counting the almost 200 other events that fell through, incurring further losses of around 123.4 million Euros.
Jan Kalbfleisch is managing director of fwd and concedes that the association initially had problems asserting its interests when the pandemic broke out: “We seemed to be too late with everything, and it took a lot of effort to get policy makers on our wavelength at all. It took initiatives like #AlarmstufeRot to build the public pressure we needed. But still, we managed to avert the wave of bankruptcies that threatened to hit us.”
It seems fair to say that #AlarmstufeRot and #Ohneunsiststill made an impact. In late May the German cabinet set up a special fund of up to 2.5 billion Euros as a buffer for event organizers faced with restrictions such as tighter limits on audience numbers. The fund encompasses support for smaller events – for up to 500 people from 1 July 2021 and for up to 2000 people from 1 August 2021 – whose profitability is compromised by the anti-Corona hygiene regulations. And it provides insurance against cancellation for larger cultural events as of 1 September 2021, such as concerts and festivals for over 2000 visitors. That gives organizers a firmer basis for planning ahead.
Marcus Pohl, chairman of the German interest group for self-employed service providers in the events industry, ISDV, is worried nonetheless: “After 16 months, the events economy is still crippled, and people are despairing. The self-employed are forced to apply for benefits, immobilizing them professionally.” Some have turned their backs on the industry in order to survive: “We’ve lost a lot of specialist workers. The shortage will come back on us like a boomerang in 2022 and we won’t have enough staff to work on all the scheduled events.” He hopes that the remaining freelancers are bold enough to seize the opportunity to raise their rates: “There is no reason to charge the same, and certainly not less, than in 2019. We all have empty pockets, our retirement funds are used up, and we should have learned that we need to make a far larger profit than before.” So, how exactly did freelancers get through the pandemic; what situation are they in now, and how do they see their prospects? Five self-employed events industry professionals talked to BTR about their lives under and after the pandemic.
Rudi Hennies, inscena – technical production management GmbH, Niederfinow, 7 June 2021
As a technical production manager, I am primarily responsible for planning, calculating the costs, and overseeing the installation of technical equipment for live events, so, lighting and rigging, stage construction and audio and video technology. Since I’m a qualified stage and lighting manager, I’m also often booked as an Event Engineering Officer. My clients include theatres, organizers, agencies, associations, and companies in the industry. I had my last engagement, an international conference in Berlin, in late 2019.
Things are slowly starting to pick up again now. I was hired to plan the technology for a digital event in the summer and for some jobs as event officer for hygiene and infection protection. I trained to work in that capacity in autumn 2020, to cover that field for my clients, too. But a large international conference in the autumn that was scheduled has now been cancelled. The situation is too unpredictable.
Many freelancers resorted to other jobs, became bicycle couriers, or looked for permanent employment, during the pandemic. Personally, I haven’t suffered too much. I got a few small jobs last year. Even my company has got through the pandemic alright so far, but still, you can’t make good one-and-a-half years’ losses. The government’s tideover allowance covered the basic running costs, but nothing more. It didn’t extend to building up the business, let alone management pay. A big problem for many of those affected were the November and December grants. They were assessed excluding non-taxable revenue (i.e., revenue from clients outside Germany). We often deal
with clients from other countries, so the level of support we received was in no way equivalent to the financial situation we were in.
Having worked in theatre for many years, I am a longstanding member of the DTHG (German stage technicians’ union). They say that each association has its field of expertise and that the DTHG is more involved with theatre, artists, and Ms Grütters (German Commissioner for Culture and the Media). Certainly, I felt better advised and supported by associations like the VPLT (Professional Lighting & Sound Association of Germany) and the ISDV. Their websites had up-to-date information and they make up a major part of the delegation that consults with the ministries. The initiative #AlarmstufeRot got a lot of attention and generated mutual support among those affected. I am very grateful to those associations and their commitment.
The immediate future is impossible to predict. Many organizers, especially international ones, are still very unsettled. You can’t even predict what’s going to happen from one week to the next, let alone plan for the next three or six months. In the longer term, I’m sure the industry will recover. But there will be a lot of chop-and-change and some service providers will probably not be on the market any more at the end of the year. And more and more jobs in events technology will be covered by a few big service providers – continuing a process that had started before the pandemic.
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