coronavirus pandemic

Conventions Are Going Virtual, But With a Big Local Cost

NBC 7 Responds looked at how business and entertainment conventions are moving online and the cost to cities and local businesses.

NBCUniversal, Inc.

San Diego Comic-Con is one of the city's biggest events of the year and impacts many hotels, restaurants and other local businesses. There are also hundreds of other conventions held in the county each year, but now many of them are moving online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's been terribly devastating for the events business and all of the organizations that depend on the events to happen," said Ursula Williams, Chief Operating Officer of Staffing Industry Analysts.

SIA advises companies on their workforce and staffing, such as with conferences and conventions. Williams says while the canceling of in-person events like Comic-Con and Coachella are some of the most visible, the impact is felt at all levels.

"You have everything from a conference to a small trade fair," Williams said. "Think about all of the street festivals and the fairs and all the people who depend on getting their products out to the market in that manner."

San Diego's Convention Center's annual report said in 2019 it held 143 events that brought an estimated $1.3 billion dollars to San Diego's economy. That doesn't even begin to account for the hundreds of other conferences held at hotels around the county.

Comic-Con is holding virtual events this year and it isn't the only one to pivot. Williams said a lot of companies have had to quickly adjust their plans, or risk canceling their events altogether.

"Obviously there is nothing better than an in-person conference, but in absence of that, there are a lot of alternatives," said Williams. "It really depends on the organization and their ability to do it."

Williams said some of their virtual conferences have had as many as 2,000 attendees with 150 speakers, but there is a lot of flexibility with an online conference.

"We're doing things from big general sessions with a livestream keynote, to lots of breakout groups where there's 20 people doing morning yoga," Williams said.

Smaller business have also been affected by the cancellation of conventions and conferences, like florists who usually provide arrangements for special events and talks. Many of those vendors are looking for new ways to break into the virtual conference space.

"I'm getting emails all the time asking 'are you going virtual? Do your sponsors want to send flowers to your attendees?'" said Williams. "We have companies saying they will manage the swag for you and send it [to attendees]."

For those smaller vendors and conferences, Williams suggests getting creative as long as you stay within your county's health guidelines.

"Can you do something outdoors? Can you create a fun social distancing or clever way to bring a customer group together?" said Williams. "It's a matter of getting creative with the restraints you have in front of you and moving forward."

The technology used for virtual conferences is getting better each day because of necessity, but Williams thinks many of these advances will stay, even when in-person conventions can take place.

"There are things we've been wanting to do for a long time that we said we didn't have the bandwidth or we didn't have the money for," said Williams. "We'll be livestreaming and we'll be doing more things over technology-based platforms and be there in person."

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