Trisha Tatro became interim director of the Austin Convention Center Department on Feb. 9. (Courtesy ACCD)

Complex connects clients with local health authorities to go over event plans

The Austin (Texas) Convention Center and Palmer Events Center are connecting event organizers with local health authorities to formulate plans for restarting programming after the March shutdown brought public gatherings to a halt. The facilities are also implementing stringent protocols for cleaning and infectious disease prevention under the guidance of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council while seeking the GBAC Star accreditation.

The Austin Convention Center plays a major role each year in the South by Southwest conference, the 2020 version of which was called off as the novel coronavirus began spreading in the U.S. Organizers have announced a virtual event for March.

The facility has been navigating the tricky straits of the global pandemic under the leadership of Trisha Tatro, the Austin Convention Center Department’s assistant director, who on Feb. 9 took on the role of interim director after the departure of Mark Tester. Tester took the executive director job at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

Tatro joined the department in 2002 as an intern while at the University of Texas, from which she earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management. Since then, she has served as event coordinator, senior event coordinator, event coordinator supervisor, events services manager and convention facility manager.

In her role as assistant director, which she assumed in 2018, she took charge of facility operations, sustainability, and building maintenance and parking operations at both the convention center and the Palmer Events Center, which is about a mile away across the Colorado River. Since 2018, she has managed the department’s $74 million capital improvement project budget.

Rodney Gonzales, Austin’s assistant city manager, noted when he named Tatro interim director that she had been involved in strategic planning for the proposed expansion of the convention center, saying, “She has the vision and leadership to keep this project moving forward.”

The Austin City Council on Sept. 17 voted to proceed with the negotiation and execution of an exclusive negotiating agreement with the landowners and developers of the two blocks just west of the convention center, allowing the parties “to establish more detailed specifications about pricing, acquisition and development of an estimated 750,000 square feet of a westward convention center expansion space and associated amenities,” according to Derick Hackett, the convention center department’s senior public information specialist.

 “The next step is to bring forth for council consideration a purchase and sales agreement and to begin construction on the western expansion of the convention center, the first phase of a three-phase expansion project that will double the amount of available rentable space while modernizing the facility,” Hackett said in an email. “While design and negotiations begin in earnest on the western expansion, the convention center will initiate the design process for the redevelopment of the existing convention center.” An estimated construction timeline is not yet complete.

 Both the convention center and the Palmer Events Center have continued to serve the Austin community while events have been canceled or postponed. The convention center was activated in late August as a shelter for Hurricane Laura evacuees. Two of its halls were used to house those displaced by the storm while a third remained on standby as a hospital overflow facility. Portions of the convention center had already been staged as an alternate care site for COVID-19 patients. 

The Palmer Events Center, meanwhile, was designated and prepped as a 50-bed hurricane medical shelter for evacuees. The Palmer also hosted the city’s Aug. 12-13 public hearings on tax increases, during which public comments were fielded in person and remotely. The in-person testimony required face coverings and attendees had their temperatures checked before they could enter the facility, Hackett said. 

The convention center also participated in the Face Shield Project, a volunteer organization that made face shields for health care workers and other first responders.

The project, started in April, was a partnership between the city, local companies and UT’s Dell Medical School. The volunteers manufactured and assembled face shields at the convention center, Hackett said.

Also launched in April was the Eating Apart Together Initiative, which was created by the city and community organizations to help provide food for needy individuals and families. The convention center department is providing space and staff to help package food that is delivered by outreach organizations. After getting the first load of provisions from the Central Texas Food Bank, department staff packaged more than 1,000 bags of food in eight hours, Hackett said.

As for future events, Hackett said, some that the department thinks can be handled with social distancing remain on the books. Other events are planning virtual or hybrid meetings.

“Some programs and planners are rebooking to future dates and have not been officially canceled yet,” he said. “Our team has been working extremely hard since March to rebook, and secure future dates for events. We are sending those clients to Austin Public Health for their review and approval with the understanding that the situation is very fluid and even with approval from APH using reimagined and newly implemented risk mitigation procedures, we may not be able to host those events.”