Pandemic idles one-person event and marketing business

While most Columbus businesses have reopened as Indiana navigates the COVID-19 pandemic, activities at one local event planning and marketing company are at a standstill as uncertainties remain for the hospitality industry.

Joyce Lucke has been operating PME Projects, a one-person business formerly known as Paragon Meeting and Events, for 14 years.

Lucke, 57, specializes in planning national events for higher education associations, her core business. During the convention offseason, she produces email marketing campaigns for small local businesses.

But impacts from the coronavirus pandemic have caused clients in both business areas to sit things out for the time being.

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“It’s going to be a lean rest of the year,” Lucke said from her downtown Columbus office.

When stay-at-home orders were implemented by most of the nation’s governors, universities changed the way they were operating – and travel was one of the first things cut, she said.

Besides the financial aspect of such decisions, the health component of holding conventions also came into play since COVID-19 spreads from person-to-person contact.

As a result, annual conferences for up to 400 people that Lucke has been planning on behalf of her two client academic associations were canceled for this year.

The first event was called off 12 days ahead of its scheduled March 24 opening as impact of the pandemic spread across the United States. Wanting to maintain a value for its members, the association asked Lucke to create a virtual convention from based on remarks recorded by about 30 speakers for private screenings, something she had never tried before.

Learning new technologies on the fly, Lucke created the digital conference for her March client in seven weeks.

But her multi-year contract with that association has since expired, and Lucke doesn’t expect a renewal decision for at least several months.

A separate late September convention for a different association was cancelled six months out when it became clear that effects of the global pandemic would linger. That client also decided to have Lucke create a virtual meeting for its academic members, to be available this fall.

Such steps by academic associations became necessary as universities cut professional expense budgets such as travel effective with the fall semester. In her role working on behalf of these associations, Lucke secured event venues and lodging needed for academic annual meetings, and negotiated fees for speakers — the biggest part of her own business income.

“They’re already worried about 2021,” Lucke said of the associations, especially if the pandemic returns during the next flu season.

“The hospitality and meeting industry, it’s pretty much devastated,” Lucke said. “The next two to three months are going to be a real tell.”

Travel and hospitality business sectors were also impacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorism attacks, when 3,000 people died and 6,000 more were injured after suicide bombers commandeered and intentionally crashed four U.S. commercial airplanes.

But within two months, travelers were flying again and staying in hotels.

“That looks like a blip compared to this,” Lucke said, with more than 100,000 American lives already lost due to the pandemic. Besides the higher numbers of human loss from this event, economic impacts on the hospitality and convention industry will be more devastating this time – with permanent closings of some hotels inevitable, she said.

“You’re literally going to have to rewrite the book on how you do things,” Lucke said of event planning.

Until recently, opportunities for social interaction drove the convention business. But our current environment has become anti-social, she said.

For at least the short term, more businesses and groups will interact through Zoom and similar technologies in lieu of face-to-face meetings — until the pendulum swings back after a vaccine is discovered to manage or inhibit the coronavirus, she said.

“There’s nothing like face-to-face meetings. Engagement with your customers is what marketing is all about,” Lucke said.

During the offseason for conventions, during the summer and winter months, PME Projects has carved out a separate niche to help small businesses with digital marketing, especially through email.

But that business model is also being impacted.

“Everyone is nervous, if not outright scared,” Lucke said of her small-business marketing customers, who are operating their companies and making decisions one day at a time.

“Best practices say you should spend that marketing money to be top-of-mind,” Lucke said. After all, communicating with current and potential customers will pay off when they’re in need of services and have money to spend, but making and keeping such a commitment is a hard sell right to businesses that have had reduced levels of income coming in, she said.

As body scanners became commonplace after 9/11, Lucke expects technology will also evolve for the event and hospitality industry.

She predicts that a next generation of event venues will look much different than the ones operating today, and that seating capacities will be smaller as events fundamentally change.

Lucke, who has also been involved in planning for local events, suspects Columbus may have seen the last of 500-seat luncheons and concerts that have packed The Commons, for example.

With so much uncertainly right now for her own business, Lucke muses that she will finally have time to look through magazines that have been piling up in her office – and to have the cleanest office space on Fifth Street.

“You always wish, ‘Would the world just stop to let me catch up on some things,’ ” Lucke said.

By late fall, when her second multi-year association contract expires, Lucke will have a better idea when or even whether her world will start up again.

Joyce Lucke

Age: 57

Profession: Owner of Columbus-based PME Projects, formerly known as Paragon Meeting and Events, since 2006; taught anthropology at IUPUC and IUPUI, 1992-2006.

Family: Husband John, a Cummins engineer (married 34 years).

Residence: Columbus, since 1992.

Hometown: St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb.

Education: Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctorate degrees in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (1985, 1987 and 1995, respectively).

Pull Quote

“The hospitality and meeting industry, it’s pretty much devastated.” — Joyce Lucke, owner of PME Projects, Columbus

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