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Hard-Hit Conventions Hope Delta Fades Soon as Shows Cancel Again

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 8/7/2021 Michael Sasso
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(Bloomberg) -- The cancellation of the New York Auto Show this week over concerns about the spread of the Covid-19 delta variant sparked “here-we-go-again” fears in the events industry, just when it started booking conferences again. 

For now the rebound is moving ahead, venue managers from across the country said in interviews, even if many trade shows are drawing half as many attendees as normal.

This week, salespeople working the exhibitor hall at VenueConnect 2021 in Atlanta, an annual gathering of event-venue operators, were in no mood to go back to Zoom meetings. The sponsor of the convention, the International Association of Venue Managers, was determined to hold its conference. If venue managers themselves weren’t willing to meet, what message would it send?

“If anyone should gather for a show if it’s safe and appropriate, it should be us,” said Rip Rippetoe, chair of the IAVM and chief executive officer of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation.

The nixing of this month’s New York International Automobile Show at the city’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, billed as the nation’s best-attended auto show, spooked an already shell-shocked industry.

Other recent cancellations have included the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers show in Orlando, Florida, a fundraiser at the Chattanooga, Tennessee, convention center for a local children’s hospital and the in-person portion of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Washington.

It was hardly news the industry needed. Some venue operators had just reopened, including the San Diego Convention Center, which had its first show this week after spending the last four months serving as a center for unaccompanied migrant children. 

As the number of delta cases rose across the country, the IAVM quickly switched from “highly suggesting” masks to mandating them at the Atlanta gathering, said Brad Mayne, the association’s CEO. Attendees also had their temperatures checked before entering. Still, the event may have had half the attendance it normally has, Rippetoe estimated.

Sor Far, So Good

So far, venues around the country report relatively little fallout. Chicago’s McCormick Place, dubbed North America’s biggest convention hall, hasn’t had any recent cancellations, spokeswoman Cynthia McCafferty said, although the number of shows overall is down. McCormick Place scheduled 43 meetings and conventions from July 1 through year-end. While a direct comparison wasn’t available, the center had 289 meetings, sporting events and concerts in the full year 2019.

The Georgia World Congress Center Authority, operator of Atlanta’s biggest convention hall, saw rental space revenue fall by almost half in the just-finished fiscal year, but sees the current year hitting pre-pandemic levels, even if attendance is down, spokeswoman Holly Richmond said. And, San Diego’s convention center has around 30 events lined up through year end, including a scaled-back Comic-Con, the show for which it’s perhaps best known.

It’s been a slow comeback for the trade-shows business. While music concerts and festivals have returned in force and are selling out, almost 78% of business-to-business shows were canceled in the first quarter, with 14% postponed and roughly 8% occurring as planned, according to the latest estimates from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. 

In New York, a design and merchandise show called NY NOW is moving forward at the Javits Center next week despite the delta flareup. Addressing critics who questioned why it’s still on given the auto show’s cancellation, the event’s organizer, Emerald, said NY NOW is a much smaller show: Attendance is in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands the auto show was expecting.

And everyone will be masked up, said a senior vice president of Emerald’s retail group, Tim Hart.

“Virtual events are no substitute for in-person events,” Hart said. “It’s very very important that we come together so our customers can buy and sell. They need these face-to-face events to come together and do business.”

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