[Updated] For most Americans, there has been an exact moment in time when the realization struck that the COVID-19 outbreak was something new – a disruptive event along the lines of great historical upheavals that very few of us have experienced within living memory. For Chip Warterfield, fleet safety manager at Upstaging, that moment came at 12:30 pm on March 12.
Upstaging is a specialized carrier out of Chicago that hauls lighting, rigging, staging, and other elements necessary for live events such as concerts, plays, and other shows. Live Nation, one of the country's largest concert promotors and ticket sellers, had just announced it was suspending all live shows for the foreseeable future. Social distancing is an awkward concept when your daily work location has tens of thousands of people waiting for you to deliver.
“Up to that moment, this was a serious issue,” Warterfield told HDT in an interview. “And we were monitoring cancellations closely. But that was the instant when our world changed. Live concerts are a $26 billion a year industry. You have to understand that they’re just not going to pull the plug on that kind of revenue on a whim. So that’s when we knew things were going to our worst-case scenario – that this was a severe break.”
Like many specialized industries, Warterfield said, there is a seasonal ebb and flow to concerts and other live entertainment shows. And as winter slowly gave way to spring, the fleet was ramping up and getting ready to hit the road for another summer full of shows. “We had the hammer cocked and were ready to go,” Warterfield said. “All of the associated carriers in our trade were probably at 65%-70% capacity when suddenly, everything shut off. It was like a thousand parking brakes being snapped on all at once.”
In the eerie silence that followed the Live Nation announcement, Upstaging fleet executives pondered their next move. And the prospects were not good – because literally every one of the fleet’s 200 trucks and trailers is dedicated to hauling goods to support acts and live shows.
What were they going to do?
Everyone at Upstaging tends to be an engaged problem-solver, Warterfield said. “There’s a special group of people out there in the live event space that do remarkable work in normal conditions. Our role in production thrives on adversity, and our people are showing their best at this time of need,” he said. “And one of our drivers said he had a working relationship with a logistics company that deals with groceries and household items in short supply. He’d be happy to make a phone call and see if they needed any extra capacity.”
It turned out that the logistics company did need more capacity to meet the need to replenish ransacked grocery and retail shelves. “They asked what capacity we could send their way,” Warterfield said. “We started the next day and are still adding capacity.”
Warterfield noted that so far, this is keeping the wheels turning and the “machine oiled,” as he likes to put it. And, he adds, Upstaging is still in the early stages of adjusting its operations, moving personnel around and locating trailers. We are even working with other production businesses on how to re-tool our staging equipment to work with emergency efforts. But we are still very much in the triage stage of things – trying to figure out how to do this and get everyone in place where they need to be.
"Be it a lighting system, a temporary power utility, or a truckload of bread, we can get it there overnight. Now we are focusing on relief logistics. We can even adapt our video department and graphics shop to produce directional messaging. Our trailers are specialized to carry sensitive electronics every day. We’re happy to load anything in there during the crisis. If there is a load of medical equipment that needs moving, we’ll bring the hands and get it done.”
Keeping Communications Open
Upstaging is also working hard to keep its drivers and employees up to date with newsletters on what’s happening. “We want our people to be safe out there, no matter what they’re doing,” he said. “We’ve sent out email blasts explaining the science behind what’s going on and stressing the point that no one has immunity to this virus, and that’s why it’s so dangerous right now. We’re also talking to the drivers about the importance of social distancing as a way to stay healthy. I’m impressed that our drivers are ready to soldier on in the midst of this crisis. We even have ‘not yet hired’ drivers stepping up to work.”
On March 18, Warterfield put out additional information to make sure his drivers understood the new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration exemption of hours of service regulations for drivers involved in "relief" freight related to the outbreak.
“The problem there is some people will just glance at the headline and assume they can now act as they wish,” he said. “We quickly put out a bulletin to explain that this waiver only applies under certain circumstances when hauling emergency relief supplies, and is no longer in effect one those supplies are delivered.”
Warterfield’s advice to other fleets that find themselves in a similar situation is to start networking at once. “Never rule out any possibility when it comes to finding work,” he said. “You can’t really have an action plan for something as extreme as the situation we’re in right now. But you can have an action plan in place once you do realize that you’re in a whole new business reality. Put it in place and be flexible. Because things are moving fast, adjustments to that plan are going to happen almost daily.”
UPDATE: Upstaging Adds Face Shield Manufacturing
We touched base with Upstaging about a month after our initial interview and learned the company also had turned to manufacturing face shields. “We have several different capabilities in our shop to produce any number of functions for shows, with loads of CAD-CAM equipment (computer aided design and manufacturing), so some of our big brains in that area took to figuring out what we could do with the equipment and identified face shields.
“We have a 100,000-square foot assembly area for building stage shows and that has been converted to face shield assembly,” Warterfield said. “We even have a small local truck division that’s procuring the supplies.”
Lighting department people started assembling the masks, and soon Upstaging was shipping them out by a FedEx truckload daily. Celebrities that use Upstaging for their tours, such as Miley Cyrus, were soon giving shoutouts on social media to the effort.
Hauling groceries and relief loads of personal protective equipment into New York City is a big change for drivers whose normal work involves big-name acts such as The Rolling Stones and Taylor Swift. However, some disgruntlement about the change is largely offset by the new-found recognition among the general public of the importance of truck drivers, and the feeling that their work is vital to a country in crisis.
“There are other carriers of our type where they’ve furloughed drivers,” Warterfield says. “We recognize that what we’re currently doing is just keeping the machine running. We’re not anticipating in this era of declining freight rates that this is sustainable, but we’re keeping our people employed and keeping them busy.”
By mid to late April, Upstaging was seeing far fewer grocery loads and falling rates falling. At peak operations the company usually runs 185 trucks; as of April 22 it was at 125.
“We’re as optimistic as anyone as to when things are going to return to our regularly scheduled programming, but this is an unknown,” Warterfield said, “so we’re going to explore alternative activities and establish other possibilities.”
HDT Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge contributed to this story.