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March 09, 2023 | Tom Ballard

How the live event industry is recovering from the pandemic

“One-third of our competitors did not survive, one-third are now hampered with significant debt, and another third survived without substantial debt,” the Founder and Chair of Knoxville-headquartered Bandit Lites said.

“The industry is incredibly healthy, but the challenge we’re facing is labor,” says Michael Strickland, Founder and Chair of Bandit Lites, the Knoxville-headquartered company that has built a global reputation specializing in lighting needs for concerts, film, television, theater, architectural design, installation, and consultation.

That’s a radically different outlook from not quite two years ago when the concert industry was in the midst of a 16-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was in the first half of 2021 that we last connected with Strickland for this three-part series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).

“One-third of our competitors did not survive, one-third are now hampered with significant debt, and another third survived without substantial debt,” he says. “We are okay. We kept 300 people on the payroll, the only company to do so.”

Because of that fact, Bandit Lites was positioned much better than most of its competitors and thus able to respond very quickly “out of the gate” when customers started calling again. That said, the live entertainment industry is not immune to the worker challenges that almost every sector faces.

“We could do 20 to 30 percent more (business) if we had the people,” Strickland says. “We’ve already passed on 20 to 25 major tours. We were 95 percent booked from a people perspective in early February.”

While the live event industry has recovered, Strickland says that many things have not changed. One of those that is top of mind for him is continued advocacy for the live entertainment industry and the impacts that it has felt as a result of the pandemic. As noted in the second article in our series, Strickland has been a frequent advocate for the industry on Capitol Hill.

He talks about the $16.5 billion “Save Our Stages” (SOS) Act that was part of the massive $900 billion COVID-19 relief package passed in December 2020 by the U.S. Congress. The SOS Act provided a lifeline to venue operators but failed to include the companies like Bandit Lites that serve as the backbone to event production.

“It was shuttered in late 2021 with about $2 billion in reserve,” Strickland explains. Now, there’s a move to take all COVID-related relief money, rescind the authorization, and reallocate the funds for other purposes.

He is working with Tennessee’s two Senators – Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty – on something called the “MUSIC Act” (Music Under Severe Income Crisis) that would reopen the program for service and support organizations.

“It has bipartisan support,” Strickland says of the bill. “No one is against it but you’re battling reallocation.”

Noting that “entertainment does great when the economy is not that great,” he’s experienced a rollercoaster since he founded the company at 12 years of age. Strickland uses two words to describe the company, his leadership philosophy, and his decisions about accepting or rejecting opportunities. One is humanomics which he defines as “decision making based on what is best for people first and everything else as a determiner later.” That’s his overarching controlling concept. In deciding jobs that it will or will not accept, Strickland says that is captured in a four-letter word. It is STEP which stands for space, time, equipment, and people.

Bandit Lites has five locations – Knoxville, Charlotte, Nashville, and San Francisco in the U.S. plus London – that check the space box. It invests heaving in equipment, focuses intently to ensure that it dedicates the quality time required for each event, and focuses on its people as reflected in the lack of layoffs during the pandemic.

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