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The San Diego Convention Center welcomed around 135,000 visitors two years ago for Comic-Con, the four-day celebration of comics and pop culture.

The national association. of Music Merchants attracted 115,000 musical instrument dealers and distributors to the Anaheim Convention Center early last year.

The Los Angeles Convention Center welcomed 66,100 visitors to the Electronic Entertainment Expo, known as E3, in 2019.

As California aims to lift most pandemic restrictions on June 15, convention center operators who have had to cancel hundreds of events, representing billions of dollars in revenue, say they are eager to welcome to new conventions and trade shows that attract visitors from across the country. and around the world.

But even when state restrictions disappear, experts recognize that it may be a year or more before California convention centers host the kind of mega-crowds that have flocked to Comic-Con, NAMM. and at E3 in recent years.

“We expect the shows to be smaller early on and hopefully into high gear next year,” said Ellen Schwartz, general manager of the Los Angeles Convention Center. “As we move into the final quarter of this calendar year and begin the new year, we hope the business will come back closer to where it was before the pandemic.”

Among the reasons for small events: State officials say COVID-19 protocols for large-scale indoor events will still require testing or vaccination checks, which could exclude some potential attendees. The state has yet to release details of these requirements.

Plus, surveys show that many business travelers still don’t feel safe meeting thousands of strangers indoors. Some elements of future events will likely be conducted via streaming video, welcoming virus-cautious attendees who wish to stay at home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends against attending large indoor gatherings, saying they increase the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

Rachel “Kiko” Guntermann, a professional costume designer who previously attended five or six conventions a year, including Comic-Con, said she wouldn’t feel safe going back to a big convention even if she had been fully vaccinated. against COVID-19.

“Conventions have been the center of my life for a while, and now the thought of being in a sales room with so many people makes me want to dry off,” she says.

In addition, restrictions on international travel may also limit the number of exhibitors and attendees at certain conventions and fairs. Some large organizations also need time to hire staff to organize such large-scale events.

“There will definitely be a period of ramp-up after being closed for a year,” said Barbara Newton, president and CEO of California Travel Assn., A nonprofit that promotes tourism in the State. “We are confident that we will get there eventually.”

Even in states that have allowed the conventions in recent months, like Nevada, Arizona, and Florida, events have been much smaller than in the past, with security protocols limiting attendance to just several hundred. of guests.

“We’re not back to mega-conventions yet,” said Brynne Frost, CEO of Destination Concepts Inc., a San Diego company that, before the pandemic, managed about 250 events a year across the country.

The pandemic has hit the country’s convention and trade show industry hard. In 2020, such events generated around $ 20 billion in direct spending in the United States, up from around $ 100 billion in 2019, which was the best year in the industry, said David DuBois, president and chief executive officer. the management of the International Assn. exhibitions and events.

The Los Angeles Convention Center had 134 canceled and 45 postponed events, costing the city nearly $ 600 million in spending for the center, restaurants, hotels and stores nearby, according to Schwartz, who based the expenditure estimate on pre-pandemic attendance.

The Long Beach Convention Center has had 121 canceled meetings and conventions since the start of the pandemic, losing the city more than $ 157 million in spending, Long Beach officials said.

More than 400 events have been canceled at the Palm Springs Convention Center, losing an estimated $ 279 million in spending in the region since the start of 2020, Palm Springs officials said. Some of these events are now taking place in states with less strict pandemic rules: two were booked in Arizona, one moved to Georgia, and one moved to Missouri.

“It has been very frustrating,” said Scott White, president and CEO of the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The American Public Transportation Assn., A nonprofit that advocates for mass transit, announced last week – before California declared its goal to roll back restrictions by mid-June – that it had canceled its August 31-September. 3 gathering at the Anaheim Convention Center and postponed the event to November in Orlando, Florida.

“The decision to relocate was necessary due to California’s current restrictions on large gatherings and the unpredictability of planning such a large event as it is unclear when those restrictions will be relaxed,” said the group in a statement.

A coalition of convention center operators has been lobbying the state for months to allow larger-scale events.

Last week, the state released guidelines allowing indoor venues in Orange Level counties – the third strictest rung in California’s color-coded reopening roadmap – to hold up to 150 people. whether all participants test negative for coronavirus or show evidence. they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In the counties of the yellow level, the least restrictive level, the attendance limit is 200 people.

All of Southern California is in the orange level, with the exception of Santa Barbara County, which remains in the most restrictive red level.

If vaccination and virus transmission rates remain at the same rate, on June 15, the tiered system will become moot as restrictions relax significantly statewide. Large-scale indoor gatherings such as conventions would be allowed with virus testing or vaccination verification, among other “common sense public health policies,” the state said.

New coronavirus cases have declined in California and many other states, but are increasing in others, and surveys show some Americans still feel uncomfortable attending indoor conventions and events. trade shows.

A March survey of around 1,000 Americans by marketing research firm Ipsos found that 59% believe returning to their pre-pandemic lifestyle would pose a high or moderate risk to their health.

Of those polled, 29% said they would return to face-to-face meetings once they or all of their circle of friends and family are vaccinated. Meanwhile, 30% said they had already returned to face-to-face meetings, 21% said they would when officials say it’s safe, and 20% said they didn’t know.

A survey of 1,000 tech professionals last fall by association management firm Innovatis Group found that 60% said they would feel comfortable attending an event in person on the second floor. semester of 2021, but just over half of those surveyed said the size of an event would. influence their decision to attend even if appropriate safety precautions have been taken.

People wearing Spider-Man costumes dance outside the San Diego Convention Center for a YouTube video during Comic-Con on July 20, 2019. The in-person convention was postponed until December of this year.

(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mega-conventions and trade shows are yet to return, even in states that already allow mass gatherings.

Las Vegas, one of the nation’s most popular convention destinations, recently confirmed the city’s first major conference and trade show since the start of the pandemic. The gathering of concrete and masonry professionals – World of Concrete – is scheduled for June 8-10.

The event was originally scheduled for January and was expected to attract around 60,000 attendees. The Nevada Department of Business and Industry approved a permit to allow up to 50 percent of the building capacity – 24,500 attendees – during the three-day event in June.

Event organizer Informa Markets commissioned a survey of past attendees, finding 80% said they were likely to attend in June.

In November, the National Oil Recyclers Assn. hosted a conference and trade show in Tucson attended by 120 people, up from 400 in the past, organizers said.

Organizers said they have limited the number of attendees so that people can sit six feet apart during seminars in the exhibition halls. The number of exhibitors for the show was also reduced from 50 to 16. The event eliminated breakout sessions to reduce interaction between conference attendees.

The rally wasn’t as profitable as it once was, but it was still worth it, said Scott Parker, president of event organizer Amber Ridge.

“I’d rather do something than nothing,” he says.

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