Site operators balance ‘free for all’ and optimism in latest pandemic chapter

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For select West Michigan music and entertainment venues, the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic is fast approaching. For others, it represents a finish line after enduring the worst.

While federal pandemic relief programs — particularly the Paycheck Protection Program and closed-site operator grants — have served as a critical lifeline that has kept businesses large and small afloat, the current scenario is in some ways more challenging than those early months of COVID-19.

Venue operators, promoters and artists are coping effectively, with some venues in more precarious situations than others.

“At least before, we had hope for advice (earlier in the pandemic),” said Michelle Hanks, co-owner Seven Steps Up with her husband, Gary. “Free for all seems like a pretty good way to describe it right now. We have no direction. It’s actually worse than no guidance.

Hanks was referring to the current situation of venues having a hodgepodge of mask and vaccination requirements, which is complicated by demands from artists and performers as well as unruly patrons. Hanks said Seven Steps Up, an intimate listening room in downtown Spring Lake, was among the first places in the state to require proof of vaccinations and mask-wearing among patrons.

“We got a message the other day from someone who literally took the time and said, ‘I hope you’re in pain because of your vaccine mandate,'” Hanks said. “It’s very difficult.”

The omicron variant ushered in a wave of show cancellations for venues like Seven Steps Up. The venue canceled seven shows in December, held three in January and plans two in February. A typical year for Seven Steps Up would include over 120 shows; he held a fraction of them – some at half capacity – in 2020 and 2021.

A federal grant for gated-site operators of nearly $263,000 is “the only reason we’re still standing,” Hanks said. “We have people coming up to us and saying, ‘We’re so glad to see you back.’ And we’re like, ‘Back? We’ve got three fuckin’ shows. How can this be back? Ticket sales are down, drink sales are down. That’s not a good situation.

Hanks and Tami VandenBerg, the owner of the Pyramid scheme bar and music venue in downtown Grand Rapids, hope spring brings new fortunes as the omicron variant wanes and artists start touring again. VandenBerg said about a third of the Pyramid Scheme shows in January were cancelled, postponed or rescheduled.

Asked how the pyramid scheme came in financially in 2022, VandenBerg laughed, “It’s complicated.”

“Overall, with all the federal, state, city and county help we’ve received, we’re in great shape. But our hope of having a year in 2022 that looks a lot like the year before 2020 feels like a dream that won’t come true,” she said.

In addition to using federal PPP loans to keep workers on staff, the Pyramid Scheme last year received a grant of more than $930,000 for operators of closed sites, according to a federal database.

VandenBerg also reported a mix of sold-out recent shows as well as events where only a fraction of ticketed patrons showed up, dramatically reducing the venue’s liquor and merchandise sales.

“It seems – from everything I read – that January and February will be particularly risky” before touring activities resume in the spring, VandenBerg said, giving him a general sense of optimism.

Additionally, VandenBerg shared Hanks’ sentiment on the current lack of uniform guidelines and policies.

“It was such a mess. It started from a situation where we couldn’t make any decisions and couldn’t control anything because the state was dictating every step of our lives to, ‘Now you’re on your own, good luck,’” VandenBerg said. “It’s been difficult and frustrating.”

Scott Hammontree, partner and talent buyer at The crossroad in Grand Rapids, echoed VandenBerg’s outlook for the next few months.

“The first quarter is going to be very poor, so I think as we get closer to the summer months – knock on wood – and we’re optimistic with what I’m reading on the variant, we could get back to a some sense of normalcy by the end of the year,” said Hammontree, who is also chairman of the Michigan Independent Venue and Promoter Association. The Intersection, which also includes smaller rooms Elevation and The moustachereceived nearly $3.4 million in federal grants.

“There are reasons to be optimistic”

Venue operators who regularly host theater companies, larger tours and private conventions and events have adopted a more optimistic tone.

Rich MacKeigan, Regional General Manager for Global ASMwho manages the events Van Andel Arena and the DeVos Place Convention Center, expressed optimism as touring resumes. The venues are administered by the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention and Arena Authority (CAA), which has received $10 million in closed venue operator grants over the past two fiscal years.

“I think the general mood is this: there’s reason to be optimistic. Things are coming back from an events perspective, people are attending and spending money when they’re there,” said MacKeigan “It’s all very optimistic.”

He added that the CAA has “not quite returned to full” pre-pandemic budget projections, but that the federal venue grant “certainly goes a long way to shore up some of the losses incurred from COVID.” . As of November 31, the CAA had a net fund balance of just under $9.7 million, according to recent budget documents.

“I think we are still a year away from going back. … (The pandemic) still has a number of touring opportunities shelved for the time being,” MacKeigan said. “The other element is – and I’m not saying they’re wrong at all – there are still a number of people who are not comfortable being in large groups, so that’s also going to take time.”

the Frauenthal Center in downtown Muskegon has remained active for the past two years, installing various facility upgrades and raising more than $5 million through a fundraising campaign, executive director Eric Messing said. The Frauenthal also received a federal grant of $350,000.

With the number of performances reduced, Messing said private events like weddings have played a bigger role in generating revenue for the Frauenthal in recent times.

“We are navigating this pandemic on a daily basis and will continue to pivot as necessary for the safety of patrons, staff, volunteers and performers,” Messing said. “Every day is a new day to see how prepared we are.”

This sense of renewal while tackling new day-to-day pandemic challenges is a shared feeling among site operators, even as their backgrounds and decision-making vary.

“I think all of us, a lot of people in the live music industry, have to hunker down,” Hanks of Seven Steps Up said. “Everyone has to sort of figure out for themselves what that means in terms of survival.”

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