Swiftel adjusts as pandemic impacts events industry

Swiftel Center photo: Swiftel Center catering staff teamed up with ICAP and Brookings Area United Way in March to prepare frozen meals for the 60s Plus Dining program.

Swiftel Center director shares cuts, new endeavors for city-owned facility

BROOKINGS – The Swiftel Center has enacted cost-cutting measures, brought in new revenue with services never before performed by its staff, and hosted three major cattle shows this summer in an effort to help the city-owned facility to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

Swiftel Center Executive Director Tom Richter presented an overview of the past eight months at the event center during the Brookings City Council’s Tuesday study session.

“We all know Swiftel Center business was impacted and was one of the first industries to close down, and will likely be one of the last to fully recover from the pandemic. We will recover from this, and by hosting events, we will help our community recover, making Brookings strong in the end,” Richter said.

During a Swiftel Center presentation at a February city council study session, councilors raised questions about strategic planning, developing new revenue streams, and marketing campaigns.

This week, Richter showed councilors the center’s modified business plan to obtain a balanced 2020 budget.

New revenue

In March, the Swiftel Center started working with ICAP to prepare frozen meals for the 60s Plus Dining program, bringing revenue to the center at a time when it was closed to the public.

“In total, we produced 4,000 meals. … These ICAP meals are an example of how our team is constantly evaluating the market, looking for opportunities to generate new events and leveraging our talents,” Richter said.

In April, Swiftel Center secured $250,000 through the PPP CARES Act, through VenuWorks, which is a private management company. 

“We applied for a received these funds on behalf of the city,” Richter said.

Planning to safely host the Charolais show in Brookings started in May, and when word got out that the event was happening, the facility attracted two additional cattle shows that had been slated to happen in other states. One would normally have been considered too big for the Swiftel Center, but the event had nowhere else to go, and staff pulled it off, Richter said.

The Swiftel Center reopened in June with its health safety program and new protocols in place, and the cattle shows were held in July.

In September, the Swiftel Center successfully bid for disinfecting services of other city facilities: the police and fire departments and the Brookings City & County Government Center.

“Because of VenuWorks’ quick action in purchasing electrostatic sprayers back in March when the pandemic hit, we were able to bid on this service and create a new revenue stream,” Richter said.

Since reopening in June, the Swiftel Center has hosted 49 events, Richter said.

Cutting costs

There have been challenging decisions for Swiftel since the pandemic hit, too. Starting in March, those decisions included furloughing 339 seasonal staff; freezing two open fulltime positions; suspending the 401K retirement match; no cost-of-living pay increases for fulltime staff; canceling or suspending all maintenance and service contracts and significantly suspending expenses, including marketing.

Full-time staff have stepped up to fill the gaps, Richter said.

“We have all made and served food. We’ve all set up and tore down events, and we all cleaned and disinfected our facility,” Richter said.

Since September, two fulltime staff members were furloughed until the end of the year, and hours were reduced for two others. Remaining staff were furloughed for a minimum of three weeks by the end of the year, and Richter and the Swiftel associate director had salary rollbacks.

The facility will be closed to the public for another three weeks to save more costs, Richter added. It is now operating with seven fulltime staffers instead of its usual 13, with remaining staff members taking on additional responsibilities to cover hours, events and book new events.

These measures have saved $746,000, according to Richter’s presentation. 

Cattle shows

With its safety program in place, Swiftel hosted the American-International Charolais Association Junior National Show, the American Junior Simmental Association National Classic and the Minnesota State Holstein Show in July. Estimated attendance for the three shows totaled 18,150.

A variety of Brookings businesses felt the economic impact of the shows, with restaurants and retailers seeing increased sales, and hotels reporting improved occupancy rates, Richter said. Numbers not only improved from previous months, but some 2020 figures were also better than in the same time period in 2019. That resulted in increased 3B (bed, board and booze) tax and BID (hotel) tax revenues for the city.

Attendees also praised the events at Swiftel, due to “the small-town atmosphere, lack of congestion, plenty of parking, friendly staff, and many other great things,” Richter said, reading from one participant’s testimonial.

Richter said the Swiftel Center reached out to local economic development experts to learn the economic impact of events on the community. They reported a nearly $1.1 million impact from the Charolais show, $1.5 million impact from the Simmental show, and $164,000 impact from the Holstein show. They were the only big events taking place in Brookings in July, Richter said.

The economic impact study group will continue to meet and evaluate survey information gathered from events, tax revenue, hotel occupancy rates and other data.

“We hope to draw some conclusions that show the full impact the Swiftel Center has on our community and show the rate of return for the city on the investment,” Richter said.

Council comments

Mayor Keith Corbett praised Richter and the Swiftel Center team for their efforts.

“Instead of rolling over and playing dead, you refused to do that,” Corbett said.

Richter said the Swiftel Center hoped to get its foot in the door with the cattle shows. They are in talks with several to come back, and recruiting for additional ag shows is ongoing.

Councilor Nick Wendell said the Swiftel Center has met challenges in the past couple of years as the live-events industry shifted.

“I do feel like we’re well-positioned to rebuild from whatever comes next in a post-COVID environment. I think that’s a tremendous credit to the culture of the team you have built at Swiftel,” he said.

Councilor Holly Tilton Byrne also commended Richter for his work.

“I think that some of the creative things that you’ve come up with – for example, the meals and the electrostatic sprayers, the utilization of those – has been really outside-of-the-box thinking,” she said.

Richter said all potential revenue-generating ideas are on the table, and he planned to come back to the council with more economic impact information.

Councilor Joey Collins said he was blown away by the center’s economic impact and the praise he hears about the facility, town and staff.

“I think you’ve done a great job. Thank you for what you’re doing,” Collins said.

Contact Jill Fier at [email protected]

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