Life Amidst COVID-19: Event Planning, eNascar + Other Altered Experiences

February 2023 Update: Brenda Eckler is no longer with the university. Explore the latest Hospitality Management news for more faculty profiles.

Every area of Sports, Entertainment, Event — Management that Associate Professor Brenda Eckler teaches has been drastically affected by COVID-19. From sports events to fundraisers to weddings — just about all are on temporary hiatus. But she has no doubts the events industry will survive and thrive again, live and in person.

Brenda Eckler speaking to high school students.

Comparing the effects of Covid-19 to those of past crises, Eckler said, “What we're going through right now, you can easily apply it to 9/11 because all events were canceled after 9/11.” Looking forward, she is hopeful about the future. “The event industry was growing at a tremendous rate before [COVID-19] and I think it'll go back to that when this is over,” she says.

Having worked in the events business for more than 20 years before teaching, Eckler stays in touch with people in the industry and speaks from experience. She explained that with the combination of the stay-in-place environment we’ve been living in and the current and likely future economic problems, it could be as late as the start of 2021 for larger events to recover, but sooner for smaller events.

When the economy goes back to “what we knew,” says Eckler, “there's going to be this huge rush … and when events start coming back, it's going to boom like crazy.”

“The event industry was growing at a tremendous rate and I think it'll go back to that when this is over”

One segment of the events industry that hits Eckler close to home is nonprofit fundraising events. She is personally and professionally vested in helping the Alzheimer’s Association since her father died from the disease. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into fundraising events scheduled during the unexpected shutdown.

Eckler combines her passion for fundraising with her love of teaching in the course “Fundamentals of Fundraising and Philanthropy” and is using COVID-19 as a learning experience for students. “I hate to say it, but I'm so glad that I'm teaching it right now. This is an industry that's been highly affected by this COVID ‘stay at home.’ In essence, it surrounds the non-for-profit sector of the industry.” Unfortunately, her plans to have a representative from the Alzheimer’s Association speak to her class, and having students participate in the organization’s fundraising walk with her were canceled for now.

Eckler has been involved with nonprofits throughout her career. “I owned a photography and event planning business in the capital region [of New York]. I did a lot of gratis work with the AIDS Council and with March of Dimes.” Being able to use this experience in her teaching is part of why she loves her job.

Brenda Eckler with her dog at home.

When JWU had to quickly switch teaching face-to-face courses to online due to the virus, Eckler was well prepared. She had already taught online at JWU and did her graduate degree dissertation on 21st- century learning and teaching. “Technology is a huge part of this 21st-century learning and teaching. So, for me, it's great because I'm taking some of the knowledge I learned, and I'm applying it to my students.”

To help her students get through this time of significant change, Eckler tries to help them see the light at the end of the tunnel. “It's not wrong to fear that we have this pandemic,” she says. "I just try to sympathize with their position, listen to what they're saying, and ease their fears a bit. They have a lot of fear. And it's okay to be afraid, but you have to not let fear overtake your life.”

Growing up in Cooperstown, New York, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, sports have always been a part of Eckler’s life. But baseball is not her favorite sport — that would be NASCAR. “I’m a NASCAR fan. Huge. And I have been since I was a kid. It was my father’s sport that he liked a lot. He instilled the love of NASCAR into me.”

Until the real-life NASCAR races are back up and running, Eckler is still able to watch the sport thanks to some ingenuity and creativity on NASCAR's part. She is getting a huge kick out of watching eNascar through iRacing, an online motorsports simulation platform. She’s watching some of the top drivers who usually compete in-person — and she’s not the only fan glued to her TV. The first virtual race on March 22 drew nearly 1 million viewers, becoming the highest rated e-sports TV program in history.

"I think it's such a cool thing for a sport to be doing right now with their fan base involved.”

"The drivers are working from home, and we can see them driving their own cars in a video game. You really think that they’re racing. The technology is so advanced. They have a crew chief and spotters they talk to ... You get a good sense of who that driver really is, what's their personality, what's their level of humor. They're so intense. Some of them are so competitive that you can see it in their faces: ‘We’re going to win this thing.' I think it's such a cool thing for a sport to be doing right now with their fan base involved.”

Since Eckler has been a New Englander for years now, I was curious to know what she thought about Tom Brady leaving the Patriots to join Tampa Bays’ Buccaneers, and then Rob Gronkowski joining him.

"It could highly affect attendance at our [Patriots'] games having these two in Tampa Bay. But, I saw a video last week of Brady and Gronk together. They look like two kids that just stole from the cookie jar. It was so funny. Tampa Bay is just lucky to have the two of them. …. I told my friend last week, if they get Edelman, I become a full-blown Tampa Bay fan!”