November 02, 2021

Hotels in Major US Markets Unlikely To Get Convention Boost in Late 2021

Travel Restrictions, Vaccine Mandates Continue to Curb Events

Hoteliers with properties in major U.S. convention markets are not experiencing the usual fall-season pickup in demand from attendees, and are unlikely to match pre-pandemic performance amid continued travel restrictions and vaccine mandates.

Hotel markets in cities such as San Francisco, New York and Chicago face the greatest challenge due to vaccine mandates and restrictions on attendance, as well as delays in the return of inbound international travel.

Warmer-weather cities where state COVID restrictions are relatively lenient, such as Orlando, will likely fare relatively better this fall as planners will have the option of conducting meetings in outdoor facilities.

Still, fall convention numbers may be off by between 50% and 75% at traditional U.S. meetings destinations, as many businesses and associations have opted to delay annual events until 2022.

“We literally have five conventions from now through the end of the year, and we’re not going to pick up much more,” said Nicole Rogers, chief sales officer at the San Francisco Travel Association, last month. She estimated that the city’s Moscone Center hosts more than 30 events during the second half of a typical year. “We’re one of the few cities with a vaccine mandate for gatherings over 1,000 people, so that’s definitely limiting the amount of people.”

The combination of travel restrictions, vaccine mandates and caution on the parts of both private businesses and associations continues to put a crimp on convention spending in Orlando, Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Overall, North American conventions generated $381 billion in direct spending in 2017, according to a 2021 study by the Events Industry Council and Oxford Economics.

Investment, as a result of that demand, in expansion and capital improvement projects at convention centers will now take longer to yield returns.

San Francisco’s Moscone Center completed a four-year, $551 million expansion project in 2019, while New York’s Javits Convention Center this spring completed a $1.5 billion project that added 1.2 million square feet to the Manhattan facility.

Not all convention destinations will feel the same pain.

New York and San Francisco markets have been especially hamstrung because of limitations placed on the direct air routes from Europe and Asia had that made those cities attractive to convention planners from overseas, according to Jan Freitag, national director for hospitality market analytics at CoStar.

Earlier this month, the White House said vaccinated international travelers will be permitted to travel to the U.S. starting Nov. 8.

“I can paint a scenario where the first couple waves (of international travelers) will be staying with friends and family, and certainly won’t be attending citywide events, because those take years to plan,” Freitag said. “The uptick in international group travel that drives attendance at large convention centers will be a 2022 story.”

By comparison, Orlando continues to attract more domestic group travel. While Florida’s state government has effectively banned vaccine and mask mandates, Nadia Vanderhoof, marketing and communications manager at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), notes that the convention center was the first in the world to be reaccredited by the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC).

“The OCCC has hosted more than 100 live, in-person events since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Vanderhoof said. “No other convention center has hosted this number of events with a widely released strategy involving GBAC recertification.”

So far, early-fall hotel-room demand numbers have reflected the differences in the travel rebound among U.S. cities.

While Orlando hotel revenue per available room in September was 14% lower than 2019 figures, Chicago RevPAR was down 32% compared to two years prior, and the metric in New York and San Francisco fell 48% and 63%, respectively, according to STR, CoStar's hospitality analytics firm.

Meanwhile, Orlando’s convention center, which hosted 200 events with more than 1.5 million attendees each year prior to the pandemic, is scheduled to host 133 events with about 977,000 attendees this year, according to Vanderhoof.

U.S. convention and tourism officials are hoping safety protocols and pent-up demand will speed up the business-travel recovery.

Choose Chicago, the city’s sales and marketing arm, estimated in early September that the city’s inventory of hotel rooms was at 98% of its previous peak. Choose Chicago spokesperson Michelle Gonzalez said all employees, contractors, subcontractors and vendors of the city’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority will be required to be vaccinated by late November.

Meanwhile, New York’s Javits Center, which hosted about 175 events a year before the pandemic, will host more than 40 events between the facility’s August reopening and the end of the year, according to Tony Sclafani, chief communications officer at New York’s Javits Center.

“While some events have reduced in size, the demand is growing, especially with New York State’s high rate of vaccination and the relaxing of international travel restrictions,” Sclafani said. “We expect international business to increase in the near future, especially since New York City is one of the safest cities in the country with such a high vaccination rate among adults.”

As for 2022, Freitag predicts that convention demand will accelerate to pre-pandemic levels amid pent-up demand and a newfound appreciation of the value of in-person events.

“The associations derive a lot of their income from conventions every year, so they need those conventions to survive. They will do everything in their power to get conventions going,” Freitag said. “Zoom is efficient when you have a clear-cut agenda and the people already know each other, but it’s not efficient for teambuilding, onboarding new people or brainstorming.”

Still, San Francisco Travel Association’s Rogers was more measured with her optimism.

“Prior to the [COVID] delta variant rearing its ugly head, we started to see leads increase and tourism coming back. What we’re looking forward to is almost all of the tech companies here in California and the banking companies are saying they’re opening their offices back up in January or February at the latest, and that bodes very well for business travel,” she said. “But every time we say it looks like it’s going to be good, we jinx ourselves, and I don’t want to do that.”

Copyright 2021 CoStar Group. All rights reserved. From By Danny King, HNN contributor.

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