The new coalition is working toward the day when members can welcome back full-size crowds. (Courtesy New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center)

Six complexes get ‘on the same page’ for reopening

Six New Jersey convention centers have joined forces to coordinate protocols and measures to ensure operations resume after the pandemic shutdown in as safe and responsible a manner as possible.

The Spectra-managed Atlantic City Convention Center, the state’s largest with over 1 million square feet, spearheaded the effort to form the group, the New Jersey Convention Center Coalition. It also includes the Cape May Convention Center, Meadowlands Convention Center, New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center, Ocean City Music Pier/Civic Center and Wildwoods Convention Center.

Ronnie Burt, the Atlantic City center’s vice president of sales and marketing, said the coalition idea arose when the convention center served as a 250-bed field medical center.

“We knew that field medical center was not going to be in place forever and so we thought it would be good for us to start seeing what some of our colleagues in other convention centers around the state were doing in preparation for when we could reopen,” he said. “We … reached out and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in getting together, having some conversations, sharing ideas and maybe we can learn from one another?’ It was something that we all had not dealt with before, facilities being closed.”

The coalition developed standards in collaboration with each venue’s staff and local health department, taking into account state-mandated protocols for malls and other high-traffic buildings.

The standards address contact tracing, use of masks, capacity metrics, temperature checks, indoor food service protocols, sales methods and money handling, separation of exhibitors, and managing floor plans and foot traffic patterns.

“I think it was good for us to be able to share ideas with our colleagues around the state, learn what each other was doing,” Burt said. “As an example, who was using certain types of temperature monitoring systems? Were you using thermometers, were you using a heat sensor? Those are some of the things we’ve talked about. There were also some contractual things we were discussing. What are you exploring in terms of terminology? Are you changing your contracts? There were a lot of discussions that we had been having in addition to contact tracing, crowd control, those type of things. It served a great value because we are not back to capacity numbers that we had been in.”

Laurie Howey Taylor, director of marketing at the Cape May Convention Center, the state’s smallest, said having uniform reopening standards makes sense in light of Gov. Phil Murphy’s uniform reopening requirements.

“There were a lot of issues early on when the pandemic hit regarding the numbers that were down in the southern part of the state versus the northern,” she said. “Our governor has done an across-the-board determination for his mandates, so I think it was important, since that was the case, that we were all on the same page with how we were going to reopen.”

It’s important for the coalition’s members to demonstrate to their vendors and client base that the facilities are “advocating for them to come back and operate as close to business as usual as possible,” Taylor said.

Nicole Mikic and Dan Boutureira of the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center (the facility eschews specific titles for its six executives) said they hope government officials develop greater awareness of the economic impact of coalition members and the efforts they’ve made formulating plans for reopening responsibly.

Malls and other high-traffic venues have been given more leeway, they said.

“We feel that convention centers kind of get lost in the mix,” Mikic said, explaining that the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center also served as a field hospital, as did the Meadowlands Convention Center in Secaucus, demonstrating the facilities’ capacity for safe operations.

People are often familiar with individual events but less aware of convention and exhibition centers as businesses.

“We’re kind of like the forgotten businesses,” Mikic said.

Burt said the coalition, whose members connect virtually at least once monthly, said the facilities have allies helping to promote their interests.

“We all have local chambers of commerce that understand the importance of the economic value that these facilities bring to communities,” he said. “It’s certainly a priority on their agenda, so we’re not duplicating efforts.”

Venues have returned to hosting events, although with reduced capacities or in outdoor settings. Convention centers in New Jersey are limited to no more than 150 guests or 25 percent of capacity, whichever is smaller, for an indoor event, Burt said.

“As we continue to host events, we share the type of safe operating plan we put together with our other facilities and they do the same,” he said. “If we did an event or are looking to do an event outdoors, we share that. If they’ve done an event indoors, they share that. They talk about what they did, how they did it, so that we are providing value back to each other.”