How over 100 live-event companies pivoted to building temporary coronavirus hospitals and testing sites

April 21, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

Given that the people who work in the event production industry are no stranger to sudden crises, minor and major, it’s not surprising that they’d be able to quickly adapt to the havoc of the coronavirus outbreak. But Live for Life, a consortium of over 100 companies in the space, is more than just an on-the-fly response to the pandemic. The group has rapidly united competitors, who normally handle events ranging from festivals to automotive conferences. Now they have come together to build temporary hospitals and drive-thru testing centers, supporting nationwide efforts in combating the disease while keeping as many people employed as possible.

Though it officially launched on April 13, Live for Life had been in the works for weeks with three firms—George P. Johnson, Czarnowski, and Exploring, Inc.—leading the charge with projects that have included the hospitals in New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Center and California’s Santa Clara Convention Center.

“Basically, we understood the power that the events industry has relevant to planning large-scale events, as well as the infrastructure of labor, equipment, and manufacturing facilities that we have that would be a pretty easy pivot to supporting the front line and health care,” says Chris Meyer, CEO of George P. Johnson. “Obviously, there’s also a goal to protect jobs in the events industry. But first and foremost, we had outreach from organizations like FEMA and municipalities saying, ‘We’re trying to find a solution to this.’” 

By this point, Johnson had already experienced the cancellations and postponements of Google Next, IBM Think, Cisco Live, and Adobe TechSummit, a wave that started with Facebook calling off its F8 in late February. But once the three companies saw the need and opportunity for their services, Meyer says it was easy getting more and more people on board. “It was just kind of grass roots. Whether they’re competitors in our space or industry partners, everyone quickly came together with a singular focus of ‘How can we help?’ It didn’t take a lot of work.” 

Javis Center Makeshift Hospital
Hospital bed booths are set up on March 27 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City as part of an effort to fight coronavirus cases.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez—Getty Images

Beyond erecting temporary structures that can manage the flow of thousands of people in confined areas and adding the necessary technological infrastructure to handle power and communications needs, the members of Live for Life were also adept at knowing how to deal with local governments’ needs. Those bodies, in turn, were able to help fast-track the necessary permits and approvals. That cleared the way for the event companies to build patient rooms and drive-thru structures, as well as producing face masks and other medical equipment with the help of 3D printing. 

The companies have also had to adapt to new safety procedures in both how they’re protecting their own workers and ensuring the safety of patients and hospital employees.

“We’re working really closely with the CDC and other medical organizations to follow their guidelines,” says Meyer. “A lot of that has to do with, first, staff: How do you make sure the staff is healthy? There’s guidance relevant to health checks that we have to go through. As an example, when we use one of the fabrication facilities, many of our industry partners have to check in, be tested, and fill out a form that asks a series of questions provided by the medical authorities. Once we have these facilities up and running, it’s intense guidelines relevant to continued cleaning, not only of individuals with hand wipes and sanitizer but also every part of the venue that could be touched. Ultimately, we’re trying to follow the guidelines that are issued by the CDC, and those are evolving on a daily basis.”

The projects are often divvied up among Live for Life members based on location. So, for example, Johnson’s physical presence in Detroit and working relationship with local unions and governments makes it the ideal organization to handle the needs of Michigan, one of the hardest-hit states in the crisis. So far, FEMA has been very receptive to all its offers of assistance and, according to Meyer, concerns about getting compensated for its efforts have not slowed the group down.

“The consortium members have all agreed to do this at cost, just to keep people employed. That’s the first step,” he says. “The second step is making sure that we will get paid, and there are also risks we have to consider, i.e., equipment. If we’re building out hospital rooms, when will that equipment come back? Will it come back? Do you want it back? How will it be sanitized, etc., etc.? Right now, for the [projects] that have gone through the government, we have been given assurance of payment. We all know that sometimes it takes a long time, but we also know the government will pay. So everyone’s confident, and I think the organizations that are part of the coalition also realize if they’re taking too much financial risk, they’re not pressured into doing this.”

For Live for Life’s members, there’s also the benefit of seeing how they’ll need to rethink their approaches to events for the future, once the pandemic is under control. “For us, and I think most people in our space, we’re looking at 2020 as a wash. We’re all saying, ‘How do we do what we can now and prepare for the rebound?’” Meyer says. “There’s going to be different guidelines that have to be followed. We’re obviously going to start to see the economic impact further, as publicly traded companies’ earnings come out. You’re already starting to see the corporate spend in marketing be reduced. A lot of stuff with social distancing, you’re going to see a lot of that applied when we’re talking about setting people a number of feet apart from each other. The hygiene, health, and safety protocols that are applied inside of meeting venues, convention centers, etc., will be updated. A lot of what were large-scale events will have fewer people at them, with a much more robust digital extension of that type of experience. But people gathering together, it’s an innate human need, so I think it will come back, as it always does.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—How movie theaters can make a comeback after the coronavirus pandemic
What to watch on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and more while social distancing
—When jazz musicians aren’t live-streaming owing to coronavirus, they’re scrambling to rebook lost gigs
Hollywood showrunners assist the assistants amid coronavirus pandemic
—The coronavirus pandemic is changing broadcast and streaming TV as we know it
Subscribe to Outbreak, a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on global business, delivered free to your inbox.