Convention centers stay hopeful in 2nd year of cancellations

  • The Association for Computing Machinery’s 25th Conference on Knowledge, Discovery and Data Mining in 2019 drew thousands of participants and was among the largest professional conferences ever hosted in Anchorage. Those type of events were canceled in 2020 and despite hope early this year for a return to in-person gatherings, Downtown convention centers are once again dealing with a flood of cancelations and postponements during the current COVID-19 resurgence. (Photo/Elwood Brehmer/AJOC)

What was supposed to be a celebrated return to a form of normalcy became topsy-turvy as spiking COVID-19 case counts are disrupting a second fall convention season in Anchorage for event planners and those behind the scenes.

Greg Spears, general manager for both of Anchorage’s city-owned Egan and Dena’ina convention centers sums up the last year-and-a-half with one word: brutal.

According to Spears, his team has fielded event cancellations totaling roughly $600,000 in just the past month as the resurgent virus, fueled this time by the infamous delta variant, continues to hammer many service-based industries.

Revenue from room rentals this year is trending at about twice the level of last year but is still only about half of what the Egan and Dena’ina generated in 2019, which Spears referred to as a “decent year.”

He has taken the approach of doing everything reasonably possible to accommodate everyone who wants to hold in-person gatherings, whether that can still happen now or needs to wait. Once-standard policies of 60 percent deposit refunds for cancellations within 60 days and no refunds inside of 30 days before an event have been relaxed.

It has mostly been around that one-month out timeframe that most event organizers have sought to postpone or outright cancel their plans, Spears said, and staff for the downtown convention centers have done their best to accommodate.

“We have been very flexible the last 18-19 months because we understand the situations our clients are in,” Spears said in a Sept. 14 interview. “We’re working with every client so we can hopefully one day get their events back in the building.”

While the centers have sizable reserves to draw on from years of profitability, it has not made laying off nearly 100 workers and other unforeseen obstacles any easier to navigate, he added.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association was among the first local organizations to move its annual conference back in recent weeks. Originally scheduled for Sept. 2 at the Dena’ina Center, leaders of the industry trade group decided in early August to push the event to mid-January in an attempt to keep attendees as comfortable and safe as possible while also recognizing the deeply rooted desire a growing number of people have to meet again, CEO Kara Moriarty said.

Normally a gathering of about 500 people, the size of the AOGA conference also necessitated considering the potential impact on hospital capacity by holding it as once scheduled, according to Moriarty.

“We also consciously made the decision not to go virtual because our audience is ready for an in-person event,” she said.

Moriarty also corroborated Spears version of how the cancellations are being handled by convention center officials, saying they were in “lock-step” with each other on the decision to postpone, again. Once scheduled for May, AOGA’s conference had already been moved once this year.

“(Dena’ina Center staff) were really great but we had been in communication with them the whole time,” Moriarty said. “We moved our date before they had to incur costs they couldn’t recover.”

She said similar things about the guest speakers and sponsors, nearly all of whom agreed to reschedule or roll deposits to January instead of backing out altogether.

“I don’t think anyone’s asked for a refund. At this point, everyone is just, ‘OK, see you in January,” Moriarty said.

Alaska Federation of Natives leaders also decided in late August to push their three-day conference — one of the largest gatherings annual gatherings of its kind in the state — back to mid-December instead of committing to another wholly online event as was done last year. The AFN convention is also held at the Dena’ina Center when it is in Anchorage.

Visit Anchorage CEO Julie Saupe said Outside groups that hold events in Anchorage are modifying plans as well. Some events first booked for last fall and rebooked for this year are now being pushed to 2023 or 2024 because plans for the interim years have already been made, she said.

More than 1,000 people from Outside were expected to attend the IEEE Signal Processing Society International Conference on Image Processing in Anchorage Sept. 19-22, according to Visit Anchorage spokesman Jack Bonney, who wrote via email that Visit Anchorage officials are working on options with that group and others toward meetings in the city in future years.

Overall, about 70 percent of the events once planned for the Egan and Dena’ina that have been altered since March 2020 have already been rebooked and more rebookings are expected, according to Bonney.

Anchorage Economic Development Corp. CEO Bill Popp said his group, which holds some of the city’s largest luncheons each year, is planning for an in-person 2022 Anchorage Economic Forecast Luncheon in late January after staying virtual for its annual 3-year Economic Outlook presentation held in early August. At the time, COVID-19 cases were just starting to increase significantly across Alaska.

“I think people are ready to get back in the three-dimensional world. I think that networking, collegiality are tangible benefits in the minds of most of our constituents,” Popp said. “The business community, community leadership, the public — they all want to be in the room.”

Adding to the challenges for Spears have been the widespread labor and supply shortage that has hit the convention centers as well.

“Restarting for the Foo Fighters concert here a couple weeks ago was just a major headache in staffing. We enlisted volunteers, took help from family and friends. I myself took on different roles checking vaccination cards and whatnot,” Spears said, adding that several members of his core, full-time staff are also currently sidelined with COVID-19 infections of their own.

However, the clear pent-up demand for large gatherings at some point keeps him upbeat about what’s to come.

“Our future is bright if we can get COVID under control,” Spears said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

09/14/2021 - 7:10pm