CLEVELAND, Ohio – Closed for more than a year, the Huntington Convention Center in Cleveland reopened in April with optimism in the air.
Americans had widespread access to the COVID-19 vaccine, the number of infections was falling, travelers were making plans. And Ron King, general manager of the Cleveland Convention Center, predicted a strong lineup of events in the second half of 2021, followed by a busy 2022.
He has revised his outlook in recent months. King now says it will likely take until 2024 for convention center operations to return to pre-pandemic levels.
“It’s a stuttering stage right now,” King said. “This pandemic is only continuing to spread. I was much more optimistic earlier.
The news isn’t all bad – the convention center has hosted many successful group meetings in recent months, and has dozens more on the books.
Still, a handful of groups have canceled events and others are taking a wait-and-see approach to future bookings. Those who come generally attract fewer visitors.
Content Marketing World, for example, which has become one of the convention center’s flagship events in recent years, was expected to attract a much smaller audience than normal at its conference in late September.
It’s a trend that’s not unique to Cleveland, as business travelers across the country respond to changing health concerns. A recent American Hotel & Lodging Association survey found that U.S. business travelers are cutting plans amid rising COVID-19 cases, with 67% planning to take fewer trips and 52% likely to ” cancel existing plans.
Additionally, a potential new source of revenue for the convention center dried up in August, when the new company running Center IX announced plans to reopen the giant building.
The convention center had hoped to capitalize on last year’s closure of the massive facility, which hosts a handful of major annual consumer shows, including the Cleveland Auto Show and the Great Big Home and Garden Show.
In fact, several of the shows had already announced plans to move their events to the downtown convention center. After last month’s change of management, however, the auto show and others said they would stay at the IX Center, located near the Cleveland Hopkins Airport.
King said the convention center was built to host multi-day events that fill hotel rooms, not large mainstream lounges that draw a mostly local audience.
Still, he said, rent and other income would have come in handy during the downtown area’s post-pandemic recovery. “It would have been a good income and it would have been good for the downtown area, for the restaurants,” King said.
This year, the convention center is expected to host around 50 events, including larger conventions and trade shows, as well as training sessions and smaller weddings. In a typical year, the center expects to host around 200 events, according to Dave Johnson, the establishment’s director of public relations and marketing.
The center projects an operating deficit of $ 4.3 million for fiscal 2021, which is slightly better than the deficit of $ 4.7 million originally forecast for the year.
Despite the ongoing challenges, King says there have been some bright spots in recent months, with more to come:
* Ceramics Expo 2021, the American Trucking Associations TMC 2021 and the Precision Machining Technology Show 2021, all held in recent weeks, have drawn larger crowds than organizers expected and plan to return to Cleveland in the coming years .
* Content Marketing World, which attracts marketers from around the world, recently returned to downtown Cleveland, after going virtual in 2020. The event was expected to attract up to 1,500 attendees over three days.
* And in late October, the city will host the Healthcare Design Expo & Conference, a meeting of healthcare facility designers, a group the city has been trying to court for years, according to King. “Having them here is great for Cleveland. “
King said he is confident that business will return, eventually, and that virtual meetings and exhibits will not replace face-to-face gatherings in the long term.
“The customers I’ve spoken to don’t think the hybrid will persist into the future,” King said. “People at trade shows want to go out and look, see and smell the merchandise. Doing it on the internet doesn’t give you the desire you need. As soon as people can start traveling again, I think they will. “
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