Chicago’s convention industry readies for a summer rebound, but challenges remain even with the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine
But an industry comeback will largely depend on how quickly the state can reach its reopening bench marks, which hinge on a vaccination plan still in its early stages. Once conventions are allowed to resume, experts say people are unlikely to attend in large numbers, and most shows will include a virtual component.
From March 1 through mid-January, 187 events scheduled at McCormick Place were canceled. Those shows were expected to generate more than $1.6 billion in spending, with an estimated attendance of about 2 million people, said spokeswoman Cynthia McCafferty. With the loss of events went paychecks. The state’s leisure and hospitality sector shed some 198,000 jobs in the past year, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
Large in-person events such as conventions can’t happen until the final phase of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s five-phase reopening plan. To reach that phase, a vaccine or an effective treatment must be widely available, or no new cases must arise over a sustained period. Chicago moved Sunday to phase four of the governor’s reopening plan, which allows for limited indoor dining at restaurants and bars that serve food, and there are capacity restrictions at museums and stores. Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and the Art Institute plan to reopen no later than mid-February.
Last week, Illinois began the next phase of its COVID-19 vaccination program, opening up inoculations for residents age 65 and older and front-line essential workers, including teachers, police and fire personnel, grocery store clerks, manufacturing employees and people who work in food and agriculture. But the convention industry is at the mercy of mass vaccine distribution, experts say, and the rollout has so far been slow as doses are scarce.
Event planners aren’t receiving enough guidance as the region moves closer to phase five, said Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association. “The biggest problem right now is that even when Chicago gets to phase four nd out of the tiered mitigations, phase four only allows meetings of up to 50 people. And there is nothing between phase four and then phase five,” he said.
The association is asking the state to permit more than 50 people to gather as vaccines become more widely available to the public, Jacobson said. Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for Pritzker, said the state continues to follow the advice of public health experts to prevent the spread of the virus and prevent hospital systems from being overwhelmed, but had no details on what an eventual move to phase five might look like. The first show scheduled at McCormick Place is the National Restaurant Association Show on May 22-25. The event drew more than 70,000 people in 2019, according to its website, but was a virtual event last year.
McCormick Place has been told to expect more than 65,000 people for this year’s event, but event organizer Winsight did not respond to questions about whether registrations are on pace to meet those levels.
In a statement, Winsight said it is committed to hosting the event in person and is taking measures to ensure the safety of attendees by requiring face masks, checking temperatures, spacing out booths, and asking people to avoid handshakes and exchanging business cards. An online directory of exhibitors for this year’s show currently lists about 1,200 companies.
Early registration was extended to Jan. 15, according to a Nov. 20 post from the event’s Facebook page. Organizers are offering full refunds for cancellations made before May 3.
“The stakes are high and the rules keep changing in our industry,” Winsight said in its statement. “We believe operators can’t just read about the latest culinary trends and best practices, they need to see them in action in order to truly apply them to their business.”
Chicago Vegan Foods, a food manufacturer in west suburban Lombard, has been an exhibitor at the show for the past seven years, and tentatively plans to send a few employees to the event.
Health screening takes place at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place Hotel in Chicago on Jan. 25, 2021. The hotel is adding safety measures like partitions at front desks and social distancing guidelines to prepare for conventiongoers that may arrive later this year. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
“We are playing everything by ear. The biggest questions and challenges involve keeping everyone safe,” said Dan Reed, director of marketing. “Nobody wants to get sick. Also, are people going to show up? We just don’t know that answer yet.” But one major barrier Chicago Vegan Foods and other exhibitors face is how to offer food samples. “Food service vendors really want to try your products. And some of our products aren’t really small for sampling,” in pre-packaged containers, Reed said.
Most event organizers plan to offer a virtual component as some people got used to the format, said Lisa Censullo, executive vice president of the Global Business Travel Association. “Once you give people something, it’s hard to take it away. ... People can attend pieces of it (the show) at least virtually,” she said.
Business travel isn’t expected to recover fully until 2024, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Still, the industry remains hopeful. Andrew Perutz, president of Nimlok Chicago, a maker of custom booths for trade shows, said the company has received several inquiries since December from clients to build exhibits for conventions. To prepare for uncertainty later this year, the Des Plaines company began renting out premade exhibits at a discount price, with a flexible cancellation policy, he said. Nimlok also started offering virtual booths for online events. He expects clients will still need a virtual service throughout this year even as in-person trade shows resume, and is optimistic demand for in-person exhibits will pick up by late summer.
“A lot of the shows in the spring (of 2021) were pushed for the summer. Luckily we are not on the edge or in a bad place financially. It’s looking like August is a sure bet,” he said.