Published 5:27 PM EDT Jul 28, 2020
COVID-19 has so far cost Abilene around half of its convention business for the year, said Nanci Liles, executive director of the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau.
As of Tuesday morning, 154 groups had canceled, representing loss of an estimated 54,173 attendees and $13.2 million in direct impact to the city.
That was up from 145 groups that had canceled Thursday.
Recovery may take longer
“Hotel tax receipts are down by half, which means our budget is cut by half,” Liles said in an email Thursday.
But hotels are reporting better occupancy this month, she said.
“We have been able to host events at the (Taylor County) Expo Center and outdoor sporting events, which helps with the recovery.,” she said. “These groups have been able to manage events while maintaining social distancing.”
But “it appears recovery will take longer than we originally thought,” Liles said. “The longer this goes on, more groups will cancel.”
District and regional basketball and volleyball already have been canceled for the year, Liles said.
“We do, however, continue to book business for 2021,” she said. “We are beginning to promote safe travel and have pivoted to targeting road trippers who want wide open spaces.”
The period of March through July “has definitely been difficult,” said Molly Moser, manager of the Abilene Convention Center.
Some events that were rescheduled earlier in the pandemic for June and July have had to cancel or move to next year, she said.
So far, 70 events have been canceled at the Convention Center due to COVID-19 in Fiscal Year 2020, which runs through the end of September.
In the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in October, 11 events have been canceled, she said.
But that doesn’t mean the calendar is bare, Moser said.
“This whole week, we are full,” she said. The venue is host to the Abilene Independent School District’s administrators retreat and paraprofessionals training.
Others who recently had events include Patty Harper Dance Studio and the Abilene Police Department, which had its academy graduation there. The venue also had training for U.S. Census workers.
But Garageand Woodstock, moved to the Convention Center from the Expo Center, was not held. Also, the Abilene Philharmonic’s rescheduled concert with Canadian Brass was scratched for mid-July.
By comparison, August is “hanging in there,” she said.
“We’ve had a few fundraisers and nonprofit events that have had to cancel,” she said, lack of sponsorship being an issue for some.
“But we do have some large events coming up in August that are still on as of right now,” Moser said.
Those include a popular gun and knife show, the Abilene Chamber of Commerce’s rescheduled Business Expo and a dinner show for the West Texas Rehabilitation Center.
“So our calendar for the month of August is still looking OK,” she said. “We might have lost a few events compared to previous years. But it’s not as bad as I thought that it could have been in June.”
Safety a priority
As every event is different, the Convention Center’s staff is working closely with planners to best handle health and safety requirements, Moser said.
“We do have a social distancing guide, we do have best hygiene practices,” she said. “But we’re working with them individually to come up with a plan, as well.”
Certain hard-and-fast restrictions are in place, she said.
Masks are supposed to be worn in the facility.
“We’re following the governor’s outline for that, so that is mandatory as of right now unless they’re eating,” she said. “But they do have to wear them other than that.”
Generally, she said, there has been no pushback from event organizers on wearing masks, but the responsibility for enforcing those standards falls back “on the lessees who rented the facility.”
“We are telling them this is our standard and they need to follow it,” she said.
There is also a restriction of 50% capacity, based on the facilities used.
For example, the Convention Center’s auditorium can seat 2,091 people.
“So we can sit roughly 1,000 people as of right now,” she said.
There are no other restrictions imposed on events, such as required temperature checks.
That is up to the event to decide how they want to proceed,” Moser said. “… Of course, we’re able to give them advice.”
Challenging but hopeful
Moser described the situation as “challenging,” with “things changing daily, sometimes hourly.”
Abilene Christian University is working out new plans for its long-running and hugely attended homecoming musical, normally scheduled in October.
A number of other major events, howver, are scheduled to go ahead as the calendar pages turn.
The Philharmonic still is scheduled to have its season-opening concert Sept. 26, and a large West Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association convention is still on tap for October.
That latter event, a week-long gathering, should have “great economic impact for Abilene,” she said.
“We have had at least monthly calls, sometimes weekly calls to work with them directly on planning,” Moser said, adding she’s proud of how her own staff and those coordinating the event have worked together.
“We can safely say that whatever October looks like, we will be ready to host them,” she said.
Moser said the convention/events industry has been “hit a lot” in general during the pandemic.
“But we know how to operate in difficult times,” she said, adding that she’s trying to stay positive.
Some events have had to be rescheduled up to five times, she said.
And even when some choose to not have an event, Moser said she is working to make sure they come back.
“Some people are having to change the way they operate this year, possibly doing a virtual convention or virtual conference,” Moser said. “But we have made those relationships and we’re continuing with those relationships.”
For example, a regional Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival scheduled earlier this year will return in 2022, she said, while a series of popular touring Broadway shows has moved its schedule to kick off in February instead of the fall.
The changes means anticipated revenue streams for the Convention Center may come at different points in the fiscal year, she said.
But for events that do choose to go ahead, there is “so much more that we’re doing now than we ever have,” Moser said, including extra cleaning to make sure attendees are safe.
“We’re definitely staying busy,” she said. “Just in a different way.”
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.