American Film Market participants are grounded this year due to restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 virus and the market going virtual. Those factors have resulted in significant economic fallout for Santa Monica, the confab’s seaside home. There will be no power breakfast at Cora’s Coffee Shoppe; Santa Monica’s 29 movie screens are dark; and although restaurants and hotels have re-opened, occupancy is far off the city’s usual 92% or higher hotel occupancy rate.
“On top of everything else, no AFM in Santa Monica is a devastating loss,” says Misti Kerns, president and CEO of Santa Monica Travel and Tourism. Per collected data, the AFM is a $20 million annual revenue boost for local businesses. “Losing AFM is another difficult obstacle for us this year.” The city netted more than $58 million in bed taxes alone from visitor spending in 2019.
The AFM’s move online comes partly in response to the county of Los Angeles and state of California rules regarding gatherings: at this time hotel meeting or convention spaces are not allowed to be used. Up to a party of six from the same household are allowed for in-person, outside dining. Although area hotels were ready and willing to support a scaled-back or hybrid event, “It was not feasible given the volume of international visitors that typically attend and the only natural way for them to proceed is virtually,” says Sam Jagger, general manager, Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows.
The shift to online-only was “justifiable and understood,” echoes Kevin Anawati, area director of sales and marketing at Viceroy Hotel Group. AFMers are well-acquainted with his properties: the Viceroy Santa Monica and Le Meridien Delfina.
“I’m confident that by next summer COVID-related matters will be further along, and we’ll plan ahead for several scenarios. This year’s event will dictate next year,” he says. The AFM normally results in a spike in fall hotel occupancy and demand, he adds.
By design and strategy, downtown Santa Monica is a compact destination. Most AFM attendees walk rather than rent cars, use public transportation or the AFM shuttle service. “It’s why the AFM is such a good piece of business for us: the majority are international and use public transport,” Kerns says, adding that they do a lot of shopping as well as eating out.
Restaurants rely on the uptick in business during the film market, which attracted nearly 7,000 participants in 2019.
Josh Loeb, CEO and founder of the Rustic Canyon Family of restaurants, notably Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon, Cassia and Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe, says the period during AFM is a normally busy, time with scores of market badgeholders easy to spot dining at the group’s nine eateries. However, seven months into the pandemic, “There’s still an ever-evolving challenge of how to deal with a very much uncertain time,” Loeb says.
The hospitality group has taken challenges head on — refining menus for more to-go offerings and expanding dining seating outdoors — with different levels of success, admits Loeb. The Payroll Protection Plan loans were a safety net, too, allowing the group to keep staff.
For event planners and those who rely on the AFM for event-related income, the trickle-down impact is substantial. Samantha Sackler, CEO of event design and production company the Firm, says there’s a lengthy call sheet of event personnel taking a financial hit.
“First off, the city is impacted because there are no permitting fees or taxes collected,” says the veteran event planner. “Then everyone from security officers, to additional service staff, planners, production designers, furniture rental companies, printers [and all the people who create print materials from AFM banners to ancillary materials], to caterers, busers, tech people and A/V personnel are all not hired. It’s unreal,” she says.
COVID-19’s crushing effect on Hollywood’s event industry has prompted her to speak out and advocate for increased government support. (Eligibility for PPP loans is complicated for those in the events biz because so many suppliers and vendors are independent businesses rather than employees).
She’s also utilized her entrepreneurial skills to implement recommended health protocols and produce sanctioned private events (50 or fewer people) that meet city and state health guidelines for capacity and satisfy clients who are eager to socialize safely. Prior event testing via a RAPID test of all participants (staff and guests) and day-of event testing via a registered nurse (often covered by health insurance) are key steps to safe event production. “Life has changed, but does not need to be shut down,” says Sackler.
Santa Monica’s recovery task force is addressing the issues surrounding safe re-opening. To that end, permits for expanded restaurant outdoor dining are reviewed quickly, a lifeline for some businesses and eateries, says Santa Monica’s Travel and Tourism exec Kerns. “We’re trying to figure out: how do we adjust?” She continues to encourage the city to make streetside outdoor dining more permanent.
General manager Younes Atallah of the 347-room Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel (AFM’s core venue since 1991) says the hotel is doing its best to adjust to the new reality and is “hopeful that the AFM comes back next year and we’re prepared for next year.” Renovations moved the hotel’s Ocean & Vine restaurant into the soaring atrium while its former location was repurposed into a social and meeting space with floor-to-ceiling ocean views.
Some production personnel and business guests have trickled back to Loews; a new hotel room package (Work/Learn/Lounge) is designed to appeal to families with a connecting room 50% off to entice family work and school staycations.
“We’ve had to be creative in creating activities and activating the property,” says Atallah, pointing to the hotel’s upcoming Miracle on Ocean Avenue event, featuring poolside igloos for socially distanced dining and other imaginative holiday programming.
The Viceroy Santa Monica recently completed a lobby makeover in celebration of its 20th anniversary, adding natural materials throughout, original art and a soon-to-come espresso bar, bakery and new signature restaurant Sugar Palm.
The newly renovated Backyard pool deck and dining patio offers a full bar and socially distanced, outdoor dining Thursday through Sunday. Bungalows allow for relaxed separation. Guests these days are almost entirely leisure travelers who book at the last moment.
“The travel, hospitality and service industry is in dire straits right now,” Anawati says.
He forecasts the hotel’s past rates and occupancy trends won’t be realized again fully for another four or five years, with or without the AFM.