In 2019, SnapBar, a Gig Harbor, Washington–based custom photo-booth rental company was a rising star, ranked No. 473 on Inc.’s list of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in the country. But by March of this year, as the pandemic began forcing the mass cancellations of conferences and events, it became “brutally obvious,” that something had to change fast, said SnapBar CEO Sam Eitzen.
Founded five years ago by Eitzen and his brother Joe, the company quickly began developing software for virtual events. But without a more immediate source of revenue, Eitzen said he was faced with laying off the entire 15-person staff. He stayed up brainstorming until nearly 2 a.m. one night, coming up with 50 different ideas for redirecting the company. The winning concept was to create city-specific boxes filled with gift items sourced from small local businesses and mail them directly to customers. SnapBar launched “Keep Your City Smiling,” as a sister company one week later. Things looked so bad, Eitzen told Convene, that pivoting outside of events — SnapBar’s bread and butter — “didn’t even seem that scary.”
This story is part of Convene‘s September CMP Series package on ways the world has changed since COVID-19 and what we hope will stick once the pandemic is behind us.
The company assembles boxes of specialty food and drink items, candles, and other gifts sourced from small vendors in cities including Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Austin. In addition to creating revenue for their company, the business model provides “desperately” needed revenue and exposure to local businesses struggling in the pandemic, Eitzen said.
Thanks to media exposure about the company, sales during “the first three months were incredible,” Eitzen wrote in a LinkedIn post. And then, just as sales to individual consumers began falling off, sales to companies who were purchasing gift boxes for their teams or as client gifts began increasing, he wrote. So, the Eitzens tweaked their mission once again, using the gift boxes as a way connect big brands to small, local vendors, making corporate gifts more intentional and meaningful for recipients, while benefitting communities.
And their customers now once again include event organizers — along with corporate gift boxes, the company has begun creating virtual event packs, Eitzen said. The photography part of the business also is growing, he added, as organizers of digital events add “virtual selfie” booths. SnapBar also is adding photo software features that will allow participants to create “digital badges” when registering, which could replace the standard uploaded headshots, Eitzen said. Like physical meeting badges, they could be branded, and customized to communicate to other attendees, like the “First-Timer” ribbons attached to plastic badge-holders. He and his team also have begun to rethink how the convenience and flexibility of “virtual selfies” could be used to augment SnapBar’s physical photo booths once the live events industry recovers, he said.
None of it would have been possible without the team and the company culture behind it, said Eitzen, who, since founding the company, has invested in building an employee-centric culture — scheduling internal “summits,” company retreats, and monthly staff luncheons. At times over the last five years, those teambuilding efforts “seemed really expensive,” Eitzen said, “for how little it seemed to matter day to day.”
It all paid off, “like compounded interest,” in the way that employees showed themselves ready and willing to innovate and adapt over the last few months, he said. Those who were accustomed to doing creative work were asked to fold boxes for eight hours at a stretch and did it without complaint, he said. “We could not have made these pivots without a great team.”
The need to adapt to changing circumstances has changed his thinking about the company, away from being a supplier of photo booths to a “modern events services provider” which can adapt to a changing landscape, he said. “We’ve lost quite a bit of money” this year, Eitzen said. “But I’m excited for the long-term future and being an even more interesting part of it.” And, he added, “we all still have our jobs.”
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.