When will conventions come back? Business, tourism leaders hopeful large groups can return by summer
In late March, the 2020 NCET Tech Showcase and Awards Gala was scheduled to take place at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center — an annual event that brings roughly 400 businesspeople together. But, as March moved along, and the coronavirus cases in Washoe County climbed, “it became clearer and clearer that we were not going to be able to hold that event,” Dave Archer, president and CEO of NCET, said in a recent Zoom call with the NNBW.
Seven months later, on Oct. 21, during a brief window when the state increased the limit on gatherings to 250 people, NCET was finally able to hold its annual event.
It did not, however, look anything like your typical awards banquet. No handshakes. No business cards exchanged. No round tables filled with lively conversations over food and drink.
Instead, roughly 100 attendees, each wearing a mask and seated at their own socially distanced table, gathered for an early afternoon ceremony inside the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. And it was streamed online for those who didn’t make it.
“We had about a hundred six-foot rectangular tables, with one person sitting at each one,” Archer said of the COVID protocols put in place. “The feedback from everybody was that it felt incredibly safe being there because of social-distancing and the mask-wearing.
“But,” he continued, “people love to network in this town. And I think that’s what’s really been a challenge for so many people: losing their in-person, face-to-face contact.”
Fast forward to mid-January 2021, and everything from awards galas to business conferences to conventions remain nearly impossible to hold in Northern Nevada and across the U.S. — both logistically, due to COVID-related resistance to air travel and hotel stays, and as a matter of public health.
As a result, venues like the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, the 39th largest convention center in the U.S. at 600,000 square feet, have remained largely empty compared to years past.
Charles Harris, president and CEO of the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority, said RSCVA in 2020 saw more than 100 groups cancel or postpone events. This, he said, resulted in the loss of more than 160,000 hotel room nights for the region.
Nationwide, in Q3 of 2020 alone, approximately 97% of originally scheduled business-to-business trade shows and events were canceled, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR).
Moreover, travel budgets have been slashed and some events may remain virtual in a post-COVID world, cutting into the convention and conference business. As a result of these shifts, the pandemic could permanently cut business travel by 36%, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.
‘TOO EARLY TO TELL’
Yet, signs of optimism are returning to America’s $300 billion convention industry.
Of the 100-plus events RSCVA saw canceled in 2020, Harris said the organization’s sales team has re-booked roughly 65% for 2021 and beyond and is in discussions with other undecided groups. He added that “just a tad over 10%” of the groups have said they have no intention of re-signing right now.
As of early January, Harris said more than 100,000 room nights have been re-booked related to future events coming to the convention center.
Still, the question remains: What will conventions and meetings look like going forward? RSCVA and other area organizations are trying to figure that out while the pandemic keeps Nevada in a statewide pause through at least mid-January.
In the short term, Harris said many in the industry are predicting events are going to be a combination of online and in-person experiences, but it’s “too early to tell, concretely” to what extent.
“Long-term, people want and need to have that face-to-face interaction,” he noted. “2021 is really going to be a transition year in that hybrid environment when it’s safe to get together. And I think that’s kind of what we’re working toward navigating now.”
Phil MacDougall, executive director of Western Industrial Nevada (WIN), said the organization is preparing for when the state gives the green light to gather more than 10 people in a group.
In 2020, WIN went fully online with its events, but the organization is prepared to pull the trigger on hybrid events — whether it’s 25 or 250 in person — when it’s safe to do so, he said.
“We’re ready to go as soon as restrictions ease up,” he said.
Until then, MacDougall said WIN is focusing on adding value to its members through engaging virtual events high-quality speakers. The organization pivoted from hosting a monthly in-person breakfast event with a keynote speaker to holding at least three virtual programs (from a speaker series to speed networking) each month.
Along the way, WIN attracted new businesspeople who are considering becoming members when in-person events return, he noted.
“The feedback has been really positive,” said MacDougall. “But, the ultimate thing is, I want to be face-to-face. I’m praying that things get lifted and we get back to whatever the new normal is sooner rather than later.”
NCET’s Archer agrees. Though each of the organization’s 33 virtual events in 2020 were attended by an average of 100 people and viewed after the fact by roughly 200 more, Archer said there is a pent-up demand for networking that isn’t done over a screen.
“We do a lot of surveys, and the No. 1 reason that most people go to our events is networking,” Archer said. “I think it’s been a challenge for so many people, losing their face-to-face contact.”
SHIFTING TO SUMMER
Archer is hopeful that experience returns no later than July, when NCET is scheduled to holds its small business expo at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
He said the event typically brings in 100 exhibitors and 1,000 people. If restrictions allow, he said this year could bring more people than ever due to businesses trying to boost their reach and exposure during an economic slowdown.
“When the economy is good, we don’t have as many exhibitors because they say they’re too busy to take a day off to do it,” Archer said. “When the economy is not so strong, exhibitors are out in force because it’s a good opportunity to meet potential customers and clients.
“And I think after having been locked down for a year, the combination of the economy starting to rebound and people wanting to get out, I think this potentially could be our best expo in 16 years.”
Ann Silver, CEO of the Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce, thinks meetings and conventions may come back in the second half of 2021, with occupancy limits gradually increasing.
“It’s hard to predict human behavior, but we crave socialization,” said Silver, noting the fourth annual ALLIANCE business expo, a collaboration between the chamber and regional partners that’s drawn 1,000-plus people in past years, is being pushed to late July or early August rather than Q1. “We hope to have a thousand people at that event. If we have to require vaccines or ask people if they’ve gotten them, we want to hold a huge event. We want to return to life as we knew it.”
Silver added she’s unsure if the chamber will be able to hold its Biz Ball event this summer. The chamber launched the NBA-sponsored outdoor 3-on-3 basketball tournament and business expo in July 2019.
The Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, meanwhile, is also eying the summer for its annual state of the economy event, which it traditionally holds in late January, said CEO Mike Kazmierski.
“June is when we can likely get people to actually show up,” he said. “By then, people will actually be able to interact, which is a very important part of any event. It’s not just the information flow, otherwise we could just email out the slides. It’s the interaction.”
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