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Coronavirus

Wilmington Convention Center Working Through Pandemic

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Sep 10, 2020
The Wilmington Convention Center has been able to book some events during the coronavirus pandemic, including the Wilmington Boat Show coming in October. (Photo courtesy of the Wilmington Convention Center)
The upcoming Wilmington Boat Show will be the Wilmington Convention Center's biggest event since state efforts to slow the coronavirus pandemic began restricting large gatherings, a convention center official said. 

The Wilmington Convention Center, 10 Convention Center Drive in downtown Wilmington, is hosting the October event under Gov. Roy Cooper's executive orders concerning retail, said Fredia Brady, the convention center's general manager.

Due to state restrictions to keep the coronavirus from spreading, many venues like the convention center have had limited business since March. 

The Wilmington Convention Center's event revenue loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated at over $2 million, Brady said in an email.

"We have hosted events under the Governor’s Executive Order for retail such as the Hot Tub Show and the upcoming boat show. For future events like the boat show, they must comply to current COVID guidelines under the Governor’s Executive Order," Brady said. "For customers that operate under the retail guidelines, events are limited to 50% occupancy and their event plans must include social distancing, wearing of masks, no entertainment or activities. It is strictly for the purpose of retail."

Technically, the exhibit hall at the convention center could hold up to 1,000 people at one time, and the grand ballroom up to 400 people, according to a Wilmington Boat Show news release.

“On a normal year, we do not get close to those numbers at one time,” said Jacqui McGuinness, president and owner of South Carolina-based boat show management firm JBM & Associates, which puts on the boat show.

The Wilmington Boat Show is scheduled to take place Oct. 9-11 at the convention center, Port City Marina, Pier 33 and the Battleship North Carolina. 

McGuinness said that due to the restrictions, the entertainment side has been eliminated from this year's event, including activities such as the annual VIP party. 

"The show is not going to be like it has been in the past ...  What we're doing is, we've been granted permission based on the retail sales guidelines for the state, because we're simply doing a shopping venue," McGuinness said.

That's inside the convention center. The outside portion of the event, at the marina docks and pier where the boats and outside vendors will be set up, is still under public gathering guidelines, she said.

The outdoor space is divided into seven different zones and each zone will allow 50 people at a time, based on state guidelines, she said. The outdoor event will be limited to those areas and monitored by event staff.

"We are going to be sectioning off barriers to make sure that we monitor the number of people that go in and out of those areas," she said. "So that's how we're going to do it and my hope is that the governor when he speaks again on Sept. 22, hopefully maybe before, that we will up that number at least to 100."

The state is in phase 2.5 of the economic reopening plan, which increased slightly the number of people that could gather indoors and outdoors, while also allowing the opening of some facilities such as gyms, bowling alleys, indoor basketball, as well as aquariums and museums, under capacity requirements. Large venues are also still subject to mass gathering limits.

"We're going to be following the convention center's guidelines, which are the state's guidelines, and whatever else we have to follow. We are working really hard to do so," McGuinness said, adding that its full COVID-19 response plan for the event is online.

Based on her experience in the events setting, a lot of convention centers, like the Wilmington Convention Center, are working to bring business back and keeping things safe, McGuinness said. The ability for the Wilmington venue to be open for the October boat show is also big for vendor business.

"So many of these businesses are suffering and they need to make money and that what this convention center is offering is the opportunity for people to come in and buy things from these folks. It's basically a shopping venue," McGuinness said.

Boat dealers, however, have been booming during the COVID-19 pandemic, selling a lot of inventory.

The only other near-future event on the books that's of similar scale to the Wilmington Boat Show is a home show, scheduled in early 2021, Brady said. Under the order, the convention center in June also hosted the Hot Tub & Swim Spa Blowout Expo. 

The convention center has also been hosting virtual meetings that fall within the governor's gathering limits, she said. The convention center has also converted its meeting space for a virtual hybrid setting.

"For example, the Center hosted the NC Healthcare Engineers Association in August. It was a virtual meeting which allowed for the meeting to take place via Zoom," Brady said. "Also, [the] Center hosted a funeral service in accordance with the Governor’s order for funerals."

The pandemic has not stopped future bookings. Brady said events continue to be scheduled years in advance.
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