The event, which was scheduled for late May at McCormick Place, is the first major COVID-related loss for the Near South Side Convention Center to be relocated to another city instead of being canceled or held virtually. The move underlines the different approaches from state to state in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and is a threatening sign for the 2021 convention and trade fair calendar in Chicago.
“Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and regional disparities in public events across the country, it has required very careful consideration and scrutiny of all options,” said the Washington, DC-based NCA at Sweets & Snacks Expo website.
The event’s 2020 fair was one of the first COVID-related cancellations in Chicago earlier this year. The 2021 meeting should bring more than 16,000 attendees to McCormick Place and generate nearly 13,000 room nights in downtown hotel rooms, according to Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, which owns and operates the convention center.
“We have heard from attendees and exhibitors that they look forward to a safe and inviting event where our industry can share new products, promotions, and insights, so we need to start planning and marketing a live event in 2021 Indianapolis gives us this opportunity, “Sweets & Snacks spokeswoman Lauren Boland said in a separate statement. The event has been held in Chicago every year for more than two decades. “We value the relationship we have with the city of Chicago and look forward to returning to McCormick Place in 2022.”
Despite the public health crisis, Indianapolis has hosted 21 major events at its convention center in the past few months, with around 50,000 attendees. This policy allows for gatherings of more than 250 people if a host gets their event schedule approval from the state health department, according to Visit Indy, the city’s tourism bureau. In contrast, McCormick Place has been virtually empty since the end of March, with Governor JB Pritzker banning more than 50 people nationwide from gathering in one room for indoor events.
The economic impact on the Chicago convention industry – and on downtown hotels that rely on such events – has been profound. As of October 19, 161 events planned for McCormick Place had been canceled or practiced due to COVID-19, according to MPEA. These would have brought nearly 1.6 million people to the convention center, generated 1.4 million room nights, and generated an estimated $ 2 billion in local economic impact, including spending on transportation and entertainment.
As in Illinois, Indiana coronavirus cases have risen significantly in the past few weeks. The state reported more than 2,000 new cases on Monday for the fifth straight day, with hospitals nationwide treating a similar number of COVID patients as they did during a spike in the first few weeks of the pandemic, according to the Indianapolis Star.
It’s unclear whether Pritzker intends to make exemptions from his policy for conventions and large meetings, but increased restaurant and bar restrictions announced this week after a recent surge in cases suggests such a change is nowhere in Sight is. A Pritzker spokeswoman could not be reached.
Still, the Sweets & Snacks move could put pressure on the governor’s office to work out a plan that will allow some events to happen in the coming year or undermine long-term demand for one of Chicago’s main economic engines. In a similar move that could boost conventions in Las Vegas – one of Chicago’s main competitors for big shows – Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak said this week the state intends to allow congress meetings up to 50 percent of event capacity after the state and local Regulatory authorities have approved a security plan. That would be an increase of 10 percent today.
The good news for MPEA is that groups like Sweets & Snacks want to meet in person enough that they are willing to abide by pandemic regulations. This is a reassuring sign given predictions that more large industry and corporate meetings will be virtual or significantly smaller in the future, given new technology making it easier for large groups of people to be together online.
Larita Clark, CEO of MPEA, said during the agency’s monthly board meeting yesterday that she was encouraged by a recent Harris poll in which only 13 percent of respondents said virtual meetings were better than face-to-face.
“We look forward to our customers returning to our campus and convention center, hopefully in the near future,” said Clark.
David Causton, general manager of McCormick Place, said during the meeting that the convention center has been working with major clients whose events are scheduled for the first half of next year to create a “bespoke program” for the way they work for each and every event on COVID -Restrictions when the state relaxes its grand gathering policy.