Boston convention officials say “the lights are on” again

Boston State House

Boston State House

BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS) – Convention business in Massachusetts is “starting to escalate quite dramatically,” a trend that could lift tourism and hospitality sectors ravaged during the pandemic, officials said Thursday.

After more than a year of widespread cancelations, bookings for short- and long-term events at Boston’s convention spaces have rebounded in force, bringing with them forecasts of hundreds of thousands of hotel stays and a renewed sense of optimism among industry overseers.

Milt Herbert, executive director of the Boston Convention Marketing Center, on Thursday updated his metaphor of choice to describe the economic outlook for the large-scale events: instead of just seeing “light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, “the lights are on” for conventions.

“Customers are now starting to recover from COVID-19 and business is starting to escalate quite dramatically,” Herbert told the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority Board at a meeting one month after Gov. Charlie Baker lifted the COVID-19 state of emergency.

Dozens of scheduled events now dot the calendar for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, Hynes Convention Center and the Lawn on D, a large portion of which have been confirmed in the past month.

Between July 2020 and June 2021, BCMC staff booked 12 large-scale convention events at the BCEC and Hynes, according to data Herbert presented. Those kinds of events, referred to as “citywide convention” sales, include the International Association of Fire Fighters Biennial Convention and the New England Food Show.

Eight of the 12 bookings sold between April and June, and five came in June alone, Herbert said. Taken together, they project to bring about 90,000 nightly hotel room stays to the area.

BCMC also contracted 63 other shorter-term events in the past 12 months at the BCEC, Hynes and Lawn on D, about half of which were confirmed in June, according to Herbert. Thirty-seven events will take place at Lawn on D, prompting Herbert to say the outdoor space “continues to be on fire.”

“A lot of companies, having been remote for 15 months, are looking forward to hosting employees for an outing on the Lawn,” said MCCA Executive Director David Gibbons.

Events at the Hynes Convention Center and the Boston Convention and Exposition Center were wiped out after the state of emergency began in March 2020, cascading into scores of hotel room cancellations and widespread financial impacts including jobs losses in the lodging and restaurant sectors.

Between March 2020 and December 2020, MCCA experienced 178 event cancelations, together representing more than 535,000 hotel room nights, according to meeting minutes from May. Data presented Thursday indicate another 83 events have been canceled so far in 2021.

An industry report concluded this week that Boston’s hotels, for whom business travel is a major factor, have experienced the second-steepest financial losses due to COVID-19 among the top 25 U.S. markets.

“The road back to a traditional event has been arduous, but the finish line is in sight and we’re looking forward with confidence and excitement to a return to regular operations,” Gibbons said.

One of the largest conventions on the immediate horizon in Boston is the Heart Rhythm Society’s Annual Scientific Sessions, scheduled to run from July 29 to July 31 at the BCEC and projected to trigger thousands of hotel room reservations.

Herbert said three other unspecified conventions scheduled for later in the year plan to send representatives to the Heart Rhythm Society’s convention to survey how it runs and gather feedback for their own events.

FAN EXPO returns to the BCEC over Labor Day weekend, featuring numerous celebrity guests such as cast members from “The Office,” actor Ron Perlman, and Billy West, a voice actor and former performer on WBCN’s “The Big Mattress Show.” Organizers expect “thousands of college students and other pop culture fans” to attend.

Some of those showcases, conventions and conferences will still feel effects of COVID-19 as business revs up again, Herbert forecast. FAN EXPO organizers said they plan to release a health and safety plan at least 30 days before the convention begins, while Herbert said two exhibitors at the Heart Rhythm Society’s event this month cut their planned staff for the event by 50 percent.

When the Heart Rhythm Society welcomes guests later this month, Herbert said, they will deploy a color-coded lanyard system as a quick way for each attendee to transmit their preferences for interpersonal interaction.

A red lanyard indicates a participant would like to avoid close contact, interact while wearing masks, and avoid shaking hands. A green lanyard communicates, as Herbert put it, “okay, give me a hug, okay, give me a handshake, and we’ll go out and have a glass of wine after without the presence of masks being required.”

“These events are all going to continue to struggle going forward into terms of execution of their programs, but in general, they are going to go forward,” Herbert said.

Other major events scheduled for the next few months include the American Probation and Parole Association Annual Training Institute from Aug. 22 to Aug. 24 at the Hynes, the American Orthotic and Prosthetic Association National Assembly from Sept. 10 to Sept. 12 at the Hynes, the North American Spine Society Annual Meeting from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 at the BCEC, and the Child Neurology Society Annual Meeting from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 at the Hynes.

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