As Hurricane Alex brews in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil spill that erupted two months ago is brewing a strange world for special event professionals in the region, with some facing a drastic falloff in business and others finding an ironic windfall.
As reported in our June 16 edition, the oil spill has some event rental companies in the Gulf Coast area "thriving," notes G. Richard Young, head of Event Rental, with operations in Gretna and Lafayette, La., as cleanup crews clamor to rent equipment.
TIME TO BUY?
"Typically we all would be slowing down tremendously, which we are for normal event business," Young explains. "However, the surge of oil spill-related tent, table, chair, A/C and generator business is slamming us all." Generators are in such short supply that Young is weighing whether to invest in more. "It's a gamble for most of us whether to order more equipment not knowing if more rental orders will come," he says. "It's risky, but at the same time a great chance to increase and update your fleets. Once the receivables start getting paid from this work, much of the anxiety will diminish and more equipment investments will continue."
Young adds that BP, which operated the blown rig that triggered the disaster, is turning to local vendors for cleanup work. He says, "This is great news that the small players get to participate and not just the national companies that seem to usually scoop this business up."
Panache Tent + Event of Port St. Joe, Fla., usually brings a "huge number" of weddings to the area's sugar-white shores, notes company head Rich Wynn. And in good news, he says there is no oil on the beaches in his area, and he has seen a mere 1 percent of his business cancel to date.
The real threats to his business are worried clients, Wynn says, alarmed by media reports showing blackened sand and oil-soaked wildlife. "We have had many calls from concerned clients wondering what's going on and what the options are if beaches are oiled," he says. "Not only is the scare of what the beaches may look like a concern but also possible odor, and the fact that destination guests are being asked to travel long distances to an area that could be polluted."
Wynn says that 2010 was shaping up to be his best year ever, but, "We have noticed a definite slowdown in inquiries, which will surely lead to lost sales," he says. "We generally convert 90 percent of our proposals to orders--fall bookings are down 60 percent to date."
NO OIL HERE, OR HERE, OR HERE
Indeed, the public misconception that all Gulf Coast beaches are awash in oil is the greatest frustration for many event professionals there.
"The oil is here and nobody can deny that," says John Kokis, head of Forever I Do Weddings, with operations in Destin and Pensacola, Fla. But, "It is not anywhere as bad as the media made it out to be. There are over 100 miles of beach from Perdido to Panama City, and at any given time, 95 to 99 miles of it is probably open and just as beautiful as it was last June."
His team is being "proactive" with concerned brides, Kokis says, sharing specifics about the abundance of clean beaches and the easy option of moving a wedding only one mile down the shore if need be. So far, he has had only one cancelation. But, his business has gone from booking on a daily basis to "booking on a weekly basis--on a good week," he says.
"We believe that if this does not come to an end within the next few weeks or should a hurricane hit us while there is this much oil still in the Gulf, it will put an end to just about every beach wedding until next year," Kokis warns. "Neither brides nor their guests want to spend thousands of dollars in traveling and expense with the risk of dirty or closed beaches."
SEE FOR YOURSELF
The home page of the Sugar Beach Weddings site says boldly "Our beaches are clear for your beach weddings!" and includes feeds from live beach cameras to prove it.
Sugar Beach's Connie Reeder hopes the video of clean shores will keep business on her books. So far, 30 weddings have canceled, "and no one is reserving the last half of the year," she explains. She now has about 15 weddings scheduled for 2011, "but this same time last year, we already had over 60 reserved," she says. Her company, headquartered in the Florida Panhandle but working throughout the region, has filed for compensation from BP and has already received $5,000, she notes. "We were told that BP will pay the difference from last year and this year."
In any case, Reeder and her team are staying nimble, ready to react as needed. Once the leak is stopped, "I think we will all be swamped" with bookings from pent-up demand, she says. And if the oil continues to flow, "We already have plan in place to move operations to the east coast in Florida and Georgia," she says.