Anatomy of a COVID-19 Cancellation

Nancy Melekian, Chief Organizer of the Santa Barbara Orchid Show, Shares Her Experience

Orchid show | Credit: Heidi Kirkpatrick

Lost in the blizzard of cancellations wrought by the coronavirus is the impact inflicted on the individual snowflake, as Nancy Melekian, chief organizer of the Santa Barbara Orchid Show, can readily attest. For the past four months, Melekian worked on all the last-minute details needed to put this year’s orchid show — the 75th — at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. The show — the oldest and biggest orchid show in the country — was scheduled to start last Friday night; Melekian would learn on Wednesday at midnight the show would not be going on.

Fifty-six groups of exhibitors were prepared to sell their wares, some coming from as far away as Peru and Ecuador. Five thousand people had purchased tickets in advance; all would have to be refunded. Another 3,000-7,000 typically buy during the show itself. To get ready, 270,000 pounds of sand was deposited, shaped, and sculpted in the domed building of Earl Warren Showgrounds. Added to that were enough trees, bushes, shrubs, and vegetation to replicate a host of ecosystems.

“All of sudden,” Melekian said, “you’re in Central America.” Except not this year. 

Times have gotten tough for the orchid industry in recent years. Not only has the market been flooded with cheaper imports from China (often sold at places like Trader Joe’s), but in California, the emerging cannabis industry — which can pay significantly more for greenhouse space and labor — is impinging. In this context, the annual show is especially critical. 

“This is where we make all of our money,” Melekian observed. She estimated the show will need to pay $100,000 in refunds to people who paid tickets. After that, there will be some vendors to pay. The show has an insurance policy for emergency cancellations, but attorneys discovered among the 45 pages of fine print a special exemption for cancellations caused by viruses. 

“We’re not covered for viruses,” Melekian explained. 

Melekian also sits on the board of the Earl Warren Showgrounds, a state agency that could well provide an emergency medical staging ground should such a need arise. But in the meantime, the showgrounds board has been struggling to stay afloat financially, burdened by years — if not decades — of deferred maintenance. All shows have been canceled through the end of March. That’s four big shows and a lot of money lost. 

Should the social distancing ban remain in effect through the end of April, it could get even hairier. The showground’s annual fair — scheduled to start April 29 — is the major moneymaker for the financially embattled Earl Warren. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect start date for the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo. It is scheduled to start April 29.

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