Boston’s convention and tourism industry is already expecting a hard winter and a cold spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation or delay of major events that usually attract thousands of visitors to the region and generate millions of dollars.
Traditional winter diversions such as the New England Food Show, auto show, and the RV and camping expo have already been postponed, and some major conventions that usher in spring, such as the PAX East gaming conference, have yet to settle on a date. These follow the announcement this week that the Boston Marathon, one of the signal events of springtime in the city, will be put off until later in the year.
The marathon postponement “is unfortunately a bellwether for so much else on the event horizon,” said Dusty Rhodes, president of Conventures, a Boston-based event planning company.
And a public already suffering cabin fever before the onset of cold weather won’t have traditional end-of-year outlets available, either. No Harvard-Yale game, no Thanksgiving festival in Plymouth. And it looks like Boston First Night, the annual New Year’s Eve celebration that brings 300,000 people to the city, is next.
“We’re about to announce, ‘Well, we can’t do that,’ " said Rhodes, whose company organizes the event and is awaiting official confirmation from City Hall. “Under current Commonwealth mandates, we can’t convene. It’s not safe.”
It’s a series of massive blows to tourism, the state’s third-largest industry, with some 376,000 workers in related business and an estimated $28 billion in output, according to a 2018 study by the University of Massachusetts.
Today the leisure and hospitality sector remains among the hardest hit by the shutdowns, with employment levels in September 18 percent below prepandemic levels, according to Opportunity Insights, a research and public policy initiative based at Harvard University that is tracking the economic effects of the coronavirus.
Still more events are in jeopardy in 2021. Two of the biggest events in January, the New England International Auto Show and the Boston RV & Camping Expo have been pushed back to mid-April.
“We have a lot of patrons who really depend on these shows for entertainment,” said Lowell Briggs, director of marketing for the Paragon Group, the Needham-based company that runs both shows.
The postponement of the car show is also bad news for local car dealers, who count on large crowds at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center to boost sales of the latest models.
“These shows are kind of an intrinsic part of their marketing strategy, to get out there and reach the public,” Briggs said.
Other major attractions normally slated for March and April are in wait-and-see mode. Organizers of PAX East, which attracts as many as 60,000 visitors to the convention center, still hope they can make it happen.
“Hopefully, PAX East event next year will push through,” the organization said in an e-mail. But they have yet to announce a date for the event. The 2020 edition of PAX East happened in late February, when COVID-19 was a clear problem in Asia but only beginning to gain a foothold in the United States. In a harbinger of the coming crisis, Japanese gaming giant Sony pulled out of the show out of concern over the virus.
Meanwhile, Anime Boston, a festival for fans of Japanese graphic novels and animated films, says it’s still planning for the weekend of April 2, “until such time that we can no longer hold the event," according to a post on the event website. Anime Boston was forced to cancel its March 2020 event at the Hynes Convention Center. Instead, organizers held a one-day virtual festival on Oct. 24. But online gatherings are a poor substitute for in-person conventions, and they do nothing for the local tourism trade.
On Friday, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association said it’s postponing the annual New England Food Show, which had been set for late February, and usually attracts about 8,000 visitors. “It has become clear that holding an event in February of 2021 will not be possible but midyear dates may be ideal,” the association said.
Martha Sheridan, president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, believes the first quarter of 2021 is a lost cause. “We’re all just hoping that the second quarter is when we’ll start to see some semblance of a rebound,” she said.
Another major trade show, the annual Seafood Expo, is still scheduled for mid-March 2021, according to its website. Organizers of the event did not return messages for more information.
COVID-19 fears forced the postponement of this year’s March Seafood Expo, and its eventual cancellation. It was the first major convention in Boston to be shuttered because of the pandemic. But unknown to anyone at the time, a conference held in late February by the pharmaceutical firm Biogen had already infected dozens of participants, who spread the disease to hundreds of others in Boston and throughout the country.
By mid-March, Boston’s famed St. Patrick’s Day parade was canceled, the Marathon was postponed, and public schools were closed. At the time, it was hoped that public gatherings would resume later in the year, once the virus had been brought under control. Instead, the crisis has only worsened.
Under the Baker administration’s program for controlling the spread of COVID-19, the average daily rate of new infections is too high to safely operate indoor conventions and trade shows, and so venues such as the convention center can’t reopen. As of Friday, Boston’s 14-day average of new COVID cases was nearly 16 per 100,000 residents, putting the city well into in the “red zone" for new infections.
The dearth of events is dashing hopes within the hospitality industry of a major return of business as the one-year mark for the virus approaches.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Paul Sacco, chief executive of the Massachusetts Lodging Association. "And looking into next year, I would have to say the first half of the year will be very disappointing, with no uptick realized.”
Sheridan is working with members of the convention bureau to develop survival strategies, such as an effort to attract local families tired of being cooped up at home: special rates to allow a family to pack up laptops and get out of the house and work or study from a hotel room.
“The hotels will add on certain amenities," Sheridan said. “One of them suggested cookies and milk at bedtime for your kids.”
The hotels could also offer educational tour packages suitable for schoolchildren.
But such efforts can’t compensate for the huge falloff in out-of-town visitors caused by the pandemic, or the damage inflicted on tourism.
“My empathy goes out to the hotel worker, the restaurant worker, or the airport worker whose livelihood was cut off,” said Rhodes. “We were all hoping back in March that we’d be okay by June" 2020, she said. Instead, “we are in a dark holding position.”