Starting a Business during COVID-19

by Stefanie Lerner

Encore Creative was my pride and joy. I joined what was then known as Encore Entertainment in 2002. It was already a successful Arizona entertainment event production company, but in 2014 I took the reins and began leading the company. Through the years, we built a great scenic shop to fabricate one-of-a-kind set pieces, a cast of stellar entertainers and artists, and grew from being known as a high-end Arizona event production company into a worldwide boutique live-event production agency. We had amassed an awesome team of employees, contractors, and collaborators producing shows through the lens of an aesthetic live theatre versus “just a meeting.” We even identified all of our projects/meetings as shows. 

Our sweet spot was corporate incentive programs that involved our team flying all over the world to create unique and memorable “shows” for groups of 200 to 2,000. We were invited onto the world stage to produce the opening and closing ceremonies for Rotary International’s World Congress in Toronto, as well as the 10,000-person National Cattlemen’s Beef Association conventions in cities all over the United States. 

But, just like most businesses experienced, when the coronavirus pandemic began in the spring of this year, everything changed for us. 

How Did COVID-19 Affect Us? 

Prospects would often ask if their event would meet our profile of projects we accepted. We had a tongue-in-cheek standard reply: We don’t work for a specific industry vertical; we don’t work specifically in any geography; the only real basic criteria across any client we chose to work with was that the group of people wanted an immersive experience. Sadly, the actions required to manage the pandemic took that one criterion away — there were no more groups. Meeting in person, whether five people or 500, was no longer an option.

I quickly went through the gut-wrenching decisions that CEOs go through when income dries up and doesn’t appear to be coming back any time soon. Yes, we were profitable and successful but, with a hefty payroll and other overhead costs, we couldn’t afford to keep the doors open indefinitely. Unfortunately, after a time, we had to let most of our talented and dedicated staff go. 

It’s Go Time?

After having to painfully shrink the company to what we internally refer to as the “Party of Five,” we realized we’d essentially become a nearly 40-year-old startup. With all rules and fear out the door, the five of us began to do what we do best: get creative. Numerous ideas came up as to what we could do to not only stay afloat (financially) but what could help the public in the face of this growing health crisis. The first thing we needed was a new entity and a new name so that when live events as we knew them came back, Encore Creative was standing by to jump back in. We arrived at Go Time Design, which seemed to capture the essence of what we were doing. We could either sit here and stagnate, or we could say, “It’s Go Time!”

One of the many talents, skills and degrees that our creative director, Andy Glanz, holds is industrial design. He came to the table intending to design a solution for when live events did return. He was concerned that the pandemic was taking a toll on everyone, and that even when it became safe to meet again, there would be an understandable fear of how to stay healthy, and that anxiety might slow the rebirth of our industry. Enter SaniCrew. 

What Is SaniCrew?

Sani Crew is a modern-day “Ghostbusters” way of bringing sanitation products to groups of people when they begin to gather again. But rather than being some harbinger of doom, we wanted this to be fun and playful. We worked with local distillery Blue Clover Distillery in Scottsdale to fulfill our supply needs. They, like us, had needed to pivot their business model from producing top-shelf gin to top-shelf hand sanitizer. We then combined the design and product with an energetic talent pool of entertainers, greeters and brand ambassadors who were also looking for work. Put it all together and you have SaniCrew, the uniformed sanitation squad with a gallon of sanitizer on their back and a dispenser wand that allows for social distancing and, of course, a smile. The goal was that a guest can feel the happy and bubbly energy of the SaniCrew even though they are gloved and masked. 

We made it brandable so that it could be “sponsored” by the hosting entity and we subsequently have been asked to make a white uniform for some upcoming weddings. In many ways, you might think of SaniCrew as a staffing company but with a purpose and a twist. 

What’s Next?

We endeavor to have SaniCrew be ubiquitous with health and safety, like the Kleenex of live-event hand sanitizing. We want to see a SaniCrew at every convention registration, roaming every trade show floor, at the entrance to every live concert or sporting event, at bar and restaurant openings, and beyond. Anywhere that people gather and need a smile, SaniCrew will be on hand to deliver both. We just launched here in Phoenix, but before long we will see SaniCrew in every corner of the country, wand in hand, ready to greet guests. 

Stefanie Lerner, CEO and leader of SaniCrew, is a longtime local Encore Creative event company leader and entrepreneur. When COVID-19 hit Arizona hard back in March, the live event industry was set to be out of commission for the unforeseeable future, she was determined to make the best of the situation and find another source of work. It is her hope that SaniCrew will make the public feel at ease as we return to gatherings and being in public spaces and, most importantly, when attending events in the future. 

Read more COVID-19 Stories: Experiences that Show Our Strength

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