The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., welcomed the Together Again Expo on July 24. (Courtesy OCCC)

Smaller events are the rule as buildings emerge from shutdown

Some convention centers are showing signs of life as events return amid the coronavirus pandemic, although most are small-scale gatherings.

The Fort Worth (Texas) Convention Center, which for 93 days through mid-June had served as an overflow center for homeless individuals at a rate of about 300 a night, was preparing this week to host 3,000-4,000 guests Aug. 3-8 for Kenneth Copeland Ministries’ 40th annual Southwest Believers’ Convention, its first event since reopening in late June.   

Mike Crum, director of the city’s public events department, which also includes the multivenue Will Rogers Memorial Center, said he is hearing from colleagues that convention centers in his region have begun hosting smaller, often locally focused events in the past month.

John Page, president of venue management at Spectra, said smaller convention and exhibition centers among the company’s portfolio have been opening as state and local restrictions have been lifted, allowing for social events like weddings and small meetings and city-driven events.

“It’s all very positive, but it’s certainly not at the level that we’re all accustomed to,” he said. “Our larger destination cities like your Miami Beaches, Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas, Santa Clara (Convention Center in California), even Navy Pier (Chicago), they’re not there yet. Their business is also predicated on significant travel.”

Once companies begin expanding travel and expense budgets, events will return, but then there’s the issue of scheduling, Page said.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” he said, noting that “there are still a number of dates on hold for late September through the balance of the calendar year.”

A significant amount of business is scheduled for the beginning of 2021 and many clients are not demanding that deposits be returned, Page said.

“It’s not a matter of if but a matter of when” events return in earnest, he said. “There’s still a lot on the books, but the smaller markets, I think, are going to come back quicker than the larger ones.”

The Will Rogers Memorial Center was among the first to hold an event, a horse show, when Texas initiated its reopening plan at the beginning of June, Crum said, adding that the state now requires venues to operate at no more than 50% of full capacity.

“I think there’s been activity, but I don’t think anybody’s doing anything” in terms of large-scale national events, he said. “Things have been happening and they are happening based on what’s happening with the pandemic in a particular state or municipality.” 

Crum said the convention center, which includes a 10,500-seat arena, underwent “hospital-grade cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection” and has engaged Legends’ Venue Reintegration Platform to help guide a safer return to event hosting. Upgrades during the downtime include moving to touch-free restroom fixtures.

The venue is also in the initial phases of attaining Global Biorisk Advisory Council Star accreditation, he said.

Apart from sanitizing and disinfecting techniques and materials, reopening preparations include working with clients on interpreting the state and local regulations, what they can and can’t do from capacity and seating configuration standpoints, “and then of course you’ve got to make sure all your contractors are abiding by the venues’ policies in terms of mask wearing, sanitation and cleaning,” Crum said.

Major changes have also been made in food and beverage preparation, handling and service (the facility’s concessionaire is Trinity F&B Services, a division of Omni Hotels & Resorts), he noted, but convention and exhibition business is largely dependent on registrations reaching viable levels and that, again, is a function of the lifting of corporate travel restrictions.

“Copeland, they are clearly the exception,” he said. “We have other convention and meeting clients that have been confronted with the reality of registrations being way below what they need to be successful. The economics of doing certain types of shows right now is so poor. All you can do is acknowledge the problem and hope to rebook them.” 

“If there is a bright light in this, it’s that once this is over, the industry is ready to go,” Crum said. “I’d say 90% of our clients have opted to rebook as opposed to canceling. I think when there is a vaccine or whatever the moment is going to be … things are going to come roaring back.”

The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando was one of the first to emerge from the widespread event moratorium when it hosted the Amateur Athletic Union Junior National Volleyball Championships July 14-22. About 9,600 players, coaches and chaperones were on hand and, according to the facility’s executive director, Mark Tester, the event went off without a hitch.

All participants were temperature screened as they made their way into a single dedicated entry point in the center’s 950,000-square-foot North-South Building and were required to wear masks except when playing and observe physical distancing protocols, Tester said.

Not a single person was denied entry because of high temperature or other COVID-19 symptoms, he said, adding that courts were spread out and participants left the premises via a dedicated exit on the other side of the building from where they entered.

“Entering one side and exiting through another showed how you can control and move people through the facility without crossing paths of others,” Tester said. “It worked. Everybody was able to get to where they needed to be with no bottlenecks.”

The convention center has been outfitted with more than 1,300 signs, window clings and floor decals for wayfinding; reminders to wash hands for 20 seconds, wear masks and not crowd restrooms; and instructions on where to locate things like hand sanitizer dispensers.

Two days after the event, the OCCC welcomed about 1,400 events industry professionals and around 150 exhibitors to the Together Again Expo, the venue’s first trade show held under modified operations. An additional 8,225 virtual attendees participated as a lineup of industry experts discussed how to safely navigate the return to live events.

The conference was put on in collaboration with Alliance Nationwide Exposition, which provides expo services for small to midsize events, primarily at hotels.

Speakers appearing in person at the event’s opening general session on reopening for business included Tester, Visit Orlando Chief Sales Officer Mike Waterman, International Association of Exhibitions and Events board member Tim McGuinness, GBAC Executive Director Patty Olinger and Alice Mathu, International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions vice president of exhibitions, conferences and sales. 

A recorded virtual panel on the state of the industry included International Association of Venue Managers President and CEO Brad Mayne, Professional Convention Management Association President and CEO Sherrif Karamat, Events Industry Council CEO Amy Calvert, American Society of Association Executives Senior Vice President Karl Ely, Center for Exhibition Industry Research CEO Cathy Breden and Society of Independent Show Organizers Executive Director David Audrain.

International Association of Exhibitions and Events President and CEO David DuBois offered his take on the global outlook for a safe return to events, and Executive Chef James Katurakes of OCCC concessionaire Centerplate, whose staff handed out all food items in prepackaged containers, led demonstrations on buffet safety protocols and other aspects of food service in the COVID era.

The next major scheduled event at the center, which was among the first convention centers to achieve GBAC Star accreditation on outbreak prevention, response and recovery, is IAAPA’s massive trade show and convention Nov. 17-20. The center has 25-30 mostly “smaller, consumer-type events” on its schedule through the end of the calendar year, Tester said.