Conventions were the canary in the coal mine for the economic devastation COVID-19 would bring to Denver.
When the American Physical Society canceled its March 2020 meeting at the Colorado Convention Center downtown with two days’ notice, there were some early hopes it might be an isolated event. At that point, there hadn’t even been a confirmed case of the virus in Colorado yet. Reality quickly set in.
A year later, the scope of the damage — lost bookings at the convention center, other events and expo halls, hotels, and all the customers that didn’t come to local restaurants and shops as a result of that — has become clear.
“I think we lost a little over $800 million in economic impact from public meetings last year,” said Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, the nonprofit tourism organization that heads up booking events at the convention center. “We’re at $1 billion if you count 2020 and 2021 right now. That’s people not flying, not staying in hotels. It’s just a ripple effect.”
By their nature, in-person meetings have also been among the last things to come back. Mixing large groups of people from various places in enclosed spaces is a recipe for virus spread. Even groups willing to organize meetings have had to contend with people not being willing to attend. The venues are juggling fast-changing safety requirements while working harder with smaller staffs and trying to save events that have been delayed, rebooked, and rebooked again.
Huge meeting spaces mean the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center in Aurora can welcome groups of 1,000 to 1,500 attendees under current state guidelines, director of sales and marketing Michael Kofsky said in an email Tuesday. Even so, the Gaylord is only booking groups of 500 or fewer through June.
Events being booked
Things are starting to turn a corner in Denver with some big events on the books in the second half of the year. Event planners and venue managers have high hopes for what vaccination rates will mean, even daring to dream of full event halls with unrestricted attendance before the end of this year and certainly by early 2022.
State emergency management officials announced in January the overflow COVID-19 field hospital set up last year in the Colorado Convention Center would be shut down without ever having to have been activated to serve patients. The removal of that infrastructure was completed last month, according to Rich Carollo, the convention center’s director of sales and marketing.
“It’s out so we are ready,” Carollo said.
After essentially sitting empty for all of last year save for election worker training in October, the center is back to hosting some small events this spring. Come August, it is scheduled to welcome back the Outdoor Retailer summer trade show, an event that has drawn north of 25,000 people over three-plus days of programming in years past, Carollo said. Beyond that, the Craft Brewers Conference awaits in September.
Those two events alone won’t make up for all the lost bookings over the last year-plus, Carolo said, but they will boost morale and get convention center operations people back to work.
“We’ll be able to hire people back. We’ll be able to bring staff back and I think that’s something we are all excited about,” he said.
Outdoor Retailer show takes shape
Outdoor Retailer announced its new summer show dates — Aug. 10-12 — in late February. It’s also already advertising its winter show, planned for Jan. 26-28, 2022.
“There is definitely a desire from both brands and retailers to come back together in person,” Outdoor Retailer show director Marisa Nicholson said. “The opportunity to network and collaborate and continue to build on relationships within the industry is difficult to do in a virtual and digital space.”
Just how many people can and will show up for the show is still something of a moving target. More than 1,000 retailers are already signed up but broader registration opens April 20. Contracts for brands that want exhibitor space are coming in daily, Nicholson said.
Nicholson has been keeping a close eye on media reports about vaccination rates, noting that the New York Times is projecting the country getting into the herd immunity range before the August show.
Outdoor Retailer is owned by trade show giant Emerald, which has already put on some trade shows in other states in the past few months, informing how the Denver show will operate, Nicholson said. Attendees should be prepared to sign waivers, have their temperatures taken and wear masks.
“The ability to walk around and eat and drink is not necessarily an option,” Nicholson said. “There will be areas designated for that.”
Outdoor Retailer did pivot to online shows — spread out over multiple weeks — last year. The winter show earlier this year drew about 200 brands and 8,500 attendees, Nicholson said. There are some pieces of that, like online, on-demand educational programming, that will stick around and be combined with the returning physical show.
“Having learned now through a very steep learning curve how to do things virtually, we feel that is an important component that we will continue to have,” she said.
For Scharf, who has been with Visit Denver for nearly 30 years, booking events at the convention center right now is providing a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum.
“In the old days, we knew what we could handle and they knew what they were going to bring us,” he said of event attendance. “In today’s world, there is a little bit of question on both sides.”
The convention center, which is owned by the city of Denver, booked by Visit Denver and managed by ASM Global, has 5 Star certification allowing it to operate at a capacity beyond what the state outlines in its color-coded COVID-19 restrictions dial. But in a few weeks, the dial will no longer apply, with local health departments scheduled to take on regulations for their counties.
With capacity a moving target, Scharf is touting the multiple layers of health safety protocols in place at the center to protect guests. There are the convention center’s own measures, the event organizers’, those of the hotels that accommodate convention goers, even down to vendors and caterers.
Carollo said the convention center staff has had plenty of time over the last year to install new hardware and building systems to make the building as virus-proof as possible. That includes devices that clean the handrails on the escalators each time they rotate through machinery.
Smaller events, loss of Denver Mart
For smaller events that might not be able to afford the convention center or the Gaylord, 2021 has brought about another problem: The Denver Mart in Adams County has closed and appears poised for redevelopment.
When Jim Marski was looking for a venue for his Rocky Mountain Hobby Expo, a trade and consumer-facing event that featured everything from model trains and remote control cars to gaming, the Mart was the best fit based on cost and because of its abundant free parking.
“Our target market was families that we were trying to get into these hobbies,” he said. “You go to the convention center and it’s $10 a head for the parents and then you start paying $10 to $12 for parking, it starts ruling people out.”
Marski retired his show after the pandemic set in — and found a lucrative online market to sell rare model train pieces — but he will miss the Denver Mart and what it offered, particularly for mid-sized shows like his.
“That’s really a loss,” he said.
“More work” for National Western Center complex
Another city-owned property, the National Western Center complex, is back to hosting small events in its expo hall and arenas. (New facilities are not yet ready to host anything.) But National Western Stock Show Association staff, who operate events on the north Denver campus, have their hands full accommodating their own clients and aren’t in a position to be able to fill the void created by the Denver Mart right now, said Kyle Baun, the organization’s vice president of ticket and event booking
“We did hear from a lot of them and are working with some of them,” Baun said. “We are trying to fit some of them in.”
What stock show staff are finding is that hosting events with COVID-19 capacity restrictions and safety in mind means “about 20 times more work than what we used to do,” Baun said.
And for much smaller returns. Paul Andrews, the National Western Stock Show and complex’s president and CEO, said the organization makes its money on parking and people buying food and drink when on the campus. Limited capacity means much less of that.
Andrews’ eyes are fixed on the big prize: the 2022 stock show in January. He has already guaranteed that the 16-day event will happen next year. He is watching out for how other large events like Cheyenne Frontier Days and Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets games come out of the pandemic and if they will be able to welcome full houses again this year.
Scharf, too, is looking toward that light at the end of the tunnel, a light he said only recently appeared.
“We’re moving from trying to save business to getting into planning the events and making sure events are successful, and we haven’t been able to do that” in a long time, he said.
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