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Inga Saffron: Convention centers drive urban economies. Will we ever meet there again?

Inga Saffron, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Home and Consumer News

PHILADELPHIA -- President Donald Trump may have given up on holding a convention in the midst of a pandemic, but not Mark Yuska.

A professional meeting planner, Yuska is so convinced that convention centers can be made safe that he decided to organize a gathering for the people who manage the world's conferences and trade shows. His company, Alliance Exposition, booked the main hall at Orlando's convention center, went into sanitation overdrive, and signed up a room's worth of exhibitors. On July 24 -- while Florida was experiencing an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases -- 1,400 people poured into the building for the Together Again Expo, believed to be the first major trade show since America's convention centers went dark in March.

"It was proof that it could be done safely," said Cathy Breden, who runs the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, and was one of the speakers.

Well, not actually proof, since there has been no follow-up to determine if any of the attendees contracted the virus. What the event does demonstrate is how desperate the vast convention-industrial complex is to find a way to restart their meeting halls.

Conventions and trade shows are now wrestling with the same challenges facing schools, religious groups, and professional sports. Whenever large numbers of people gather indoors, in tightly enclosed spaces with mechanical air circulation, odds are that spikes in coronavirus infections will follow. But conventions aren't merely an optional social get-together; they are also the linchpin of America's urban economies, supporting a $100 billion ecosystem of hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues. That's why Yuska and hundreds of others in the meeting business are trying to adapt convention centers so that large events can still take place, even under the extreme constraints demanded by the pandemic.

Since people may be leery of attending big gatherings for some time to come, their efforts could determine how quickly cities are able to get back on their feet. In Philadelphia, hospitality is now the second largest industry, pumping $600 million a year into the economy. Some 77,000 residents owe their jobs to those suitcase-toting, lanyard-wearing conventioneers. And unlike office employees, they don't have a work-from-home fallback option. Not a single event has been held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Broad Street since the Philadelphia Flower Show closed March 8, and nearly 60% of the city's hospitality workers are now unemployed. The loss of tax revenue for the city is immense.

 

Yet, as Trump discovered when he was forced to cancel the major portion of the Republican National Convention, safely assembling several thousand people in the same building is a daunting undertaking. Some believe that Herman Cain, the former presidential contender who died from COVID-19 last week, contracted the virus during Trump's June 20 rally in a Tulsa, Okla., arena. This will be the first election year in American history that red-white-and-blue clad party delegates do not assemble in person to select their presidential candidates.

Even the Consumer Electronics Show, an annual mega-convention that attracts 180,000 gadget geeks to Las Vegas, threw in the towel and announced that the event will take place online in January. People will just have to watch the theatrical product rollouts on their screens. While many people think of gambling as Las Vegas' main business, the city is essentially one big convention venue. "Every hotel is a convention hotel," said Sherrif Karamat, who runs the Professional Convention Management Association.

Of course, the shows can still go on even if the convention centers stay closed. After the lockdown orders went into effect, many scientific and trade conferences quickly transitioned to online. The 50-member alumni council for my university did just that, compressing a two-day event into three hours. It turned out that the format forced us to focus more efficiently on the key issues. Those who wanted to socialize simply stayed on Zoom after the agenda items were completed.

But the remote meeting did little good for the city where our alumni council normally gathers. Not a single airline ticket, hotel room, rental car or restaurant meal was purchased, and no one stayed late into the night at the bar, racking up an impressive tab.

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