Crushed by pandemic, conventions make a cautious comeback | Business

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In the pre-COVID-19 era, trade events – from small college conferences to giant trade shows like CES – routinely attracted over a billion attendees each year. The pandemic suddenly interrupted these global gatherings, emptying convention centers and closing hotels.

Over a year later, face-to-face meetings are on the rise. At the end of August, 30,000 masked participants gathered in Las Vegas for ASD Market Week, a retail trade show. In Chicago, the Black Women’s Expo recently hosted the largest event in its history, with 432 vendors and thousands of masked attendees.

“Compared to 2020, this has been a huge improvement,” said Kelly Schulz, spokesperson for New Orleans & Co., the city’s convention and visitors bureau. “We’re still optimistic about the fall, but it’s not as robust as it was in 2019.”

The appearance of the delta variant unexpectedly put a brake on efforts to revive convention activity. Two conventions that were scheduled to travel to New Orleans in the fall have been canceled. Plans were also scuttled to host the French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in October.

The delta variant poses a different risk during an event like the Jazz Fest where tens of thousands of people are crowded, Schulz said. In order to reassure nervous convention planners, officials from New Orleans & Co. stressed that the city has a mask mandate and requires proof of the COVID-19 vaccine or a negative test to enter restaurants, bars and concert halls. .

“You can organize a business meeting, convention or trade show with realistic social distancing,” she said.

Experts say one of the big lessons of 2020 is that much of what happens at conferences and trade shows can happen virtually, reducing the need for large in-person events.

Jaiprit Virdi, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, said online events made them more accessible to people with disabilities and those who could not afford to travel. Virdi, who is deaf, said she was relieved that face-to-face conferences require masks for security reasons. But the masks create serious barriers for her, as she relies on lip reading.

“We don’t need to go back to how things were before COVID, but rather embrace the lessons of the past year and a half to improve the way we run these spaces for everyone,” Virdi said. in an email.

Paddy Cosgrave, CEO of the Web Summit, a tech conference aimed at startups, said last year’s virtual-only event was cheaper – people only paid $ 100 to attend, compared to $ 700 previously – and attracted more participants from developing countries. But the participants also felt that something was missing.

“In-person meetings provide a quality of interaction that no technology can yet replicate,” said Cosgrave.

Conventions can be income-generating for associations, Schulz said.

Much depends on reviving face-to-face meetings. Before the pandemic, conferences and trade shows generated more than $ 1 trillion in direct spending and attracted 1.5 billion attendees globally each year, according to the Events Industry Council, a trade group.

The group has yet to calculate the impact of the virus around the world. But the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which studies the economic impact of U.S. trade shows, said these events alone are expected to generate $ 105 billion in direct and indirect spending in 2020. Instead, it has plunged to $ 24 billion. The center does not anticipate a return to growth in the industry until 2023.

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Paul Arrigo, of Visit Baton Rouge, said that just as some convention activity was starting to return to the city, Hurricane Ida pushed it back. Gov. John Bel Edwards signed an ordinance allowing hotels to cancel reservations and contracts to ensure power line workers, healthcare workers and others responding to the hurricane have a place to stay. The order will be in place at least until Friday. “We had to reschedule some events, postpone and cancel others,” he said.

The only good thing is that there aren’t many conventions in September and October, as the crowds that come for LSU and Southern University football games take up so many hotel rooms, said Arrigo.

“If delta recedes a bit, we expect the end of the year to pick up near normal,” he said.

Mike Roebuck, sales manager for the Lafayette Conventions and Visitors Commission, said the number of visitors to Acadiana increased by 31,000 compared to the same period in 2020. He attributes the increase to a strong interest in them. outdoor sporting events, such as baseball and travel. softball tournaments.

But the number of tourists is still down by around 20,000 visitors compared to September 2019.

“We looked great before the surge in the delta variant, and then people started pushing the brakes instead of going backwards,” he said. Sharlene Chiasson, sales manager for the Cajundome Convention Center, said 19 events booked for the arena this year have been canceled in the past six weeks.

A good sign is that hotel bookings for September 2022 are 11,000 visitors ahead of this year’s pace. In comparison, hotel bookings in Lafayette one year from September 2019 have increased by 4,500. “There is a strong interest in people coming back to travel,” said Roebuck. “They’ve been locked up for a year and are now anxious to get back on track.”

Steve Hill, CEO and Chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said 2022 is shaping up to be a good year for the industry. But he acknowledges that a lot will depend on the situation around COVID-19 and the lifting of restrictions on international travel. Foreigners can represent 20 to 30 percent of attendees at major city events, he said.

Hill believes the elements of the virtual convention are here to stay. They give shows another source of income and help them develop subscribers, he said. But Hill believes enough people will continue to come in person that hybrid events don’t hurt hotels and restaurants in convention cities.

“The shows will return to 100% attendance. People need the in-person aspect of a show, ”he said.

But Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association, isn’t so sure, especially as more convention attendees are questioning the environmental impact of travel. Karamat is excited about the prospect of a virtual conference that brings the world closer together.

“Learning shouldn’t be limited to just one channel. Business networking shouldn’t be limited to one channel, ”he said.

Karamat says the pandemic is already reshaping the convention industry. Organizers are thinking more deeply about the importance of their conferences and the results they want to achieve, he said, which will lead to more meaningful gatherings.

“I am very optimistic,” he said. “I think we’re going to take this a lot more seriously.”

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