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The return of festivals

To everyone’s excitement, all manner of festivals are returning. And although not yet at pre-pandemic levels, the momentum is building as people break free of restrictions and get their party on.

Features | August 1, 2022 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

Revelers crowd the stage at the 2019 Beachlife event held in Redondo Beach, Calif. Choura Events provided a variety of structures for this festival, including those seen off to the side of the stage and VIP tents. After a two-year pandemic pause, the company is seeing a resurgence of festivals, which prior to COVID comprised 35% of its business. Photo courtesy of Choura Events.

People are shopping, dining out and going to movies. They’re heading back to schools and offices. Milestones are being celebrated, “I do’s” are being said, and along with all this return to near-normal life, festivals big and small are once again part of the entertainment landscape. For tent and event rental companies supplying this market, it’s not a minute too soon.

One is Choura Events. Headquartered in Torrance, Calif., the event builder and rental company does custom activations as well as custom fabrications inside the tents for experiential buildouts, says Ryan Choura, founder/CEO. The company also provides flooring, furnishings, custom walls and lighting. Markets include music festivals, sporting and red carpet events, and large-tent galas, among others. 

Although Choura Events does smaller food festivals, it’s most involved in music festivals, which pre-COVID comprised about 35% of its business. These have included the Electric Daisy Carnival, Coachella, Stagecoach and Beach Life, to name several.

It’s hired by festival producers to provide tents, flooring, furniture or sponsorship activation, with the typical event seeing hundreds of food and beverage tents, large structures for staging, hospitality tents and so on. The company offers “massive structures” and inventory containing “huge” A-frames, double-deckers, festival tents and truss structures.

“We’re seeing a massive resurgence of festival activity,” says Choura. “They’re 100 percent coming back. We’re heading for a record season; it’s very exciting. This year we did both Coachellas and Stagecoach.”

Edge Elite technicians are shown here setting up railings for a festival. The company provided clearspans, flooring and other finishing touches for this event. Pre-pandemic, about 30% of Edge’s work came from festivals, which have started making a comeback, resulting in a surge of business for the company. Photo courtesy of Edge Elite.

Trending toward different

Choura says he’s seeing many of these events trying hard to stand out, differentiating themselves through the lineups they offer and the experiences they provide. After all, even though festivalgoers are eager to get back in the groove, their cash isn’t necessarily unlimited.

Money is also a consideration for festival sponsors, Choura says. Although many will say they want a double-decker tent, for example, these are sometimes beyond their reach. Consequently, he’s hearing more need for customized hospitality tents and higher-end experiences, much of which relies on interior decor to achieve the desired effect.

Jacob Visoky, vice president of Liba Fabrics Corp., is seeing the same. Based in New York, N.Y., the company is a wholesale fabric manufacturer and custom fabricator of finished products primarily serving the special-events industry with fabrics used for decor, linens, AV applications and printing. A popular decor option is the company’s flame-retardant Mystique Satin, a 100% polyester available in 130 colors. Another favorite is the Imperial Taffeta. Also flame-retardant—required to pass the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 701 fire code, he explains—this comes in more than 60 colors. Both are lightweight, making them easier to swag inside tents. 

Visoky says there’s a strong demand for unique colors.

“In the past, basic and neutral colors were the main fabrics used for draping and decor, but we’ve seen a shift towards more out-of-the-box colors, like celadon, pink, tangerine and shamrock,” he says. “Additionally, custom-printed fabrics are in demand. Our clients are trying to find more ways for their events to stand out.

“Fabric is the most impactful way to change the ambiance of any festival or event,” Visoky continues. “We don’t see fabric trending out anytime soon. The only changes I really see are the color choices.”

National Structures provides a variety of structures for festivals, including the stage and tents seen here at the 2022 Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City Beach, Florida. Photo courtesy of National Structures.

Optimism and caution

Joshua Edge, owner of Edge Elite, says that as soon as COVID restrictions lifted, the event industry “immediately” began recovering.

Headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, Edge Elite provides skilled, in-house installation technicians for structures and flooring—the company doesn’t do any outsourcing, says Edge—tasked with setting up all sizes and types of structures. In addition to festivals, Edge Elite services weddings, military ops, disaster relief, corporate events and industrial clients. Pre-COVID, about 30% of its business came from music and seasonal festivals.

“The structures we build for a festival generally depends on the size of the event,” Edge explains. “For larger ones we build a lot of high-peaks, 10-by-10s and clearspans. At smaller events, we tend to see more pop-ups, West Coast frame-style, custom high-peaks and small Century tents.”

Now that festival activity is climbing, Edge Elite is looking at opening new field operation offices around the country. This will enable the company to still train technicians in-house while lowering costs, since currently, technicians come from the headquarters and travel nationwide.

Still, festivals haven’t yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, particularly for smaller ones. For example, before COVID, Rusty Parr, president of A V Party Rental—a full-service rental company in Newhall, Calif., serving homeowner, corporate, education and nonprofit clients—says the company would have several dozen festival-type event on the books, ranging in size from 100 to 4,000 people. 

“We’ve got a few on the books now, but they’re definitely not as big as in the past,” he says. “I’d say compared to 2019, only about 60% of the public events have returned so far. Some will never come back; some have moved to other rental companies; and quite a few are still very cautious and afraid to pull the trigger.”

Once a year, people from all walks of life don their best costumes and come to the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta, Ore. Photo courtesy of Jesse Madden.

The nearly two-year hiatus in festivals and fund-raisers, and the changes in the company’s costs and resources, sparked a reevaluation of rental fees to these customers. Although concerned about client retention, A V Party Rental brought its pricing “back in line,” rather than trying to drag in business by underpricing competitors. The company also began charging for things it previously did for free. Although most promoters have been receptive, a few left, says Parr, adding that “this has freed up resources for those events willing to pay what it’s worth.”  

Choura, too, has become more selective about the jobs his company takes, driven in part by worker shortages.

“During the pandemic, we laid off 90% of our staff. When we went to rehire, about half the industry was gone,” he says. “This means that trying to find the labor has been incredibly challenging. We’ve worked really hard to find people we feel will be a good fit.”

The company is only bringing back “the best of the best,” rather than staffing up to pre-pandemic levels, says Choura. It’s also communicating more with employees, letting them offer input and be a part of the plan.

And even though he’s (cautiously) upbeat about the road ahead, he feels more communication and conversation within the industry is necessary.

“What needs to be talked about is the trauma experienced during the pandemic,” Choura explains. “We need to talk about what the industry went through, how massive it was. I think that’s why so many people left; they didn’t want to go through that again.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.

SIDEBAR: Access for all

Based in Clearwater, Fla., Direct Access, a disability and inclusion consulting firm, works with organizations in various industries to help them become more inclusive. Clients include parks and recreation spaces, world expositions, festivals, major sporting events and others. Direct Access comes at this from a unique perspective—its team is made up entirely of those with disabilities, says Steve Dering, operations director.

Now that festivals are returning, it’s important that everyone is able to fully—and comfortably—enjoy them. InTents asked Dering what festivals should do to deliver the best possible experience for all attendees.

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes festivals make that negatively affect accessibility?

A: Probably the biggest is not providing information. People with disabilities want to go and experience festivals and events but cannot find information on the level of access or what to expect when they visit. Providing this in an accessible format enables people to make their own judgment about going. It’s not just about how many ramps there are. People need to know about parking, how long is the event, if there are strobe lights people may find disorientating. If there’s a sign language interpreter, are deaf people aware of this? If not, they’re unlikely to want to attend. I’m deaf myself and would think nothing of crossing a state to see an accessible performance. 

Q: What are the consequences of this failure?

A: People with disabilities (by themselves) in the U.S. alone control approximately $645 billion in disposable income. Add in non-disposable income, funds belonging to friends and family that people with disabilities can influence and globalize, and you get $8 trillion total global purchasing power.

It’s not just financial; there’s a moral and ethical justification for being inclusive. Everyone benefits from access. [For example] wheelchair access to a venue will also enable families with pushchairs or young children to access the site. 

People with disabilities are very quick on social media to highlight not just failings but successes. Get accessibility right and large numbers of disabled people will be part of the event.

Q: How can festivals become more inclusive and do a better job of meeting ADA requirements?

To find out, see Dering’s article here.

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