The Pennsylvania Convention Center brought in civic events, like ballot processing and a FEMA-run mass vaccination clinic that took place at the same time as a volleyball tournament, to demonstrate that it could host large numbers of people in a relatively safe manner. (Courtesy PACC)

VenueShield smooths path to GBAC STAR re-accreditation for Philadelphia facility

The Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia is getting back to business, having hosted its largest exhibition since the pandemic began.

Natural Products East is the largest trade show on the East Coast for natural and organic  food and other products. The event was held virtually in 2020, which was to have been its first time in Philadelphia after a long-term partnership with the Baltimore Convention Center ended because the show outgrew that facility.

This year’s event was held Sept. 22-25 with enhanced health and safety measures in place at the ASM Global-managed convention center that are in keeping with its company-wide VenueShield program. The PACC recently received Global Biorisk Advisory Council STAR reaccreditation, making it one of the first convention centers to achieve that distinction. The process of getting accredited and then reaccredited was streamlined by the fact that the facility had already launched into VenueShield implementation, said Kelvin Moore, the PACC’s general manager.

“We probably had an easier time than other facilities did because we already laid that groundwork,” he said.

The convention center formulated and executed a comprehensive reopening plan and underwent infrastructure improvements, including upgrades of its air handling and filtration system. Elevator handrails were equipped with UV-C disinfection and bathroom fixtures were converted to touchless, among other improvements, Moore said.

Like most other convention centers, the PACC was thrown for a loop when the pandemic shut down the industry, but the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority and the state had been such responsible fiscal stewards that funds were available for a robust response, Moore said.

The PCCA and ASM looked at scheduled capital improvements and reprioritized and adjusted them, focusing on environmental hygiene.

The HVAC improvements make it possible to recycle the air in the main exhibit hall in under one minute, Moore said.

“That allows us to say with certainty that the air quality in the convention center is as good if not better than many hospitals,” he said. “That’s something our customers ask about to this day.”

Pennsylvania Convention Center GM Kelvin Moore (PACC)

A big part of coping with the shutdown involved working with trade shows and other partners that were also hard hit.

“The relationships, you can’t buy those, so being empathetic and working with them in initially delaying their dates, then canceling and rebooking and just going through the chessboard of when can I do my event, is something we began working on fairly early and it became a non-ending thing,” Moore said. “Simultaneous to that was the recognition that at a certain point in this pandemic it began to affect our staff, our colleagues and workers. We also had to be mindful of the impact on them.”

Furloughs and layoffs became necessary, which was a blow to those directly affected and to those who remained on the job, whether working from home or on-site, he said.

At some point the focus shifted to trying to predict what the business would look like on the other side of the crisis.

“How do we make sure we’re still standing and that we’re strong and ready to provide our customers with service,” he said. “We had to make some educated guesses as we worked with health officials.”

Corporate resources also helped in the process of methodically building the business back.

“We were strategic,” Moore said. “Once we had the VenueShield up and established and the GBAC Star accreditation, we sought out the opportunity to host as many civic functions as we possibly could, things like ballot processing and voting, grand jury selection.”

The PACC was the site of FEMA’s first mass vaccination clinic.

When ballots were being processed at the PACC in 2020 in a crucial region in a pivotal state, the facility became a focus of activists, reporters and the public at large.

“It felt like the entire media world was in our exhibit hall,” Moore said.

Hosting such activities sent a message to public officials that the convention center was indeed able to host large numbers of people in a relatively safe manner for months at a time, thanks to protocols and physical improvements.

Even while FEMA was administering jabs, the PACC was able to host about 20,000 girls for a volleyball tournament that stretched over two or three weekends.

“We worked with the CVB and our health department for the better part of a month to develop an operating plan that they felt comfortable to go ahead and do the event,” Moore said. “It took quite a bit of effort on our part and some courage on the part of the health department, but we were able to develop a plan they signed off on.”

That led to the slow reopening of the center’s business activity.

“Our last couple of months have been pretty busy,” Moore said, adding that the response to the calamity was typical Philly. “You get hit in the face, you shake it off, figure out where you are, go about the process of taking care of your customers and people.”

Labor issues have been muted, thanks to close relationships with union partners and a 2019 update of collective bargaining agreements, though some administrative positions, like accounting, have been difficult to fill, he said.

Upcoming events include the Dec. 7-9 International Association of Exhibits and Events Expo, the Dec. 10-12 PAX Unplugged table top gaming expo (which draws about 28,000), MummerFest (Dec. 28-Jan. 1) and the HiJinx music festival (30-31).

Spring is looking strong, with the return of the Philadelphia Auto Show.

A full recovery will take a little time, Moore said, but the future looks bright.

“We feel that by 2023 we should be where we were pre-pandemic if not better,” he said. “We’ve had a pretty good run since the summer hosting some decent events. We did USA Fencing in July for 13,000 people. We did a couple of conventions in August. We did a tattoo convention in September with 20,000. Natural Products East normally does about 20,000 and we had about 15,000, which are still pretty good numbers for us. We had some education and medical groups in October and November.”

The PACC has been fairly successful in retaining its top shows, Moore said.

“Our event clip, once we get to late February and March, we’re rocking and rolling,” he said. “We’re feeling pretty good about 2022 and 2023.”