For Greater Columbus Convention Center, smaller, regional events become focus
A subcommittee of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority met in early June (electronically, of course) to talk about future sales and event bookings.
The first order of business was the usually routine passage of the official record of the previous meeting, back in March, in the early days of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
"I tell you, it was extremely strange reading through the minutes, wasn't it?" Anna Nash, the authority's sales director, told members. "We were just days into this when we had our last meeting, and some of the questions were like, 'You know, I wonder how this is going to affect us in the future?' It certainly, here on June 9, has gotten much worse then we had all anticipated."
She added later, "Who would have thought, back in March, we would be hosting court in the Greater Columbus Convention Center?"
Or a field hospital, for that matter.
Both have been a focus of activity at the convention center, with larger conventions and meetings canceled for the immediate future and questions remaining about when they will return.
In the meantime, officials have shifted focus to smaller, regional events as they await a return to something resembling the type of travel and tourism environment that existed before the pandemic.
"We're trying to be as creative as we can to look for other ways of using our facilities," said Don Brown, the authority's executive director.
Since the pandemic declaration and the subsequent public health orders that closed many businesses and restricted people to their homes, 110 groups have canceled or rescheduled programs at the convention center.
Brian Ross, president and chief executive officer of Experience Columbus, said lost conventions, meetings and other events have cost the city 200,000 hotel-room nights and upward of $165 million in sales and services generated by tourism and related business.
Many meeting planners who rescheduled events now are on the books for 2021 or thereafter, although more than a dozen have picked dates later this year, pending the lifting of restrictions on mass gatherings by the health officials.
"If they were able to have more than 10 people, obviously, we would have three events in July," Nash told members of the sales subcommittee. "So it's not for a lack of people wanting to come and people wanting to meet. Right now, our biggest obstacle is that ban on mass gatherings for more than 10 people."
Officials have begun slowly disassembling the surge hospital at the convention center to make way for events. The 1,200-bed operation has occupied sections of the facility since April but has not been needed by area hospitals to treat coronavirus patients.
The Franklin County commissioners appropriated $5 million to cover the costs of setting up and operating the surge hospital, which ultimately has gone unused. About $2 million of the total outlay has been spent on the facility.
Cots and other equipment will be taken down over the next couple of weeks and stored at the convention center for now, in case there's a need. Area hospitals have retrieved some of the equipment from the site.
"It was a sprint to build it," said Jeff Young, director of Franklin County Emergency Management and Homeland Security. "It's a very slow, leisurely, managed, deliberate takedown ... knowing that we want to plan and make sure we're prepared for any contingency."
Officials said they would reassess the need to keep equipment at the convention center in early September.
"In a crisis, we very quickly -- almost within a day -- could open up," Young said. "I feel good about how we responded locally as an EMA and as all governments. ... It continues to give me confidence in our ability to respond and be prepared in the fall."
Elsewhere in the convention center, Franklin County Municipal Court has a contract in place for space through August, with potential extensions afterward, for traffic and eviction hearings. The court is paying about $200,000 for the initial 100-day use of the space.
The convention facilities authority also is marketing its space for use by churches, for wedding receptions and for other smaller events.
"It will take a while for the public to regain confidence in going to events again," Brown said. "We're hoping by the second quarter of next year that we'll be able to hold (larger) events in the convention center.
That's contingent on the lifting of state health orders against certain mass gatherings. While banquets and catering centers are allowed crowds of up to 300, regular meetings without food still are limited to 10.
"I wouldn't anticipate having a 10,000-person convention this year," John Page, general manager of the convention center, said during a recent meeting of the authority's public relations committee. "But we could have a larger gathering, whatever that may be. That may be several hundred, that may be several thousand ... . We can handle much bigger crowds."
There is reason, however, for optimism about the local tourism industry, officials said.
Organizers announced June 11a basketball tournament at Nationwide Arena and the convention center that begins on the July Fourth holiday weekend.
Also, Ross said, survey and other data indicate people are starting to travel again, albeit on shorter-distance leisure trips to visit friends and family.
The more comfortable that people feel traveling, the quicker that places such as the convention center can get back to something resembling normalcy
Experience Columbus has launched a "Live Forward" campaign through which more than 100 businesses and organizations already have pledged to follow health protocols, wear masks and other protective gear and practice social distancing -- all with an eye toward keeping employees and customers safe as the threat of COVID-19 remains.
"We as a destination have made commitments and taken steps to share that the health and safety of residents and visitors is forefront," Ross said.
"Of course we want to open up our community, to bring visitors in and start bringing back the travel economy. But we have to be very responsible, we have to be very thoughtful about how we do that.
"This is not about feeling safe. It's actually about being safe."