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Anaheim's Convention Center Is Raring To Go, But What Will Events Look Like?

Visit Anaheim, the city of Anaheim's tourism arm, has booked more than 50 meetings and conventions within the past two months for the Anaheim Convention Center.

It's a sign that city officials and businesses are looking to bring business clients and tourists back to the city, hit hard by the coronavirus shutdowns. The 11 conventions and 39 meetings, some tentatively scheduled for as early as September, may bring more than $63M in economic impact to the local community, according to Visit Anaheim officials.

The Anaheim Convention Center is one of the city's and Orange County's main economic engines, along with the Disneyland Resort, attracting millions of tourists and business clients from all over the world. With more than 1M SF of exhibit space, it is one of the largest convention centers on the West Coast and sits right across the street from Disneyland.

Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim

As of June 22, the Orange County Health Care Agency reported more than 10,595 coronavirus cases in the county, with 289 deaths.

Orange County has been at the forefront of resistance when it comes to abiding by coronavirus health precautions. Residents forced the former head of the health department to step down. And while California has required residents to wear masks, Orange County health officials made it voluntary. Nevertheless, the convention hub says it is ready to open.

"Our clients are ready to get back to business," Visit Anaheim President and CEO Jay Burress said to Bisnow. "Sometimes they can't right now. Some are worried about their attendees who may not feel confident to attend, but hopefully we'll get there."

The bookings come as states and local municipalities begin to loosen restrictions and reopen, largely to revive local economies battered by the coronavirus pandemic. How to do so and still prevent the spread of the virus remains an open question.

Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster said the city is still awaiting guidance from the state that would allow a gradual, modified reopening of the Anaheim Convention Center. The California Department of Public Health did not reply to a request for comment from Bisnow.

Burress said the convention and meetings business has been hit hard by mass cancellations due to the global health pandemic: Visit Anaheim had to cut 55% (from 71 to 32) of its staff and those remaining have been on some type of furlough for a week or two weeks, he said. Disneyland Resort also was forced to close and almost immediately, nearby hotels shut down or operated with limited capacity.

Visit Anaheim has an annual budget of about $19M, 75% of which comes from The Anaheim Tourism Improvement District, which are a collection of hotels that pay an additional 2% in transient occupancy tax for the organization to promote the resort area. In March, to make up for the shortfall due to hotels closing, the city council directed $6.5M to Visit Anaheim to help promote and attract visitors back to the city's resort district. 

Before the coronavirus shut down nonessential businesses in the state, the Anaheim Convention Center was slated to host more than 80 conventions and events this year, with more than 525K rooms reserved and 840,000 attendees, according to Visit Anaheim.

Two conventions that were canceled, Wondercon Anaheim and Star Wars Celebration, was slated to attract about 100,000 attendees. Wondercon has not been rescheduled, while Star Wars Celebration has moved to 2022.

It is unclear how much economic impact those two conventions could have brought in, but convention visitors in Orange County spent $1.8B, last year, according to Visit Anaheim data. More than five million convention visitors stayed at Anaheim hotels, according to Visit Anaheim.

Visit Anaheim President and CEO Jay Burress with Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu and Prospera Hotels President and CEO Ajesh Patel

But the impact on the convention center, Disneyland and hotel closures caused by the coronavirus has been immediate in Anaheim.

The city, heavily reliant on transient occupancy tax or bed tax from visitors staying at Anaheim hotels to fund its general fund, is now reporting a drop of 52% in the ToT from $174M to $83.7M in the 2020-2021 budget

The city has no formal revenue-sharing agreement with the convention center. It looks at the convention center as a visitor magnet. In a typical year, the convention center generates about $20M in hotel-stay tax, plus another $10M for the Tourism Improvement District, which makes improvements to roads, signs and other parts of the resort.

Some of the money generated by the convention center relieves the city of that cost, Lyster said. Part of that revenue is also used to pay down convention center debt, which is currently about $13M annually, Lyster added.

"California’s shutdown has been unprecedented, closing our theme parks, convention center and sports venues for three-plus months," Lyster said. "The ripple effects can be seen in our city’s budget, as well as across hundreds of businesses and thousands of employees who rely on Anaheim’s visitor economy for their livelihood."

Lyster said the convention center will play a vital role in the economic recovery of the city and its workers.

"It will be a psychological boost for the recovery of our nation," Lyster said. "Of course, we won’t be going back to normal. Things will look different. And it will be up to all of us to reopen safely and responsibly."

As of June 22, the convention center has 39 conventions and meetings on the books this year, with 22 still on the calendar to take place later this year, Visit Anaheim Communications Manager Lindsay Miller said.

Burress said it is great to see that meeting planners and clients are rebooking old conventions and meetings and booking new ones. Burress did not name the companies that booked conventions and meetings. 

"We're all feeling it and we're all in it together," Burress said. 


But what will these conventions and meetings look like now?

Burress said how people will attend conventions has yet to be determined. For the past couple of months, he and his events and meetings team have sought guidance from various trade show organizations, organizers, health officials and other convention center officials in the state.

Aside from more cleaning and disinfecting common areas and hand sanitizers and social distancing signage, the Anaheim convention center is seeking GBAC Star accreditation from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, a division of ISSA, an association for the cleaning industry.

In Orange County, Florida, officials there have issued a three-pronged approach to keep at keeping clients, attendees and visitors safe including getting a GBAC accreditation, coming up with a plan and partnering with health agencies, according to News6 Orlando. Florida's approach is similar to the ones being taken by Anaheim.

"We're looking at everything from requiring everyone to wear masks, staggering hours, breaking up general sessions from one mass session to multiples to deal with capacity issues, wider aisles. Everything is on the table and every event is different," Burress said. 

Burress also said certain conventions could run multiple days longer, with a reservation system to manage capacity for each day of the event.

"There's a lot of things that can be done but once we figure it out, we'll bring it back," Burress said. "It'll look a little different but face-to-face meetings will not go away. It is such an important part of humanity, our culture and economic driver in terms of education and sales."

With the Walt Disney Co. officials announcing that it is reopening Disneyland Resort in mid-July, Burress believes things are picking up for the city.

“This reopening signifies a very encouraging sign for our industry and the reopening will bring a welcome boost to our local economy,” he said. “Hopefully people will become more and more confident to not just to come to Anaheim as a visitor, but come here for meetings.”