In the words of one Milwaukee-based writer, “a virtual convention is about as nourishing for its host city as a virtual bratwurst is for a hungry man.”
For months, the cities of Milwaukee and Charlotte—hosts of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, respectively—prepared to welcome thousands of visitors to meeting halls and facilities, hotels, restaurants and bars, local businesses and other attractions. Looking at the success of past political conventions, both cities were rightly expecting a major boost to their economies and their national profiles.
Then the pandemic hit, forcing thousands of meeting and event cancellations around the world. The Democratic National Convention was scrapped in favor of a virtual convention, and just a few in-person GOP events were staged in Charlotte—meaning both destinations missed the immediate economic rewards reaped by host cities in years past.
The missed opportunity to host large, in-person conventions underscored what those in the industry have long understood: meetings and events are powerful engines of economic development.
In 2016, the Republican National Convention brought to Cleveland approximately 48,000 visitors and more than $110 million in total direct spending. The 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia attracted 54,000 visitors and more than $132 million in direct spending.
Those conventions further exposed Cleveland and Philadelphia to a national, taste-making audience, showing off some of the very best the two cities have to offer. A convention is driver of economic development, boosting the cities’ profiles and increasing the potential for future visitors.
It’s clear that local economies in every pocket of the country are sorely missing the economic benefits of meetings, events, trade shows and conventions. In the U.S. alone, meetings generated $845 billion in economic output and supported 5.9 million jobs annually in recent years.
While it is not expected that large meetings will resume this year, there is a simple step that the federal government can take right now to get on the path to recovery more quickly, and to provide hosts and attendees with the confidence to gradually resume meetings: increase the federal role in COVID-19 testing.
It's common sense, from both an economic and health perspective. Widely available, rapid testing allows those with a positive diagnosis to isolate more quickly and prevent the spread of infection, and provides the general public with greater confidence to resume normal aspects of our daily lives. Such activities, of course, include meetings and events.
Unfortunately, the meetings and events industry has been—and will continue to be—uniquely impacted by the pandemic. Meetings and events will likely be one of the last segments of the travel industry to reopen, given the ongoing advice and regulation against large gatherings. The industry is wisely implementing the practices that should be embraced to make larger meetings possible sooner, and I am strongly encouraged by what should be possible with the right planning and behavior strategies.
In the meantime, U.S. Travel, working in lockstep with the Meetings Mean Business Coalition, is committed to identifying solutions for the meetings and events industry’s survival and eventual recovery, and is seeking substantial relief from Congress to aid this economically vital segment of the travel industry.
While it is unfortunate that the political conventions were largely virtual this year, we hope their absence serve as a reminder to policymakers of the value of in-person meetings, and that the federal government will consider this important sector now and in the years to come