Are conventions coming back?
That’s what it looks like on the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority convention calendar.
A tobacco and vaping event is set to take place in May. One month later, the Las Vegas Convention Center will feature the World of Concrete, one of the biggest trade shows in Clark County.
Do show organizers anticipate we’ll have cleared the remaining hurdles of COVID-19 by then? Or are these dates wishful thinking?
For months we’ve been told conventions and corporate meetings will bring weekday visitors back, get tens of thousands of people working again and restart the economy. The convention industry generated $11 billion in 2019.
But will we be ready — and able — to return to normal by spring?
"We're not out of the woods quite yet, but we are seeing that light at the end of this very, very long tunnel," said Cathy Breden, executive vice president and COO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events.
Breden believes the worst of the pandemic is behind us now, but cases need to continue their downward trend and the vaccine rollout needs to keep expanding.
"I think based on that information and all of the data we are seeing, we do think that - especially going into the third quarter of this year and the fourth quarter - events will be back."
Breden also said there will be a lot of competition for dates and venues, and that her group has gone from hopeful to cautiously optimistic to optimistic.
While in Las Vegas the number of attendees can't top 100, other states like Florida and Georgia have allowed events to go ahead.
Breden said those events have been held safely, and that many venues have obtained the STAR certification through the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, or GBAC, program, which means they have followed strict guidelines for cleaning, disinfection and disease prevention.
Besides that, she added that the venues have focused on other measures for stopping the spread of the virus.
"There's a lot of effort around social distancing. Many shows are testing the attendees before they are able to enter the convention center."
Tricia Barglof is the executive director of OFFPRICE Trade Show. Her event was one of three fashion retail shows that are usually held in Las Vegas, but instead combined for one show in Orlando this year.
She said the initiatives used at her show and others have been fine-tuned for more than a year.
"We're planners for a living, so we felt confident that we could deliver a safe environment for people," Barglof said. "I think that our job was to try to communicate what those initiatives were, and then when people did turn up, everybody was pleasantly surprised by how safe they felt in that environment with the extra spacing."
Barglof added that vendors, suppliers, workers, exhibitors and attendees were tested to create a bubble in which everyone could safely work.
David Audrain is the executive director of the Society of Independent Show Organizers, or SISO. He, like many others in the industry, believes that conventions and trade shows can be held safely.
"What we have been trying to communicate across all the states is that we have the protocols in place. We have the systems in place and that it is very different from some of the events that have been used as reasons not to allow events to go forward."
Audrain also said that large events that have been linked to the spread of the virus have tarred his industry. He noted that conventions and trade shows are business events with a lot of oversight.
"With business events, we are managing the process. We're keeping people safe. We're enforcing masks. We're enforcing distancing. We've got a very great sanitation program in place to manage it."
He also said that attendees, exhibitors, and service providers are all registered for the event, allowing organizers to know who is coming and going.
In addition, Audrain said conventions are held in extremely large spaces, which is why the industry has been trying to focus the conversation around density and occupancy.
"When you're talking about a half-million-square-foot or larger, million-square-foot convention centers of which you have several of in Las Vegas, the idea of limitations of a few hundred people makes no sense," he said.
Audrain said if you put a few hundred people in a small room, they're not very distanced, but the same number of people in a large convention hall won't be able to hear each speak because they'll be so far apart.
"We've proven with these events that have been running that they're certainly safer even than walking through a grocery store or a shopping mall," he said.
While the conversations around safety continue, Audrain is feeling optimistic about what's ahead for the industry. His company has shows booked for June, July and August.
All his clients are asking that they not become virtual events.
Sue Sung is senior vice president of corporate strategy for Freeman Company, one of the largest convention services companies. She is also head of the Go Live Together Coalition, which is an industry group that lobbies lawmakers.
She said that while online events have helped some parts of the industry through the pandemic, most people want face-to-face interaction.
"Nothing beats the face to face. One of the words I hear a lot is serendipity. When you go to an online event, you usually know what you're going to buy or you're going there to meet somebody specifically in another company in particular. The benefit of being in a live event as you're walking down those aisles is you find what you didn't expect to find."
Sung said that interaction can have a long-term impact on both the exhibitor and the attendee.
Barglof said that is why the show organizers for the three large fashion conventions decided to put together their recent event.
"People were needing to get back to business, meet face to face, touch product - those types of things, and I think it is a credit to all three show organizers listening to their community and trying to deliver something that their clients wanted," she said.
Rhiannon Andersen is the co-owner of Steelhead Productions in Las Vegas, which designs convention exhibits. She saw revenue drop to almost nothing in the past year.
Now, she is 'cautiously optimistic' about some of it returning this year - that, by the third and fourth quarter, the industry will be transitioning back to normalcy - but she also thinks it will be a slow ramp-up and then a fast-moving train.
"We need a few under our belt, and then, I think, we'll be ready and raring to go back to normalcy in 2022."
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