Hospitality entrepreneur forced to reinvent himself as industry is hit hard by lockdown
It took the Johannesburg entrepreneur his entire life to move through the ranks with several companies and eventually build his own successful business, DNG Presentation and Staging. But like with many businesses around the world, Covid-19 is leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.
Harvey, though, is digging deep. With a wife and five kids, and over 50 employees, he didn’t have much choice.
Seven years ago Harvey, together with two partners, started DNG Presentation and Staging - a technical services company providing equipment and skilled technical staff for corporate events. The company would design the sound layout and application, the lighting (both decorative and functional), the screens (projection, LCD screens, high end modular LED screens), and stages and sets for both indoor and outdoor applications.
It was certainly a labour of love.
“I tell people my five kids are from the five nights I had off in my first 21 years of this industry . My wife and I joke about the long ungrateful hours loading trucks at 4am after the last drunken soul has left the dance floor, and that the DJ is way better than we want him to be. What we would give to be doing that now.”
DNG’s challenge is that in order for there to be a requirement for its services, it needs a live audience of a decent size.
But decent-sized audiences are a thing of the past - at least for the foreseeable future.
Covid-19 has taken the world by storm and has forced businesses around the world to rethink an entire way of life.
Hardest hit has been the hospitality industry, and DNG has not been spared.
Harvey and his team were quietly confident of a smashingly successful 2020, with investments in equipment and an array of events lined up.
But Covid-19 “ruined the party”.
“The lockdown has had an extreme effect on our entire industry and related industries. From the moment the first whisperings began around Covid hitting South Africa’s shores, the cancellations began. Events worth millions were cancelled altogether or indefinitely postponed. As the Covid story develops in South Africa, the news continues to get worse for us.
“Our dedicated team is often ‘first in and last out’ of venues in order to deliver successful events,” he said.
With over 50 permanent employees in Cape Town and Johannesburg and a further 40-odd freelancers on its books, the impact of the pandemic on DNG has been devastating.
“Financially, the impact is real for all of us. Whilst we were able to cover full salaries for the month of March, we had to go to reduced salaries after that. The impact of this lockdown and gradual release (live events/public gatherings are still ‘not allowed’ under level 1) means that we are not sure for how long we can pay even reduced salaries.”
Harvey said the the biggest concern was that although DNG had been able to benefit from some temporary relief from banks and landlords for three months, the hospitality industry had a much bigger and longer-lasting problem to deal with.
“With very little income being generated from online events and a limited amount of cash in the bank, the outlook is bleak. There is no official date for live events even at mid-level to start happening again.
“We can’t really plan. The cash reserves are obviously limited and we are currently not generating enough work to sustain the business long term. The cold, hard truth is that many players in this industry will not survive this extended period of no events.”
But with an obvious drive and determination, Harvey is pulling out all the stops to keep his company afloat and his employees in a job.
“We are hosting more online events on multiple platforms and extending our capabilities in terms of hosting professional webcasts in partnership with the leading webcast company in South Africa.
“We have built a studio environment in our warehouse from where we plan to stream and broadcast more professional presentations and awards-type events virtually. We have been upskilling on the installation of huddle room equipment and doing online training courses in order to prepare ourselves as best we can for a post-lockdown world, whatever that looks like.
“The more online events and ‘studio shoots’ we can do, the longer we can extend payments to our staff and landlords.”
Harvey said the Southern African Communications Industries Association was working with several other associations in the events sector to try and find solutions to kick-start the industry.
“As we commence work in a post-covid world it’s likely that we’ll be working with new stakeholders - creating opportunities for collaboration means a shared commitment to professional standards.
“In a post-covid world it’s likely that both individuals and companies will be desperate for work. Abiding by a common code of professional conduct means that business can develop with minimal disruption.”
He said there was a need for a clear understanding that the impact of the pandemic was particularly hard on certain industries, and the events sector was right at the sharp end.
“The prohibition on meetings is likely to be extended for several months and large-scale events such as sporting events and music concerts are unlikely to return as we know them until a vaccine has been developed and is readily available. The impact of this expands across many industry sectors and many suppliers are expected to permanently close their doors.”
Harvey also voiced his concern over the government’s failure to address the plight of freelancers and commission-only contractors. “About 65% of people working in the events industry are freelance contractors who are now cut off from work opportunities but don’t fall into any of the relief programmes announced so far.”
In the meantime, this business owner is back to making ends meet and keeping as many people employed as possible, while dreaming of a time when setting up for popular events like Fit Night Out at Montecasino or a corporate gig at Sun City gave him a thrill - and a possibly a headache.
“I saw an article that said that the live events and hospitality industries were the first affected and will be last to return to market.
“ What I miss the most is delivering exciting and successful live events. The interaction with groups of people and the buzz that goes with it. Delivering that ‘wow’ moment to large audiences. There’s nothing like it,” Harvey said.