Until a few days ago, Abby Borden had been putting together a proposal for the food and beverage program for the premiere of “F9,” the upcoming ninth installment of Universal’s incredibly successful “Fast & Furious” franchise, originally set to bow in May. As a catering consultant, Borden often advises about the menus and catering needs for big industry events.
“Our business is based on gatherings. That’s kind of the point,” Borden told Variety.
Another event she had been working on, the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America: Los Angeles, which was supposed to take place at The Fields food hall in downtown L.A. in April, has been pushed to the fall.
“There’s uncertainty over if this is just going to affect us for a few weeks, or just a few months, or are people really looking to push things a year,” she said.
As restricting large gatherings becomes the norm, hospitality industry professionals like Borden are certainly feeling the financial strain of event cancellations, which includes everything from movie premieres to store openings and brand launches.
Ernest Sturm is CEO of Runway Collective, a company that includes Runway Waiters, an agency that books models for catering gigs, brand ambassador jobs and promotional modeling. Sturm said that his company usually staffs up to 50 events around the country; a “slow week” would be 20 events. This past week, they had six.
“It’s cancellation after cancellation. We might have to pause the entire operation until further notice,” said Sturm, who employs some 500 models/waiters on a per-event basis in cities including Los Angeles, New York and Miami.
Sturm added that his employees — who earn roughly $30 per hour per event, sometimes more — are in a particularly challenging position, as modeling jobs, bookings and auditions are drying up, too.
“They focus on their modeling career, and they do this on the side to support their careers,” he said. “If modeling is down, they rely on Runway Waiters, but [we’re] not doing too well, either.”
Clients who cancel last minute with the company can opt to use a credit for a future event (or even get a refund if they cancel early enough), but wait staff receive no compensation for canceled events they would have worked at; they are instead promised work at a future event.
Brand ambassadors (live demonstrators of products, foods, etc. at trade shows and events), catering wait staff and promotional modeling jobs are popular gigs among actors and models who rely on flexible schedules for auditions and bookings. But when a force majeure circumstance — like a global pandemic — results in gig cancellations, they are rarely entitled to any kind of compensation.
Indeed, if the tables are turned and brand ambassadors cancel a gig last minute, they could be responsible for paying a staffing agency a “kill fee” — or percentage of what they would have made for the job — in addition to finding their replacements.
In one contract reviewed by Variety, the kill fee was up to 25 percent of gross wages plus per diem and parking fees. Another included monetary docks of payment if a brand ambassador takes, say, too long a lunch break ($20 for every 10 minutes a person is late).
Actor Desiree Manly knows that world well, and until recently, had relied on brand ambassador jobs for the majority of her income. Manly had been anticipating a significant paycheck from working the 2020 Electronic Entertainment Expo as a video game demonstrator, a gig she has had for the past six years.
But when the Entertainment Software Association announced the event’s cancellation on Wednesday, she said she lost what was likely a $1,400-$2,000 paycheck for working the three-day conference.
On the acting side, auditions for national commercials and TV shows have also fizzled out, save for a voiceover audition. She estimates that she has lost some $10,000 in potential income in the past few weeks alone and thinks she can stay afloat for maybe another month.
“I had this whole month and April filled up in my schedule. I was completely aware of how much I was going to make, when the checks were going to be coming in. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve never worried about it,” said Manly, who has worked on-and-off as a brand ambassador since 2007. “I know what my income needs to be for every month. But all of that’s canceled.”
The Florida native started an account with online marketplace Poshmark and has begun listing designer items she’s received from working gigs over the years in an effort to generate some cash flow. She also signed up with a temp agency, which has staffed her in an office to answer phones for a few days, albeit at a fraction of what she would be making as a brand ambassador.
For Kika Magalhães, the future is less certain. Magalhães, an actor who starred in horror film “The Eyes of My Mother” (it premiered at Sundance in 2016), started working part-time as a waiter and bartender for a large catering company six months ago, a job she relishes because of its flexibility, she says.
But now with all her catering jobs and auditions canceled, she is biding her time at home; she had considered using the downtime to visit her family in her native Portugal, but worried that she would have to be quarantined upon her return to the U.S. She does not currently have health insurance, as she failed to qualify for SAG-AFTRA’s plan this year.
“I’m not prepared for this, obviously,” said Magalhães. “If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. I’m in that situation where I’m not going to be making any money, and I’m very worried. I’m very worried.”
So is her friend, Arron Turnbull. Turnbull also works in catering and as a brand ambassador for various wellness companies that market to what he calls the “Erewhon crowd,” referencing the trendy (and pricey) health food store chain in Los Angeles. He says he works 12 to 14 catering events a month; six have been canceled in March alone.
At this point, Turnbull is worried that he will not be able to make his rent. He’s reaching out to credit card companies and the credit union for his auto loan to see if he can defer payments.
“All of the other waiters at catering companies, now they’re looking for work, as well,” he said. “It’s not even like I can go find another job tomorrow. It’s like, there are no jobs.”
Maddy Hayes, a model, isn’t feeling the anxiety as much. Hayes, who picks up gigs occasionally through Runway Waiters, says maintaining multiple streams of revenue is helping her keep afloat.
“I would not say that I’m worried,” Hayes said. “I’ve saved over the last few years and kind of have mentally prepared that something might slow down.”
To continue her work as a fit model for various clothing brands, Hayes is asking that companies ship her clothing so that she can conduct fitting sessions at home. She also works as a nutritional accountability and fitness coach and partners with brands on her Instagram account. Hayes says it’s definitely a wake-up call for people to be better prepared to weather unexpected financial storms such as this one.
As for Borden, it’s hard to not think about the domino effect one lousy quarter could have on the rest of the year.
“Our industry is a service industry. Q1 earnings pay for Q2, Q2 earnings help pay for Q3 If one quarter goes out, it really pushes it,” she said.
Right now, she’s looking to the fall and doing as much preparation as she can for potential events at that time.
“Unfortunately, it’s a complete holding pattern,” she said, “until the fear subsides.”
(pictured: E3 Expo 2019)