Conventions are making a comeback. But attendance still lags

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The entrance to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in the Seaport. (Adrian Ma/WBUR)
The entrance to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in the Seaport. (Adrian Ma/WBUR)

Boston's convention halls once again have a busy calendar of conference and trade show bookings for the months ahead. But many of the events are expected to be far smaller than they were before the pandemic, limiting the boost to the local economy.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which operates the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and the Hynes Convention Center, expects attendance in the first quarter of next year to be just 50% to 60% of what it was in 2019.

The sluggish participation was on display during a medical conference at the Boston convention center last week.

Stephanie Ambuehl, who flew from Seattle to recruit doctors and nurse practitioners for the health care company Optum, noted foot traffic at her booth was "definitely a bit slower than 2019."

Ambuehl is the kind of business traveler who helped the convention center authority generate an estimated $870 million for the state economy in 2019. Returning to Boston this year, she stayed in a hotel and ate out — just as she did before the pandemic. "It feels like things are almost back to normal," she said.

Still, it could take at least two more years for convention participation to come all the way back, forecasted Jim Rooney, who used to lead the convention center authority and now heads the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

"What that means for local businesses — restaurants and tourist attractions and other suppliers to the convention industry — is they will continue a slow recovery," he said.

Rooney predicted that foreign visitors, who are often the biggest spenders, may be the slowest to return to US conventions, because of international travel restrictions. That in turn could hurt many hotels, restaurants and other businesses who count on conventions to bring in visitors and open their wallets.

The convention center authority's venues, including the ones in Boston and the MassMutual Center in Springfield,  generally operate at a loss. But the buildings are subsidized by tourism-related taxes on lodging, car rentals, sightseeing tours and other services.

While many conventions that rely on business travelers from other states and countries expect lower attendance next year, the hopes are stronger for some events catering to local or regional crowds.

Organizers of the Boston RV & Camping Expo in mid-January, for example, anticipate roughly 20,000 people. That would be about 15% more than before the pandemic.

Still, coronavirus variants, like delta and omicron, have created uncertainty for conventions all over the country.

JPMorgan said this week that a major health care conference planned in San Francisco would be virtual. And Boston RV & Camping show director Carolyn Weston couldn't rule out moving the Boston show online if the pandemic worsens in Massachusetts.

"I would never say it's off the table," she said. "We don't know, a month from now, what's going to be happening in our region. We're being very careful to check in regularly with the state and city authorities."

In the meantime, people who feel comfortable attending conventions are savoring the experience.

The medical conference in Boston this month initially attracted nurse practitioner Sandy Hunt because it offered continuing education credits to attend some sessions.

Then she hung around for a few more hours.

"It's fun to walk around and learn, and there's just nothing like being in person," she said.

Convention planners hope the appeal of gathering in person will attract more people like Hunt in the coming year. And local businesses hope they open up their wallets while they're there.

This segment aired on December 16, 2021.


Headshot of Callum Borchers

Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.



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