A group of San Diego-based outdoor event producers have banded together in hopes of drawing attention of both city and state lawmakers to the industry.

The San Diego Event Coalition is a 501C(6) organization that was formed June 2020, according to board member Kevin Leap. With eight board members at the helm and the help of some city officials, it has put together a 38-page guideline that outlines how outdoor event coordinators can safely relaunch the industry amid COVID-19.

The goal, Leap said, is to collectively lobby for financial assistance and to forge a safe pathway back to work.

Finding a Collective Voice

“All of us event producers know each other but this is the first time there’s ever been a formal organization of live events because we realized we don’t have a voice,” said Leap, who puts together the San Diego International Auto Show every year and has been instrumental in the production of the San Diego International Film Festival and the La Jolla Concours d’Elegance, the latter a high-end car event.

“Why is it ok for swap meets to continue to operate when they are fenced-in events, serving food, playing music, with no guidelines for sanitation? Even dog-walkers are on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s tiered reopening plan. There have been special dispensations given to other categories, but we haven’t even been acknowledged.”

According to Leap, over 200,000 San Diegans are out of work as a result of the industry’s complete shutdown and millions of dollars that are normally generated through outdoor events hosted in the region are now gone. Since the lockdown, the local events industry as a whole has been able to host just a handful of smaller events, he said, like ArtWalk @ Liberty Station in November and the La Mesa Holiday in the Village. Because the producers followed the laid-out guidelines, which includes temperature checks, mandatory face coverings, social distancing and limited capacity, there were no COVID-19 incidents, he said.

Economic Impact

While the outdoor events industry has never quantified its economic impact as a whole, Laurel McFarlane, president of McFarlane Promotions Inc. and the San Diego Event Coalition, said it is in the millions. A 2018 research by San Diego State University, for example, determined the total economic impact on San Diego County for Pride is estimated at $26.6 million. This, she said, is the result of some 251,000 attendees to the parade, 18.5% of whom were non-local, and related preparation for the event.

“Per year, we probably produce about 60-70 events,” she said of her own McFarlane Promotions company. “When I add up just 20 to 30 of the bigger events, the impact is about $3.5 million. And that’s not even counting the money these events raise for nonprofits.”

Mike Kociela, founder of Westward Entertainment in Del Cerro, said he produces three to four festivals a year with each averaging a million dollars in gross revenue.

Taking this into consideration and their COVID-friendly set-up, Kociela said he is still surprised outdoor events have not been included in the state’s reopening plans.

“There is an entire industry behind the scenes supplying goods and services at a scale in order to successfully pull off a large production,” he said. “Depending on the size of the event, you will find anywhere between 20 and 200 businesses involved and hundreds if not thousands of people working. It’s like building a small city with all of the infrastructure needed to operate it.”

What’s Next?

As far as Kociela is concerned, the next steps should be for the industry to be recognized as a viable one, to be included in the reopening timeline and for the safety guidelines drafted by the San Diego Event Coalition to officially be adopted. Additionally, event producers need the ability to pull permits for small gatherings and to serve alcohol, he said.

“This is no different than what is already taking place all over the county at restaurants and theme parks,” said Kociela. “The state currently only lists large festivals in the tiered reopening plan, which does not accurately reflect the wide range of events that exist. Events come in many different shapes and sizes and the future of our industry should not fall under the state’s narrow definition.”

McFarlane, president of the San Diego Event Coalition, agrees. She said the eight board members are still ringing the bell to try to get their voices heard and get a local elected official to champion for its cause.