To tell the time in summer in Reno, it’s often a question of: What’s next? The rodeo? Burning Man? The balloon races?
“It’s not everywhere in the country — especially in a city our size — that you can show up between May and September and expect that there will be a festival, or something big, going on,” said Ben McDonald, spokesman for the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Reno’s events calendar is becoming leaner by the day, leaving Northern Nevadans disappointed but also curious as to how a city that prides itself on arts festivals, motorcycle rallies and classic car parades will rebound.
“There was a pre-9/11, and there’s a post-9/11. I think there will be a pre-COVID-19 and a post-COVID-19,” said Mike Whan, executive director of Hot August Nights.
Whan is one of the special event organizers holding out for further guidance from state officials before deciding whether to cancel. He and other event organizers have written letters pressuring Gov. Steve Sisolak to detail what kind of measures will be required of special events exceeding 50 persons should they be permitted any time soon.
“Special events are so important to our community because once gaming started to change in the 1980s and 1990s, we had to change,” said Whan, who said events became a crutch as casinos started to lose traditional audiences. “(Events) are now so important to the casinos, restaurants, the gas stations, grocery stores, everybody.”
According to the convention and visitors authority, about 4.5 million people visited the Reno area last year. About three quarters of visitors said they attended an event or sporting event while visiting, with the wine walks, pub crawls, Reno Aces and 1868 FC games among the most mentioned in a RSCVA survey.
While concerns abound when it comes to logistics, affordability and safety, some community stakeholders are hopeful that Northern Nevadans will not necessarily lower but adjust expectations.
“This is the thing about Reno. We’re a little more diversified than we used to be, we’re in a different position than our city to the South,” said Abbi Agency President Abbi Whitaker, nodding to Las Vegas.
She noted that the most recent recession forced Renoites to be innovative and creative with fewer resources.
“That puts us in a better spot. You can kick us in the balls, we will find a way to scratch ourselves up. We will keep trying over and over and over again,” said Whitaker.
But as other businesses re-open and experiment with measures such as temperature checks and increased sanitation resources, event organizers say they can’t necessarily turn to the same tools depending on their event size and venue.
“How do keep the attendance high enough to pay for the event? If you get rid of grandstands, you have only lawn chairs and standing room only, and that’s certainly a lot fewer people,” said Tony Logoteta, chief operating officer for the Reno Air Races.
Lengthening events to draw in bigger numbers over a greater duration could also create hiccups since events such as the air races require emergency responders and other costly resources on site each day.
A lot of events depend on weekend audiences too, Logoteta said. More than 110,000 people attended the air races last year, with the peak day attracting about 35,000.
“The other problem we run into: We’re such a special event town that we might run into other events,” said Logoteta. “There’s not a lot of expansion room.”
Still, outdoors events at least have space to work with, whereas indoor venues are often restricted by the confined venue.
“If you go to the theater with your signification other, do you have to be six feet apart?” said Tony Manfredi, executive director of the Nevada Arts Council.
Many arts organizations that rely on “butts in seats” or people coming through the door, namely theaters and museums, are truly in a bind, he said.
Organizations that are more flexible, on the other hand, already are changing how they achieve their mission of shared culture, said Manfredi, who’s been impressed by many arts organizations rising to the occasion by providing virtual programming.
“This is where that creativity, that innovation will come into play. This is where we will be pushed. This is where sometimes you’re best work comes into play,” Manfredi said.
While Burning Man is best known for the 80,000-person, fire-filled celebration in the middle of the Black Rock Desert, the event this year is holding a virtual celebration and turning its gaze too to the more than 80 regional, and much smaller events, that Burners host around the world.
Artown, the monthlong arts festival in Northern Nevada, also canceled its largest events but has moved others to online platforms. Organizers are also brainstorming how to package shows and exhibitions in such a way that festival goers might be able to see some features live, though in a safe and controlled fashion.
“I was having a hard time getting my head around how to do Artown this year. If you were starting a festival in the middle of a pandemic, what would it look like? I had to erase everything that I knew about Artown,” said Artown Executive Director Beth Macmillan. “I feel like I’m working harder now than I’ve ever worked before.”
Macmillan has been in close contact with artists and is working to adjust their projects and platforms. One dance performance, for instance, might be projected onto a building, and some art shows might be walkable in a neighborhood setting.
“Our venue is Reno. Our venue is everywhere,” said Macmillan. “Show me a space I’ll use it.”
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