The coronavirus had not yet officially arrived in Houston when the first major convention was canceled.
Organizers of the annual CERAWeek oil and gas conference, which would have brought thousands of international visitors to Houston, called off the event over what they feared might come.
It was the beginning of a tough year for the city’s convention business. Since the start of the pandemic, Houston, a big convention town, has lost out on hundreds of conferences and events.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was the last major event that would be held for the next six months – and it was cut short. At a press conference in March, Mayor Sylvester Turner said it was no easy decision but that it was necessary for the safety of the region, which had its first case of community spread.
After periods of business shutdowns, events slowly came back in October.
By then, Houston First Corporation, the organization in charge of conventions and other events in Houston, had installed sweeping safety protocols at the city’s event venues, Chief Operating Officer Luther Villagomez said. That included an initiative for clean event venues in Houston that was enacted during the pandemic.
“We’ve been working with our colleagues throughout the city on the clean initiative, those were all in place; having had the thermo cameras in place to safely screen attendees as they arrived,” he said.
Only three Houston First-hosted events since October have had attendee numbers in the thousands.
And, Villagomez said, they all took place over several days with a limited number of people attending at the same time.
That includes the Encore cheerleading championships in December.
“In the exhibit halls there was 300,000 square feet, so that’s equivalent to nine football fields, to give you a scale of the space,” Villagomez said. “In each of the 100,000 square feet, there were no more than 350 attendees or participants in those areas.”
He said a lot also depends on the event organizers’ enforcement of social distancing and mask rules.
But that may not always be efficient.
YouTube videos from the “Powerhouse 2020” event that drew more than 3,500 people to the George R. Brown Convention Center over a couple of days in October show a large crowd with many people not wearing masks.
Villagomez said Houston First stepped in to help with enforcement.
“As we got through the event, and we got to the attendees and the organizer, things seemed to work smoother as the event progressed,” he said.
The event organizer, Jaylin Goss, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Overall, Houston First said it has scheduled more than 100 events for 2021 so far. That’s only a fraction of the number of events in 2019, when 523 meetings took place.
But normalcy may return later this year. Houston First said it has rebooked more than 90% of the largest events canceled last year for the future. Most of the big conventions, at least 14, will return in the second half of the year.
That includes international events like the World Petroleum Council, the International Quilt Festival and the Offshore Technology Conference. The National Rifle Association’s Annual Meetings & Exhibits in September is also expected to bring thousands of visitors here.
“Most of our dates are already sold, and if we continue to see the vaccine distributed and we follow these protocols and do the events safely, by this summer we should see events in a more new normal,” Villagomez said.
Until then, some organizations are going to the virtual space for their conventions, such as CERAWeek by IHS Markit in March.
Others are pushing their events back to next year. The Houston Auto Show had rescheduled from this month to May, but because that’s when the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is scheduled to return to NRG Park, it was postponed to next January.
The return of brick-and-mortar events is also good news for those depending on conventions for work – like Chris Brown, a decorator for tradeshows, responsible for setting up and taking down everything at the events.
The Bridal Extravaganza at the George R. Brown earlier this month was his first gig in almost a year.
“I was overwhelmed and excited,” he said about getting the job. “It was like Christmas Day.”
Since the pandemic started, Brown said, he has made ends meet with the help of unemployment benefits and small jobs here and there.
He said he’s ready for more conventions to take place – as long as they can be done in a safe way.
“If we can just get everybody to wear the mask and get the count down and think of others – not just yourself, you have to think of others in this situation – if we can get that together, we will be able to get back to a sense of normalcy,” Brown said.