March 16, 2021

Resilience, creativity, mark Convention Center’s last year

On March 3, 2020, less than 48 hours before the Arnold Sports Festival was set to begin at the Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC), the state of Ohio dropped a bombshell: Spectators would not be allowed in the building due to COVID-19’s outbreak.

“The trade floor show was 80% complete, we had exhibitors here from many different countries, and then everything came to a halt,” remembers John Page, the GCCC’s general manager.

Since then, nearly 200 events have been canceled or moved to other years. Staffing has been reduced to 45 from pre-pandemic totals of more than 200 positions. The GCCC has lost almost $5 million in annual revenue.

“Business is different now,” Page says. “But it has not stopped.”

Despite the cancellations of large-scale gatherings in the last 12 months, events are now happening – safely. As dates approach for major – though spectator-limited – cheerleading, dance, women’s basketball and girls’ volleyball competitions, the GCCC is functioning also as “the community’s convention center.”

When the pandemic struck, the Convention Center was transformed into a 1,000-room surge hospital with enough beds stowed to serve medical center overflows, should it have come to that. Thankfully, it did not, though the Convention Center is still prepared for the unexpected. Since last June, the GCCC also has served as a location for Franklin County Municipal Court hearings.

Along the way, Page has charged his reduced staff to “leave no stone unturned” in imagining smaller, impactful gatherings that can be done safely and within state health guidelines.

“Outside-the-box thinking is now mandatory in our core staff’s weekly meetings,” Page says. “These may be things that don’t make us any money. But they serve the community, keep us front of mind to consumers and set the stage for larger events in the future.”

Thus, a monthly yoga series, fitness classes, hip-hop aerobics, and even a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show last Halloween. All within 300-person capacity limitations.

“We’ve been hosting a monthly practice session for Urban Strings,” Page says. “And we did a magical dining event featuring magician Drew Murray. We want to continue to host these types of events in a way that always showcases the creativity and innovation of our food and beverage services. While some of the events are stopgap offerings during the pandemic, others represent partnerships we can carry forward.”

During the past year, the GCCC has won a number of awards, including Exhibitor Magazine’s Best Convention Center with 100,000 to 500,000 square feet of exhibit space, the Platinum Healthy Worksite award from the Healthy Business Council of Ohio, and the Prime Site Award from Facilities and Destinations.

But Page is most proud of how his staff has embraced adversity and pulled together as “a family.”

“Besides their normal duties, they are now also guest service ambassadors, housekeepers, security guards and parking attendants. We have always been part of the same family and team. Even more so at this moment.”

Gov. Mike DeWine’s most recent public health orders, which permit increased attendance at banquets and sporting events, provide the opportunity to bring in more events and to increase attendance, Page says. Additionally, Page notes that the attendance rules for events at the center are set by the sponsoring organizations, within the parameters of state orders.

Meanwhile, as the pandemic gets closer to ending, “we see a bright future in the third and fourth quarters of 2021,” Page says. “We have bookings through 2029, with PCMA (Professional Convention Management Association, with 4,000 expected attendees and $6.2 million in direct visitor spending) still scheduled for 2023. I’m even more positive today about where this industry stands and about Columbus as a national destination.”



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