Hawaii businesses that support local live events look to save their companies

Leila Fujimori, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
·5 min read

May 4—Bob Harmon remembers lighting up the stage for his first concert at age 16 as a Kailua High School student in 1974 for the folk-rock duo Brewer &Shipley.

Thus began his now 47-year-old Hawaii business as a behind-the-scenes guy in the world of live entertainment in Hawaii.

Harmon, president of Eggshell Lighting, with more than $5 million in inventory, is just one of many small-business owners and workers whose services and equipment are essential to the continuance of live concerts in Hawaii and who are trying to find a way forward during this pandemic when large events have been on hold for the past 14 months.

"We want to save an industry, " said Harmon, who also is president of the Hawaii Events Coalition. "We don't want someone to buy us all up. We've fought the debt to get back to business. The local market is something special."

Concert promoter Rick Bartalini, president and CEO of Rick Bartalini Presents, says if the governor and others in power don't allow large events, with proper safety measures in place, concerts may be a thing of the past.

He says a concert needs a six-month lead time to bring in artists, advertise, promote, plan and ensure all the shows are held safely. If the businesses making up the industry fail due to a lack of revenue, hundreds will lose their jobs permanently.

Harmon said it's not just the lighting, sound and stage people, but the photographers, videographers, poster printers, taxis, restaurants and countless others.

"We've been impacted massively by the downturn, " he said, adding that this year was better than last. "We were having a record year the first two months of 2019. There was no expectation that it was going to stop to zero."

Harmon said members of the coalition are "trying to figure out how to get back to work ... and generally help people."

One thing they are doing is training people to act as COVID safety officers.

But they are also trying to make plans on "how the industry is going to get back on its feet, " Harmon said. "We're trying to push the conversation."

"How do we divide the audience based on safe social distancing ?" Harmon said. "It will not turn on like a light switch."

He said, "In an airplane you sit six abreast for eight to 10 hours to get here. In that time you could see three concerts."

Mayor Rick Blangiardi said Friday during an interview on Honolulu Star-Advertiser's Spotlight that he would like Oahu to hit the mark of 1 million fully vaccinated residents and 2 million doses given before abolishing Honolulu's tier system, which allows the gradual reopening of the city based on COVID-19 numbers.

The state has hit 1.2 million doses in vaccines so far, he said.

"Overall, we've had the best numbers in the country since the pandemic started, " Blangiardi said. "If we can get some venues open and have people properly spaced, I would be in favor of doing that.

He said that he believes in the efficacy of the vaccines, and "when the tier system was drafted, we didn't have the vaccine."

"What I envision is stay in a modified Tier 3, " he said, with road races, swim meets and other events with proper distancing.

"If we could do that and we get to a million people, 2 million vaccines, I would actually try to move to abolishing the tier structure because I think it's creating some confusion in the minds of some people on the ability to go forward because, again, it was drafted without the consideration of vaccines."

Bartalini would like his industry to have a seat at the table to discuss a plan with the governor and other government officials on the safe return of large-scale live entertainment events, and says there is no plan to guide their reopening large live events.

"The mayor didn't reach out to me, " and nobody did, he said. "People are hurting, and to not even be thought about ... We're not demanding, we're pleading. We're in debt up to our eyeballs."

Bartalini, who has brought entertainers such as Mariah Carey, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie and Trevor Noah to Hawaii stages, would like to see Hawaii open up to indoor live events and performances as California plans to do.

California's Department of Public Health has had an evolving blueprint for reopening but now plans to fully reopen June 15, but with "limited public health restrictions such as masking, testing and testing or vaccination verification requirements for large-scale higher-risk events, " its website says.

While Bartalini's business as a promoter is covered and he will receive some grant money, other businesses will not.

He said the cost of putting on the Thanksgiving 2016 Mariah Carey show was "$900, 000 before we paid Mariah." The expenses, he said, totaled $2.2 million, and the show grossed $2.5 million, so "margins are very thin. It's already a high-risk industry in a remote location."

Pat Ku, president of Rhema Services, a professional audio rental company, said, "We're just one of many players. You're not supposed to see us. We're too specialized. We lobbied our senators when we realized we weren't covered, but they didn't understand."

He said shuttered entertainment venues such as the Hawaii Theatre and promoters received grants, but not all the support businesses.

Ku's company, which has annual sales of $2.8 million annually (pre-pandemic ), employs six full-timers but hires about 25 contractors and part-timers.

Rhema Services, which does sound for concerts, business meetings and large corporate events of 300 to 400 people, has lost 92 % in revenue.

Bartalini says industry businesses might pack up and leave the state, and there may no longer be live concerts.

Harmon reminds those who say you can watch performances on television :

"Concerts are what you chalk time by, special moments. You remember who you were with. You can picture that moment ... the most amazing things that happen, when the lead singer bent over and somebody gave him a lei. The audience starts applauding. You feel that sense. It goes right to left. That kind of moment is something you miss. You can't get that on television."