Looking Back on 2020, Not Exactly the Year We Planned

by Gary Fails | Dec 29, 2020


Remember the planning and the goal setting you did as you entered 2020?   Here at City Theatrical, we studied our strategic plan and optimistically set out to achieve a record year.  What a shock we were in for. 

 

Since we have some supply chain contacts in China, and China factories always shut down for several weeks for Chinese New Year in January, we became aware of the Covid situation in China quite early when our factories started reporting delays and extended their closures into February.   We knew the extent of the crisis in China and understood the effect it could have on the world and we watched the news reports carefully.

 

By early March the virus had spread to Europe.  On March 7th, I began to keep a Covid spreadsheet.  I had no idea what might happen, and no one predicted the full extent of the pandemic, but I wanted to have some data and a record of what was happening to us to refer to. I decided to track countries that were of interest to me either for business or personal reasons. 

 

On my “Covid Day 1” on March 7, 2020, I recorded this data from a website that collects worldwide data on a variety of subjects:  https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ 


World                149,596 cases

China                  80,652 cases

Italy                       5,823 cases

Germany                  800 cases

US                            434 cases

UK                            209 cases

 

I collected data each day of the week, and began to analyze it on a weekly basis to see if there were any trends that could explain what was going on. 

 

The results at the end of Week 1 were staggering, a term I have used over and over again through the pandemic to describe the infection data.  The number of cases in the world grew by 40% in a week, and the number of cases in the US grew by over 500%, from 434 to 2,340 in the same week.

 

The numbers were certain to be undercounted since the virus was new, the symptoms weren’t widely recognized, and it didn’t really seem possible that it could spread so fast... but it was.  Suddenly, people in New York City were getting sick everywhere.  Quickly, within days, the virus spread through a number of Broadway shows and for the safety of the cast, crew, and audience, Broadway was shut down on March 12th for what was announced to be a three-week period.  London’s West End shut a few days later.  Nine months later they remain closed and no one really knows when they will reopen.

 

Everything was happening very quickly.   City Theatrical’s business depends on live entertainment and a healthy percentage of our revenue comes from companies that supply lighting and scenery to Broadway and London theatres.  I began to keep a Covid journal to have a narrative of the many events and challenges that we were facing, and others that we didn’t predict.

 

During Week 2 we sent anyone home who could work from home, including finance, sales, and engineering.  Others, out of fear, decided to stay home and not work. Those who were left began wearing masks, social distancing, and cleaning and disinfecting each day.

 

Week 2 was worse with US cases growing by more than 800%, and Week 3 grew by another 600% bringing the total US cases to 123,578 in just three weeks with New York suffering very badly. 

 

In Week 4 (the last week of March) things spun out of control.  Our staff and families started to get sick, and soon there weren’t enough well people to run our machinery.  I was sick with Covid at the time and my management team called me at home and told me, “This is a dangerous situation, we simply have to close the factory.”  I was stunned.  On Tuesday, March 31st, we closed our factory for what we thought would be a week (but ended up being three weeks), keeping only a skeleton crew of one or two people to take orders, ship and receive whatever we could.   We kept everyone on the payroll during this time.

 

By early April, most of the company was sick with Covid, and although no one was hospitalized in this period, many were quite sick and were unable to work for weeks.

 

We were fortunate to be among the first in the country to apply for a PPP loan, and remarkably, we received a significant amount of money in mid-April which allowed us to continue to keep our entire staff working.

 

Since many of us had Covid early on, we were able to reopen our factory on April 22nd and to get back to work.   We wrote a detailed “Covid Return to Work Plan” to assure the safety of the shop staff who were back to work.   Many others continued to work from home.

 

We were surprised twice in early May when we found cases of asymptomatic Covid in the shop, forcing us to close for a day each time to have the building cleaned and disinfected. This was expensive and very disruptive to us as we were trying to get the business back up and running.  To counteract this, we implemented and still maintain a program of mandatory testing of all staff every two weeks.  We were among the first companies to do this and it has worked well for us to prevent new cases.  Along with testing we continued (and still do to this day) our 7:00 a.m. full staff Covid review in which we reinforce health and safety rules.

 

The business side of Covid has been a real challenge.   Covid did not affect every industry the same way.  Some are booming and some are crushed.   The live entertainment world has been hard hit.  We have survived and will make it through but it hasn’t been easy and has forced us to take steps we never imagined.  As the saying goes, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”  April was one of the worst months in the 34-year history of the company.  May was better and since we had our PPP money, we were able to subsist and keep the full staff on. . . for a while.

 

In June, our PPP money ran out, and we had to make cutbacks.   We put the entire staff on a two day or three day week, except the executive managers who worked full time at reduced pay.  Everyone felt the financial pain. This helped us align our expenses with our revenue and gave us hope that if sales continued to rise, even slowly, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel.  We optimistically predicted Broadway would reopen in the fall.

 

As the months wore on, we could see that the live entertainment world would not return any time soon, and our revenues continued to seesaw horizontally.   We realized that we were going to be in the Covid mess for much longer than we imagined, and we took more steps to reduce our expenses and to hunker down for an extended period of time in order to insure the long-term survival of the company.  We convinced our landlord to forgive our rent for three months which was an enormous help, but we also were forced to permanently let go a number of staff members, the first layoff we have had since after 9/11, when our industry was also reeling.

 

We say tough times don’t last, but tough people do.   We called all of our remotely working staff back on September 1st and started training and working to launch new products into the film industry, which although not thriving, was at least working. We also wrote and broadcasted a series of eight live webinars on our Multiverse wireless DMX technology, and our “marketing machine” never stopped throughout the whole pandemic, sending out marketing emails, newsletters, and finally as the first shows started up around the world, our Wednesday Matinee emails, symbolizing the beginning of the rebirth of live entertainment.

 

When times are tough, some people step back, and some step forward.  We proved we could make it through tough times after Hurricane Sandy, and many of our staff have again stepped forward during Covid.   Once we got everyone back in the building full time, we worked to rebuild items important to our company culture.  We revived socially distant celebrations and ceremonies, like our monthly company meeting, monthly recognition of years of service, monthly company lunches, employee of the month recognition, birthday celebrations, morning department meetings, and best of all, ringing of bells and gongs for large sales orders.  Covid and working remotely had stifled all of these events.   And for anyone who says that working from home is as productive and as socially relevant as being together in our building, I disagree.   The moment-to-moment daily events, questions, dialogs, conversations overheard, learning, and fun can’t be recreated remotely.   We are a better company now that we are back to work full time and together.  One of the hardest battles we have fought during Covid has been to sustain our unique company culture.

 

I’ve tracked the Covid data for 42 weeks, watched the US cases grow from zero to 19 million, and watched the US deaths rise to over 300,000.  Along the way I read John Barry’s “The Great Influenza” about the ghastly 1918 flu pandemic.   It was a devastating period in which 675,000 Americans died.   Our Covid pandemic deaths may surpass that before it’s over.  This has been a terrible time for the US and the world, and although it hasn’t been easy to run a business in a suffering industry during this time, I am glad I have had this experience, and that I have been able to work with a strong group of fearless and dedicated individuals at City Theatrical.   They have the spirit and heart and soul of survivors.  After Hurricane Sandy, when I was at a loss for words and didn’t really know what to say to our team, I told them, “We can’t see it now, but something good will come out of this.”   It took some time, but we made improvements after Sandy that changed the course of the company for the better, and we doubled in size in just a few years.  Napoleon Hill said, “In every adversity are sown the seeds of an equal or greater benefit.”   I look forward to seeing what it is for us after Covid.