ANAHEIM, Calif. — It’s come full circle, said Jay Burress, CEO of Visit Anaheim.
In March 2020, Natural Products Expo West, one of the largest food and beverage industry conferences that attracts over 80,000 attendees, was the first major convention to postpone its annual event at the Anaheim Convention Center due to concerns related to the emerging coronavirus.
Two years later, New Hope Network, the show’s organizers, returned to Anaheim to host Natural Products Expo West 2022, the first large-scale, in-person event at the Anaheim Convention Center since the pandemic began. The exhibition will run from Tuesday March 8 to Saturday March 12.
“It’s really symbolic,” Burress told Spectrum News. “They were the first band to cancel, and now they’re the first major band to return.”
The return of the Natural Products Expo West trade show and next month’s Wondercon, as in-person conferences come as cases of the latest omicron variant decline and the state drops its indoor mask-wearing mandate for vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
For the past two years, the million-square-foot Anaheim Convention Center, once a bustling meeting and event space in the heart of the city’s resort district, has remained virtually empty due to restrictions related to the pandemic.
According to Visit Anaheim, before the pandemic, in 2019 the convention center hosted 54 conventions. In 2020, that number dropped to nine. In 2021, the convention center only hosted four.
The lack of meetings and conventions hurt the city’s portfolio. The convention center is one of the economic engines of the city, somewhat in the same vein as Disneyland, Honda Center and Angel Stadium. It serves as a magnet for visitors.
Many meeting and convention visitors stay at nearby hotels, shop and eat at local restaurants, Burress said.
Burress said he expects visitors to the Expo West convention, which hopes to draw more than 60,000 attendees, will book nearly 45,000 room nights at local hotels and support more than 23,000 local jobs.
Burress said the convention could have up to $145 million in economic impact and about $2.3 million in tourist occupancy tax revenue for the city.
“It’s something we took for granted,” Burress said. “We have hosted so many conventions. It is one of the economic engines of our city and its return is fantastic. [Leisure] tourism has remained strong, but we have yet to regain group activity.
In a statement to Spectrum News, New Hope Network Vice President of Events Lacey Gautier said her team was excited to return to Anaheim.
“We expect the usual energy and dynamism of this event,” said Gautier. “It always feels like there’s a little something special in the air when the Grand Plaza comes alive with the various activations, yoga classes and concerts. The natural products industry is ready and excited to return to this favorite community gathering, and we expect more product innovation, thought leadership and connection than ever before.
Gautier said his community and vendors are ready to come together in person.
“Connecting in person is critical for businesses,” she said. “I have the impression that this is the case for all markets, but particularly the one that is centered on innovation and the discovery of natural and organic products. The ability for exhibitors and attendees to see each other in person, to create real connections and experiences…see, taste, smell…products is paramount to the continued success and growth of the industry.
Burress said it would be up to event organizers to decide on health protocols for attending a convention.
At Natural Product Expo West, masks will be required indoors and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to participate in convention events.
So far, everything is falling into place, Burress said. Conventions and visitors return to Anaheim.
After Natural Products West Expo, Wondercon, one of the major comic book conventions in the United States, moves to the convention center. In May, Star Wars Celebration arrives, and later this year Disney will host its D23 Expo fan event.
More conventions are lined up, Burress said.
But, he said, meeting and convention business has yet to fully return. International leisure travel has not fully rebounded. And there’s a stigma from people in the United States that California is still closed for business.
Burress traveled to Mexico and Canada and toured the country promoting Anaheim and the state.
“We are delighted to welcome visitors to the congresses again,” he said. “We want them to feel welcome and to see how much we appreciate them.”