A venue that offers space for large events with hundreds of people is not exactly the prime business model during a pandemic. That, however, is the situation the Wilmington Convention Center has navigated this year.
With many associations and corporations issuing travel restrictions, conventions and banquets have canceled or rescheduled for next year, leaving the convention center holding on for a post-pandemic recovery.
The total event revenue loss since March, which includes event revenue loss in fiscal year 2020, as well as year-to-date for fiscal year 2021 is “a little over $2.8 million,” according to Fredia Brady, the convention center’s general manager.
The convention center received $190,000 in CARES Act funding, but layoffs were necessary.
With this fiscal year ending June 2021, the Wilmington Convention Center looks forward to a fresh start.
“We haven’t received any cancellations past June 2021, and the military balls are booking for November 2021, and we are seeing movement in a lot of the annual banquets we normally get past that time,” Brady said.
Meanwhile, flexibility is key. The convention center has become the new site for all the city of Wilmington events and meetings.
“All city council and planning board meetings are now held here since the space allows for social distancing with ample space and so forth,” Brady said.
Much like the Wilmington Convention Center has made itself available for local government purposes, according to Brady, other convention centers across the country are utilizing their large, open spaces as an asset to the community for novel uses.
“Convention centers are all being used in nontraditional ways. It is not a bad way to service the community, either as a hospital, distribution center … They are all being used in different ways,” she said.
The Wilmington Convention Center’s resilience is reflected in the flexibility of its team members, Brady said. With the need for 26 layoffs, the 13 remaining staff are all doing different job functions to keep the center running smoothly.
“The one thing we are learning is the strength and versatility of our team,” Brady said. “The difficult thing about seeing empty space is it means someone is not working.”
One successful event that did go off without a hitch was the Wilmington Boat Show that took place at the convention center in October. Using the governor’s executive order with regards to retail, the event was presented like a boat dealership with the center, again, reflecting its flexibility.
The event allowed for social distancing, a sanitizing plan was in place and masks were required, according to Brady, adapting to the new norms of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Going toward the first quarter of 2021, Brady says that groups are still cautious with many potential attendees facing corporate travel bans that would prevent them from attending large-scale conventions out of town.
For now, Brady said, events remain small or are not happening at all.
“We understand the concern. Groups are still cautious. Between now and June 2021, we have maybe 30-40 events planned, and if they hold up, well, that remains to be seen,” Brady said. “Now, it’s all about small events that allow for social distancing.”
Industry talk suggests 2022 and beyond is when a bounce-back is anticipated, according to Brady.
“We are excited about 2021. 2021 and beyond looks really good. And clients are excited. They know all this won’t be the norm,” she said.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo shares that excitement and is optimistic for a strong recovery.
“We banked a lot of money in anticipation of hurricanes and things of that nature, but no one saw a pandemic that’s almost a year in duration on the horizon. Our reserve account takes into consideration events that may impact our budget, so it will cover the cost of any loss,” Saffo said. “That is the good news, the silver lining here. Thank goodness we set that aside to pay the debts.”
The financial model the city laid out years ago was criticized for its conservative approach, according to Saffo, but “it is paying off now in dividends.”
“It is unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation in the hospitality sector with many conventions delayed or canceled, but we will work our way through it and get through it,” Saffo said.
Even though room occupancy taxes (ROT) that fund the convention center were down more than 30 % year-to-date in the Convention Center District, according to Saffo, area beaches saw high numbers of visitors, and revenue from those ROT should offset the other loss.
“It is a good sign that people still want to come here,” Saffo said.
Brady is ready to get back to business as usual.
“There is a lot of fun and activity in what we do, and we love to work and have fun. There is certainly a thrill that comes with getting to find contracts,” Brady said.
Officials hope to see people return to all areas within the Cape Fear region, specifically the downtown area for convention center events, as the pandemic becomes managed through vaccine rollout and other protective health measures.
“We will continue to follow all the safety protocols that will allow people to feel good about returning,” Brady said. “And one day we will stop and think how we did things when we were in a pandemic.”
Getting the convention center back to the hub of activity it was designed to be is the goal for the coming year. Saffo said he is confident that it is only a matter of time before that happens and the whole area benefits from its rebound.
“The hospitality industry, which the convention center plays a huge role bringing in a lot of people into the hotels and restaurants in the area, and from my perspective, sooner hopefully rather than later, we will resume operations normally,” Saffo said. “We will bounce back pretty nicely.”