While it may be some time before all is back to “normal,” convention center teams in the South have noticed that increased health and safety practices have been highly beneficial in staging successful trade shows and expos.
During a July interview, Mark Tester, executive director of Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), said the venue had hosted nearly 100 events since receiving GBAC STAR accreditation and implementing those protocols.
“It’s not new anymore. It’s a regular part of doing business,” Tester said. “We’ve been open for a year, so we’ve had 100 opportunities to get the new protocols down. So, it’s business as usual for us at this point.”
Tester said the OCCC’s goal throughout the pandemic has been to maintain and strengthen customer relationships and to prove themselves as industry leaders.
“We were the first convention center that had a business-to-business trade show during the pandemic,” he said. “The first business-to-business event that did rapid COVID testing for everyone that entered the building during that time—labor, exhibitors, attendees—either had to take a rapid COVID test, or they had to produce documentation that they had a COVID test within 72 hours. And the thing that we’ve proven during the pandemic is that you can have a successful, safe event if people wear masks.”
Randy Lieberman, manager of marketing communications for the Georgia World Congress Center Authority in Atlanta, said they’ve also seen “great success” with the events hosted since the facility earned GBAC STAR accreditation. He further noted that the GWCC had more than 80 events scheduled between May 1 and December 31, 2021, including trade shows, Esports gaming events, and ATL ComicCon.
“Lots of things have changed over the past 18 months,” Lieberman said. “Throughout it all, we have aimed to exceed the health and safety expectations of our clients. We were the first convention center in the U.S. to receive GBAC STAR accreditation for cleaning, disinfection, and infectious disease prevention. Likewise, we quickly implemented a comprehensive business return plan that we continue to refine in accordance with local, state, and federal executive orders and guidance.”
Lieberman said that profitability and attendance have varied by event. “Some of our largest events with attendance numbers on par with pre-pandemic levels have been amateur sports,” he said. “Conversely, shows with a large contingent of international attendees or who are offering hybrid options have a smaller footprint.”
At the OCCC, Tester said they have noticed an uptick in the last few months of international exhibitors and attendees, particularly from the Caribbean and Central and South America, but he foresees hybrid and virtual events as the norm for now with careful planning in place for future events with international exhibitors and attendees.
As one example, the OCCC recently hosted Coverings, a stone and tile trade show with numerous international exhibitors. Tester said coordination between domestic reps and international reps was key to the success of the show.
Tester said that practices like wider exhibition aisles, designated entrance and exit points, and limited numbers of people in exhibition halls play a big part in health and safety practices. Because of this, he said some exhibitors initially expressed concern with the optics of less crowded aisles and halls. But the attitude among exhibitors is optimistic, particularly as spending increases post-vaccine.
“Just about every show that we’ve had [has said] that everyone during the pandemic has been conservative with what they were spending, buying new products, fixing things, or doing anything that would be not extremely conservative or necessary because they wanted to see what happened,” Tester said. “Now, as people are coming out of this, there is a lot of pent-up demand. And so that’s what we’ve seen with the people that are coming to face to face. And those people that are going to trade shows are there to buy. And so, the exhibitors and every show that we’ve had left saying they had a great return on investment.”
Things are looking up financially for the OCCC as well.
“The rest of our fiscal year [looks] really strong,” Tester said. “Our business has come roaring back with the number of events that we’ve had. We’ve had events that stayed on the calendar, and we’ve had some events that have moved from earlier in the year. This really created a very highly occupied schedule in June, July, August, and September of this year, and the rest of this calendar year is very busy. We don’t have much available dates at this point, really almost at all.”
Lieberman said the GWCC feels “bullish” about their financial future.
“Our book of business for the next 18 months continues to be strong. In fact, we are experiencing an onslaught of site visits that tell us the future of live events is headed in the right direction,” he said. “We continue to see positive movement on the booking front for future years and are confident a full return to in-person meetings is on the horizon.”
One practical change Lieberman noted was longer lead times on certain products.
“We’ve had to revisit our reorder points to ensure that we have the appropriate amount of stock on hand. Our vendors have been doing a great job communicating changes in the marketplace, which has helped us avoid shortages,” he said.
Vendor and labor relationships have also proven important for the OCCC and its exhibitors, according to Tester. This includes Centerplate as a food service provider, and GSCs who frequently work with the local chapter of the IATSE labor union.
In house at the OCCC, Tester said they have been “very blessed. We did not have to furlough any of our full-time employees. We temporary relocated 190 of our proximately 400 people we have on the payroll right now, all around at different jobs within the county.”
Some of them, for almost a year, Tester explained, were doing other jobs, including about 75 percent of their utilities department.
“Our event electrician was setting up low voltage water meters for new residences, and our housekeeping staff was cleaning other buildings and helping the county out in a variety of other ways. It was a godsend we were able to do that,” he said. “All of our employees are back now from their temporary assignments.”
Tester said working closely with the local government throughout the course of the pandemic has proven instrumental, including daily informational calls organized by Orange County mayor Jerry Demings that included event, travel, and leisure professionals, the voting commission, police and fire chiefs, and the Florida Department of Health.
“Our mayor and our Board of County Commissioners understood how important we were to not only the county, but to the area businesses that were around it,” Tester said. “That’s one of the things I think has really risen to the top. We need to make sure that our elected officials understand what we’re doing and how important it is to our community.”
Lieberman said the GWCC will continue to work with exhibitors as new data develops surrounding vaccination numbers and the Delta variant of COVID-19.
“Our goal for every event is to deliver a safe, clean, and compelling experience for everyone who visits our campus,” Lieberman said. “Our team members have not only adapted to our enhanced safety and cleaning protocols, but the health and safety guidelines required by each of our clients. We understand our business works better when we’re in sync with the expectations and protocols of our clients.”
Tester expressed similar sentiments for the OCCC, which recently launched an ad campaign called Business Better Than Usual.
“The key component to it has been masks for a long time,” he said, noting that most recent events have implemented a mask recommendation, but not a requirement. “As people have gotten the vaccination and feel more comfortable, those folks are coming in without masks, but there’s still a section of the population that are coming in and are taking that recommendation and wearing masks.”
Tester said, however, that requirements may make a return in the future.
“That’s what I see happening if either the numbers continue to trend upward, because of the unvaccinated people, or this Delta virus gets bigger numbers,” he said. “Our events will continue to be held, but they’ll go back to making masks required when they’re in closer areas, on the exhibit floor, or when people aren’t able to physically distance.
“We’re very blessed to have an extremely large campus, so we’ve really been able to spread events out,” he added. “We’ve got the protocols down; a lot of customers are looking to do things outside. We’re an outdoor city, we’re a walking city, there’s a lot of opportunities to do receptions and other social functions outside and networking. So we feel like we’re in a real good place from the market standpoint, and hope that we can continue with momentum to get us back better than where we were in 2019.”
Developing data on the Delta variant aside, Tester said he feels confident in the OCCC’s ability to navigate whatever may come.
Christopher Jennings is a freelance writer based in New Orleans, La. His most frequent topics are arts, culture, and nightlife. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Loyola University New Orleans and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University.