HARTFORD – Hartford’s downtown convention center, opened in 2005 as an economic engine for the capital and surrounding region, is not expected to recover from a severe blow from the pandemic for perhaps two years. more.
Visitors and events return to the sprawling, half-million-square-foot Connecticut Convention Center on the city’s waterfront, after being closed for most of 2020 and 2021.
But the most desirable events – multi-day corporate bookings – have still largely not returned. These events bring in a lot of money for the convention center and trickle down economically to the city with hotel stays, restaurant meals, and free time to explore Hartford and spend money on attractions.
And, it’s unclear when — or even if — multi-day corporate events will return to how they were before the pandemic hit in early 2020.
Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, the quasi-public agency that oversees operations at the state-owned convention center, said the pandemic has scrambled business for the location, from hiring of staff to the combination of events. .
“It’s like we’re rebuilding the company,” Freimuth said during a recent walk through the massive structure. “It’s like going back 19, 20 years ago and starting from zero on the building.”
How the city’s convention sector evolves in the coming years will affect the restaurants, entertainment venues and other businesses that have factored convention foot traffic into their plans. Convention center experts say the economic fallout from the pandemic has been particularly profound, surpassing even that of the 9/11 attacks in its duration.
“Overall, we’ve seen a slower recovery than we would have expected,” said Charles H. Johnson IV, managing director of Chicago-based Johnson Consulting, which specializes in convention centers and studied Hartford in the past. “We thought it would be back to normal by the end of 2023, 100% back to normal. We are pushing that back to 2024.”
Johnson said even some of the biggest events have gone virtual during the pandemic. And while there was initial enthusiasm to get back together in person, there is still lingering reluctance for health reasons.
The slow return of corporate bookings is no surprise since the pandemic has pushed many meetings onto Zoom. COVID-19 has also triggered a drastic change in the workplace to a hybrid work environment – part home, part office – or all together in a remote location.
Evidence of businesses still leaning towards virtual communication can also be seen at airports where business travel still lags leisure flight bookings.
“I think the hybrid is going to shake. It’s not going to last,” Johnson said. “But people are still using it as a vehicle, so the pickup hasn’t been as high as you would like.”
Johnson said he expects corporate meetings to return, especially for in-person networking and training, as well as shareholder meetings.
Competition for the convention industry in Connecticut was heating up even before the pandemic, and it’s expected to get even fiercer now as convention venues push to increase event bookings.
The Hartford site was under pressure from new convention centers at the Mohegan Sun casino in southeast Connecticut and the MGM casino in Springfield.
In 2018, Mohegan Sun opened a 240,000 square foot convention and exhibit center and quickly took over the Connecticut International Auto Show, a staple of the Hartford convention center for a dozen years.
Activity at the Hartford Convention Center, much like competing venues regionally and nationally, has been hit hard by the pandemic.
In fiscal year 2019, there were 178 events, according to the CRDA. That dropped to 105 events in fiscal year 2020 because the convention center lost the past three months as the pandemic took hold. There were no events in fiscal year 2021 except for COVID-19 testing and the location being prepared – but never used – as a field hospital.
In fiscal year 2022, there were 71 events and in the current fiscal year, it is expected that there will be 74.
Attendance also fell nearly 35%, from 327,913 in fiscal year 2019 to 215,705 in fiscal year 2022.
Since opening about 17 years ago, the convention center has typically required a grant — in recent years, about $3.8 million to cover operating expenses. But Freimuth points out that the venue has generally generated more event taxes to cover the subsidy.
The operating loss was much larger in fiscal 2021 when there were no events, reaching $5.6 million. Similar losses occurred in fiscal year 2022 and are expected in the current fiscal year, with federal pandemic relief funding filling the gap.
The main purpose of the convention center was not to make big bucks, but to bring visitors to the city, boost the economic fortunes and dynamism of the area while showcasing Hartford.
A seemingly bright spot is that attendance for the current fiscal year is expected to reach 320,000. But Freimuth cautions against reading too much into the numbers.
A big chunk – over 60,000 – will come from Beyond Van Gogh Hartford, which is the first show of its kind reserved for the convention center.
Michael Costelli, general manager of the convention center, said the Beyond Van Gogh showroom was open due to pandemic-related event cancellations.
Although popular, the show does not generate much revenue for the convention center through catering, parking, and other service fees; and those who attend, for the most part, do not extend their visits to other parts of the city, Freimuth said.
The city is stepping up efforts to attract more conventions to Hartford by using about $1.3 million in federal pandemic relief funds for what could be the first steps toward establishing a Convention and Visitors Bureau long considered only intended for Hartford.
“For many years, the convention center was one of the few major convention centers that did not have a serious and well-resourced Convention and Visitors Bureau – promoting, marketing, selling and coordination of these conferences,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said.
“The convention center is still and should be an important economic driver, and it’s important that we compete aggressively for convention business.”
The idea is to better connect delegates to what is happening in the city, both downtown and in the neighborhoods. The effort aims to go beyond reacting to visitor needs, but to be at the forefront with options and a plan to make them happen, an integral part of the groundwork for bringing conventions to the city.
The idea of a region-focused Conventions and Visitors Bureau had been circulating for about a year before the pandemic hit. There was pressure for state funding, but that fell to the sidelines as the pandemic escalated.
In 2019, a report by Johnson Consulting, the Chicago firm, was commissioned by the CRDA for recommendations on how to increase convention business in the city even as the venue faced growing competition.
The convention and visitor bureau was a key recommendation of the report. The effort will start with two or three new hires at the convention center, but could grow and eventually get state funding, Freimuth said.
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The Johnson Consulting report said it was possible to boost convention attendance to 500,000 over the next decade, but the report’s eight recommendations, including office, came just before the pandemic hit. Another recommendation – the addition of hotel rooms in the city – would be particularly heavy.
The pandemic has hit Hartford’s hospitality industry hard. One hotel – the Hilton on Trumbull Street near the XL Center – came dangerously close to closing as business travel plummeted. A $29 million bailout has kept it open and will convert upper floors to apartments with a smaller hotel, a DoubleTree, below for rentals.
Despite the difficulties in rebuilding the convention area in Hartford, restaurateur Al Gamble said he was optimistic about his decision to open his sixth Plan b Burger Bar in the nearby Front Street entertainment district.
Gamble said he’s had his eye on the space since Ted’s Montana Grill closed at the start of the pandemic. But it’s only recently that he’s seen positive signs emerge, making the time right to open his restaurant, now slated for November.
He highlighted the return of University of Connecticut students to the downtown Hartford campus, live concerts at Good Works/Infinity Hall, and more people living in downtown apartments. Convention center traffic also figured in his decision.
“It’s an anchor for the city and a big factor for us,” Gamble said. “The timing seems right.”
Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at [email protected]