It was Australia’s last big recession which led Stav Hatzipantelis into the casual gig which became his career and a thriving business.
In 1990, he was fresh out of high school and gearing up to start a chiropractic course. But the economy was struggling, student numbers were cut, and he got pushed into the intake for the following year. He was enjoying an unscheduled gap year as a DJ when then Treasurer Paul Keating’s “recession we had to have” hit in earnest.
With youth unemployment peaking at 17 per cent, many rethought their dreams and ambitions. Mr Hatzipantelis started a business hiring DJ equipment to nightclubs.
“If it wasn’t for the recession, I probably would’ve stuck to school.”
He is less optimistic about his prospects this time around.
Mr Hatzipantelis, 52, was one of thousands of employers who used the Federal Government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy to keep employees on their books during the coronavirus recession. With the closure of the program at the end of March, but little sign of recovery as yet in his sector, he’s facing a tough reality.
“With JobKeeper gone, that means our employees must be gone.”
His manner is direct and his voice gravelly, as might be expected of someone who has spent decades making himself heard backstage at some of Victoria’s biggest events.
Nonetheless it’s tough, he reflects, because many of those losing their jobs are friends.
“It’s a very close-knit community,” he says. “The events industry is really tough but … it’s a lifestyle people enjoy – they like the late nights, they get the satisfaction of building things together and creating things together.”
He worries that people will struggle to find alternatives. “It’s very difficult to go find a job when you’re 40 years old.”
Before the pandemic shut down festivals, weddings and corporate events, Mr Hatzipantelis’ sound and lighting business employed eight full-time staff and an army of “weekend warrior” casuals.
But within a month of JobKeeper finishing, he says there will only be two full time staff left – himself and his wife, Renata.
“We’ve been through a lot, my wife and I,” he says. “this is just another one of those things that we’re going to have to get through.”
He’s lately had some short-term work for his “black shirt army”, hanging an enormous chandelier in the landmark San Remo Ballroom in Carlton, which was gutted by fire and then whacked by successive coronavirus lockdowns.
But otherwise, things are grim. “We’ve had one corporate event this year and three last year.”
He gets frustrated hearing the Prime Minister and Treasurer talk about economic recovery when many in the events industry are still struggling, with many companies still unwilling or unable to take on the financial risk of putting on events.
He believes both state and federal governments should be doing more to encourage local government and the private sector to host events.
He’s concerned that important skills and years of experience will be lost as people seek out other, more stable opportunities. The fallout won’t be noticed until “summer kicks in and everybody’s going to want to do events”.
“Years from now, we’ll be looking back and saying, ‘look at how much was lost’.”
In September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $50 million “injection” into the business events sector, but Mr Hatzipantelis says it is not enough for an industry worth $36 billion a year.
“That trickle down mentality hasn’t worked.”
While the Andrews government did respond to the industry’s rally at the steps of Parliament House by raising capacity limits for events, he says the lack of engagement by government has been disappointing.
“I would’ve loved to see the government take a more active role and more of a leadership role.
“There’s just so much disappointment in our federal – and state – government, that we’ve been left high and dry.”
Mr Hatzipantelis knows how to adapt to the prevailing winds. As well as changing tack in the ‘90s recession, he weathered the 2008 global financial crisis by moving into weddings when the corporate scene collapsed.
And it’s the resurging wedding scene saving him now.
“Pre-COVID, people didn’t get married in those months,” he says. “So, we’re lucky in that respect that we have got weddings during that period of time which would normally have been our corporate events.”
Despite the upheaval and uncertainty in his industry, Mr Hatzipantelis points to his own unexpected career trajectory as a source of optimism.
“It’s during interesting times that careers are made.”
A version of this story was co-published with The Age.