Fairbanks event and production industries struggle during COVID-19 pandemic

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) The production industry in Fairbanks was hurt by event cancellations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alaska Universal Productions and Sound Reinforcement Systems have been transitioning their services to meet online event needs. (Alex Bengel/KTVF)

Jonathan Huff, owner and CEO of Alaska Universal Productions, Inc. (AUP), explained the immediate impact of the pandemic on his business, saying, “We went from a fairly packed schedule all the way through the end of summer to practically nothing at this point.”

Sean Roy, a video technician and production assistant with AUP, echoed Huff’s statement. “We watched our calendars just completely empty over the course of like two days, when all the health mandates first started and people started to become more aware of what was going on with COVID,” he said.

AUP is a production company that primarily covers live events --providing filming, set-up, lighting and sound. Prior to COVID-19, the company handled around 200 events a year.

Among the cancelled or postponed events AUP was scheduled to cover were military events, high school graduations, the Midnight Sun Festival and the Midnight Sun Run.

According to Huff, AUP had to lay off its entire staff, and is only now starting to be able to bring them back in a limited capacity.

Roy has worked at AUP for over a year. His job is to determine what equipment is necessary to put on an event and to help set up the needed materials. Roy was one of the employees laid off, and has been unemployed for much of the last two months, returning in a limited capacity recently.

Josh Bennett, owner of a live event production company in Fairbanks called Sound Reinforcement Specialists, had five scheduled events cancelled in one day when the shutdown occurred and has covered no events since.

Despite the difficulties the pandemic has presented, Huff remains optimistic about the future of his company. “We’re going to be here no matter what. We’re definitely not going away. We definitely have a good little savings going on, but our numbers are definitely not going to be there compared to the last couple years,” he said.

Huff, Bennett and Roy all see the immediate future of the industry as involving more virtual events. “Moving forward, I see a lot more push for even local production to go online, which will reshape a bit how we perceive a live concert,” Bennett said.

While live events have dried up, AUP has begun providing support for virtual events in the form of, among other things, livestreaming, platform security and equipment rental. According to Huff, these services are in demand by weddings, churches and conference centers.

Roy expressed concern that the live event work AUP typically covers will not reappear soon. “I’m very confident that our industry probably won’t bounce back, not in any recognizable form. Until there’s a vaccine and we can safely gather in groups of hundreds of people, particularly for events that would encourage out-of-state tourists to come to Alaska, I don’t think we’re going to bounce back in any meaningful sense.”

He and Huff both see their industry as being hit early by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Roy said, “The events industry was the first to be impacted by COVID overall. They wanted to cancel everything that had large congregations of people. Think about concerts, the conferences... all of that stuff was cancelled immediately.”

With the wide array of social and economic impacts being seen around the community during this crisis, Roy said he thinks his industry may be largely forgotten at this time. “I think that most people who go to big events like concerts and conferences and things like that are very unaware of the amount of work and labor and production, [and] personnel that go into making those events happen to begin with,” he said.

Bennett sees this crisis as an opportunity to renew appreciation for local arts. “When things get tough, whether it’s economic, or whether it’s social, or whether it’s health-related, the arts are one of the most important things that we have to lift everybody up and to make us all feel better,” he said.

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