The Gathering Industry (Part 5 of 6).
We are more reliant than we know on an invisible industry that has been pummeled by the pandemic. They accommodate us, feed us, make us laugh, and feel a sense of connection. But, you’ve never heard of this gigantic industry before. 2020 was a year of cruel ironies for the American “gathering industry.”
On March 15, Governor California Gavin Newsom (my first official mentee 25 years ago), a former celebrated restaurateur, issued a stay-at-home order to the citizens of the largest state in the nation. Government officials all over the world proceeded to play regulatory peek-a-boo with restaurateurs since then, given the unpredictable virus, with ever-changing rules for an industry that already had frail operating margins.
It is estimated that more than half of big city restaurants in the U.S. will permanently close due to the pandemic. And, yet the nation’s largest employer, the restaurant industry, which employs fifteen times the labor force of the airline industry, has received a tiny fraction of the federal bailout support compared to just a handful of U.S. airline carriers. After a recent lifeline offered to U.S. airlines, they have received $55 billion compared to what’s estimated to be 10-20% of that amount for U.S. restaurants. This is not fair and will wreak havoc with the soul of many neighborhoods.
Gathering is a Big Business Full of Small Businesses
Restaurants are not alone. So many industries - conventions and meetings, trade expos, festivals, events, sports, casinos, theme parks, private clubs (from Rotary to Soho House), catering, weddings, live theater and music, hotels, movie theaters, aerobics studios, yoga studios, personal growth retreat centers - are on the verge of extinction.
This post is meant to be a wake-up call to the value and beauty of gathering so we can start patronizing this industry again in 2021. I’m sorry if I sound like the President of the Chamber of Commerce, but I feel the burning need to advocate for these small businesses.
Today, we see Americans pleading with politicians to re-open churches, clubs, and community centers because we thirst for connection. But, no one has popularized the term “the gathering industry” to help these very important businesses craft their common narrative and plead their universal case to Washington. Let’s name it and give the gathering industry the power it deserves.
The 21st century has seen the creation of a massive gathering industry. In-person events represented more than $1 trillion in annual consumer spending in 2018 and were projected to grow to $2.5 trillion with more than 10% annual growth through 2026. And, this doesn’t even include all the ancillary businesses that help support this friendly, invisible, monster octopus of an industry.
The NFL and Disney will survive, but what about the rest of the gathering industry entrepreneurs when laws and new cultural mores chain us to our homes? How will creativity and culture - often some of the societal collateral benefits of gathering - be fed during this dark time? What green shoots of innovation are starting to sprout that may give hope to the gathering industry that has been most pummeled by the pandemic?
Burning Man’s Pivot
Few modern events are more synonymous with collective effervescence than Burning Man in the northern Nevada high desert. I’ve been making the annual pilgrimage out there for twenty years and was a founding Board member of BurningMan.org, the non-profit that owns and operates the event and many ancillary endeavors based upon the 10 Principles. It’s hard to imagine green shoots sprouting in the Black Rock Desert, but Burning Man’s 2020 shifts might be instructive to the gathering industry.
Having cycled off the Board in late 2019, I wasn’t part of the ingenious, chaotic inner workings of how to create BRCvr, the virtual Burning Man that served as the pandemic replacement for the annual desert arts and spiritual bacchanalia. To be honest, I was a little skeptical. Can URL replace IRL? How can our mirror neurons dance and Serendipity have her way with us when we’re not there In Real Life and, instead, are in some cyber Multiverse?
But, based upon editorial reviews and word-of-mouth buzz, Burning Man was able to pull it off. Of course, the Org has deep pockets and a very supportive community which helped with some of the funding. And, the collective of artists and technologists committed to this pivot was impressive. Most of the gathering industry would love to be so fortunate. Additionally, there’s some evidence that if you’ve connected in real life with someone or a community (and become a “Burner”), it's a much shorter bridge to simulate that dopamine high in the online world.
MEA has had its own learning about the new URL/IRL hybrid world of gathering. I had to sideline my techno-phobic ways when we decided to launch MEA Online (MEAO) this past fall. MEAO is no MOOC. We have a mixture of live events, one-on-one conversations, and an asynchronous process to achieve a balance of community learning and self-discovery. We’ve been able to develop a sense of community that has kept MEA relevant during this difficult time to gather.
The Prospects for Gathering Industry Entrepreneurs
Once enough of us have been vaccinated, we will once again likely initially gather for small family reunions, a weekend with a few friends, or in our places of worship, but with time, we will see how wired we are for connection beyond our immediate tribes. If I had to predict, here are the segments I’d be bullish about with respect to seeing a rebound in their IRL business:
- Easy, low-commitment offerings like neighborhood restaurants
- Segments that haven’t already been disrupted by technology (Examples of segments that HAVE been disrupted to the peril of their margins: restaurants by DoorDash; hotels by Airbnb)
- Businesses that have evangelically-loyal customers who see the gathering experience as a ritual for which they yearn (like churches and aerobic studios)
- Enterprises that capture key rites of passage (like wedding planners and venues)
- Experiences that can’t be replicated by URL, so IRL is essential (like a tango dancing studio)
If you’re a gathering industry entrepreneur reading this, I deeply empathize with what you’re going through. We’ve had to do the same. My friend and MEA alum Eric Fenster is the co-founder of the aptly-named Gather Restaurant in Berkeley, California. In reaching out to his community to ask for the financial bridge through Kickstarter to get to the other side of this pandemic with a new concept that includes a market, he wrote a poignant plea:
“There are rare moments these days in which I can sense my wider community. One of you might enter my mind, and I feel a wave of gratitude followed by a pang of sadness as I feel the distance between us over the last year (or beyond for old friends). And when I think about it, so many of my best memories with you took place at Gather. You have showed up with your 10-day-old babies in tow for your first meal out; you came out in style for our various celebrations; you planned your surprise marriage proposals in our chef kitchen (true story!); you fashioned our light fixtures from wine bottles; you donated your belts to our banquette upholstery; or you shared an intimate meal with me and Melinda. Thank you for bringing your brilliance and spirit to my life and to Gather.”
Who in the gathering industry do you think is most prepared to survive this meltdown and why? How can we support our local small businesses?