Convention industry on the edge of omicron


Participants take their photo in front of a sign upon arrival at CES International at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

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Broadway shows canceled. Shuttered restaurants. Queues of people coiled around the block at walk-in medical clinics. Companies that send their employees home.

It looks like a flashback to March 2020. The highly contagious variant of omicron is causing a wave of coronavirus infections. In New York, the wave is particularly pronounced, with a seven-day average of new Covid-19 cases nearly doubling in the past week, according to a CNBC analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.

The ability of this variant to pierce the defenses of Covid vaccines has prompted people to rethink their daily activities like eating out. This has put the $ 100 billion conference and events industry on high alert. The pandemic brought the industry, which revolves around large gatherings of people, to a screeching halt last year as social distancing measures were enforced.

The convention industry has recovered in recent months. Over the summer, billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates retreated to Idaho for Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley conference, and Bitcoin 2021 brought thousands of cryptocurrency enthusiasts to Miami in June.

The Center for Exhibition Industry Research estimated that conferences – which boost business for local hotels, airlines, and restaurants – contributed more than $ 101 billion to U.S. gross domestic product in 2019. CEIR’s chief economist Dr Allen Shaw predicted in September that those rallies would return to around 75% to 80% of 2019 levels next year – with a full recovery by 2023.

But that was before omicron, now the most dominant strain of Covid in the United States, entered the scene. And so far, event planners appear to have mixed feelings about whether or not the rallies go as planned next year. Attendance levels will likely depend on company travel policies and site health and safety protocols.

The World Economic Forum, which brings together heads of government and business leaders from around the world in Davos, Switzerland, was scheduled for next month, but has been postponed until the summer. The group said it made the decision “in light of the continuing uncertainty surrounding the omicron outbreak.”

JPMorgan Chase changed course at its big annual healthcare conference after key attendees abandoned fears of Covid. He was planning to hold it in person in San Francisco next month. The event, known as one of the largest gatherings of healthcare executives in the world and a hotbed of business activity for the industry, is now taking place in a virtual format.

Increase in Covid protocols

The National Retail Federation, however, said on Tuesday that its “Big Show,” which was scheduled to take place at the Javits Convention Center in New York City from Jan. 16-18, was still underway.

The leading business group in the retail industry is calling for all attendees to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and wear masks at all times in the building. The NRF is also advising participants to test themselves for Covid at home before traveling to Javits. The group said it will offer PCR testing at the convention center during the event.

“Like all of our participants, we are closely monitoring the external health environment,” NRF President and CEO Matt Shay said in a statement. “We will continue to work with local, state and federal health officials to ensure that we meet and exceed safety guidelines and mandates. “

In a separate email sent to speakers lining up for the “Big Show,” the NRF said that as long as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York State and Manhattan deem it safe to hold the event, it will continue.

“At the moment we have no plans to go virtual, but if that decision is made it will likely be postponed given the complexity of this pivot,” the NRF said in the email, which was seen by CNBC.

The Consumer Electronics Show is also scheduled to be held in Las Vegas from Jan. 5-8, according to the event’s organizers.

A spokesperson for the event said CES had received several thousand new registrants since last week, even amid omicron fears. CES requires that participants be fully immunized and wear masks. It also reduces capacity and keeps some social distancing measures in place.

“We are confident that attendees and exhibitors will have a socially distant but useful and productive event,” the spokesperson said.

Still, big tech companies including Amazon, Meta, Twitter and Pinterest have said they won’t send teams to CES this year due to Covid fears. While others like Google, Qualcomm, and General Motors say they’re still on track to participate and showcase new products.

A representative from the Las Vegas Convention Center, where CES is to be held, said there are currently about 45 trade shows with at least 5,000 attendees registered at the site for next year.

“We’re getting there”

David DuBois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, said that as long as adequate security measures are taken at these conference venues and local mandates are respected, large-scale events should unfold. And then it can be left to the participants to decide whether or not they feel comfortable attending it, he said.

“Over the past few months, the exhibition industry has demonstrated ways to organize events safely,” DuBois said in a telephone interview. “We’ve had hundreds of them in the past three or four months.”

Even with omicron, DuBois expects the industry to recover, he said.

In Orlando, conference activity really started to pick up in July before dropping slightly in the fall due to the delta variant, said Mark Tester, executive director of the Orange County Convention Center. Behind Las Vegas and McCormick Place in Chicago, it is the third largest convention center in North America.

The pace of conventions tends to slow over the holidays, Tester said, and the Orange County Convention Center has not seen any cancellations for January shows so far. Not only are there financial penalties for canceling these events at this last minute, but it can hurt the morale of an industry, he said.

“We haven’t heard any questions or ideas about going virtual or doing anything with it. [an] event due to the omicron variant, ”the tester said. “It can affect some participation. … But we are working with everyone on their protocols. “


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