As Alaska contends with a COVID-19 surge that swelled in recent weeks, several local groups have canceled or postponed conferences and meetings during Anchorage’s typically busy fall convention season. As the coronavirus has continued to hamper international travel, one international group has also canceled.
The shifting plans have heaped more pain atop the Anchorage event industry, experiencing its second straight year of tough times after the pandemic canceled travel and social gatherings.
And it could continue.
Alaska organizations that have recently rescheduled conferences say they’re eyeing COVID-19 numbers in the state and could delay events once again if things don’t improve.
In-person meetings and events this year were on the rise partway through summer as the economy was bouncing back, said Greg Spears, general manager for the Egan and Dena’ina convention centers.
The Foo Fighters show at the Dena’ina Center in mid-August sold out rapidly and saw heavy sales for merchandise, he said. It showed people are ready to get out and be together.
Cancellations and postponements for 2021 have occurred all year because of COVID-19, Spears said
But the number increased starting in August as COVID-19 cases in Alaska were rising due to the more contagious delta variant, he said. Events set for as far out as December, or even early next year, have been canceled or postponed, he said.Anchorage-wide, at least 114 meetings or events have been canceled or put off this year due to the pandemic, said Jack Bonney with Visit Anchorage. The cancellations have affected hotels, convention centers and other venues. The events would have generated about $39 million in spending in Anchorage, he said.
Twenty-four of those have been canceled or delayed since Aug. 1, he said.
“Traveler enthusiasm and optimism is starting to flag as COVID has reared its ugly head again,” Bonney said.
‘Ready to meet in-person, but not until it’s safe’
On the plus side, at least 60 meetings, conferences and events have been held in Anchorage this year, pumping about $12 million into the economy, Bonney said. The figure doesn’t include smaller meetings organized by local groups on short notice, he said.
Things have improved since March 2020, but the number of events is still well below 2019 levels, Bonney said.
Visit Anchorage has been able to rebook most large events and groups for future years, Bonney said.
The canceled and postponed events have hurt restaurants, food suppliers, event support companies and others, said Bill Popp, head of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.
“It’s disappointing for many businesses,” Popp said.
The Alaska Oil and Gas Association had planned to hold its annual one-day conference at the Dena’ina Center in early September after a year and half of postponing it, said Kara Moriarty, the group’s president.
But with the state’s COVID-19 cases rising, she reached out to Alaska health officials and Providence Alaska Medical Center for advice. There was no way to keep 500 people socially distanced, she said.
“I realized, ‘Yeah, this is not safe,’ ” she said.
The meeting is now reset for Jan. 12. That plan will be reassessed shortly before the event to make sure it’s safe, she said. The date can be pushed off again if needed.
“We are ready to meet in-person, but not until it’s safe,” she said.
The Alaska Federation of Natives delayed its annual convention by two months, moving it to Dec. 13-15 at the Dena’ina Center.
The group took the step after consulting with medical experts, including Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said Sheri Buretta, chair of AFN’s Convention Committee.
The Alaska Federation of Natives convention is typically the largest in the state. Thousands of delegates and relatives pour in from across Alaska, spending millions of dollars at hotels, shops and grocery stores.
In particular, AFN doesn’t want its delegates to contract COVID-19 in Anchorage and bring it back to villages without hospitals or much medical support, she said.
“We have a vulnerable population and medical facilities,” she said. “Getting together (in October) would really increase the risk, so we didn’t want to do that to our population.”
The convention was held virtually last year for the first time ever.
The Alaska Federation of Natives convention brings together friends and family from across Alaska, so it was difficult not to meet in-person, she said.
This year’s plans for a fully in-person meeting could change, she said. The group’s board will meet again to decide if a virtual or partially virtual event will be safer.
“There is hope that maybe the numbers will go down in December,” Buretta said. “There’s something about being together that everyone wants so badly. But we have to do the right thing and protect our people.”
Impact on small business
The thought of the AFN convention canceling again this year is “terrifying,” said Karin Johnson, an owner at Dark Horse Coffee, across the street from the Dena’ina Center.
Business from that convention, along with holiday bazaars and other fall events, usually provides a financial boost for winter, she said.
“AFN is like my Black Friday,” she said. “And it’s like a family reunion, so we were sad to miss it last year.”
After a strong surge from tourists in Anchorage this summer, business has dropped again at the coffee shop, she said. Small civic and community meetings seem to be the only thing happening in the Dena’ina Center, she said.
Sales at Dark Horse are about half what they were in 2019, she said. But Johnson said she understands the reason for the cancellations, because they keep people safe.
“I may suffer from it, but it is the right thing,” she said.
The Alaska Chamber planned to hold its annual forum over three days late last month at the Hotel Alyeska in Girdwood. But it canceled those plans.
It’s now holding the policy forum online on Oct. 12 to set its annual advocacy agenda.
The group is still planning a business conference for Dec. 8-9 at the Hotel Alyeska with about 200 participants.
The plans for the December event could change if the stress on the state’s hospitals from COVID-19 doesn’t ease, said Kati Capozzi, president of the Alaska Chamber. The group will communicate with state health officials before making a final decision.
“If we are like what we have now, we’re not having it,” Capozzi said of the currently high number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Alaska.
If the December event has to be canceled, it will be postponed until it can be held safely in person, she said. People want to network and personally interact, she said.
“We’ve been doing virtual conferences and meetings for 18 months,” she said. “It gets to be tough to be sitting at computers.”
The Alaska Miners Association canceled its five-day conference, set to start Nov. 1 at the Dena’ina Center. It attracts more than 1,000 people, said Deantha Skibinski, the group’s executive director.
A new date has not been set, she said.
The cancellation of the event last fall was no surprise, given that there was no COVID-19 vaccine available at the time, she said. But this year’s cancellation is frustrating since many Alaskans have not taken advantage of the vaccines, she said.
“The fact that we’re here again is super disheartening,” she said.
International events have also been canceled or postponed.
The IEEE Signal Processing Society canceled its large international technology conference on image processing, planned for four days in mid-September at the Dena’ina Center, said Kenrick Mock, a group member and organizer of the event.
The conference was instead held virtually. It’s now planned for Anchorage in 2025, said Mock, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The group decided in August to cancel, he said. COVID-19 rates were rising nationally at the time. More than 1,000 people were expected to visit Anchorage from all over the world, but pandemic travel requirements made flying difficult for many participants.
“It was disappointing,” he said.
The Resource Development Council still plans to hold its annual conference Nov. 17-18 at the Dena’ina Center. But plans could change depending on the path of the pandemic, the group’s website says.
“While we will do all we can to bring our members and supporters together in November, we may be forced to shift to virtual or hybrid event,” the website says.