June 7, 2022

Convention Business is Back

After two years of uncertainty and waiting, the convention business in Columbus is officially back up and running. The Greater Columbus Convention Center’s (GCCC) number of bookings is back to pre-Covid range with near-normal attendance at those events, several world-class events are on the calendar in the next year and the August 26 opening of the Hilton Columbus Downtown’s 402 tower will usher in a new era for the city.

“Events are roaring back,” said GCCC Assistant General Manager Ryan Thorpe. “The joke in the office is we’re drinking from the proverbial firehose. The demand is unbelievable; the challenge is keeping up at this point.”

Greater Columbus was a pioneer of sorts in March 2020; leaders’ decision to cancel The Arnold fitness expo, one of the city’s signature annual events, was among earliest such high-profile acknowledgments of the pandemic’s seriousness. It likely influenced other decisions that saved many lives over the next two years.

Fast-forward to today and Thorpe has 25 “citywide” events — those that use more than one hotel — in the books for 2022, as many as the Convention Center has had in its best years. Even as fluctuating numbers of COVID-19 cases around the country continue to make news, people seem determined to resume gathering in person.

“We’re not seeing any cancellations at all,” Thorpe said. “The Convention Center has typically hosted 300 to 350 events per year, and we think we’ll be back to 300 for 2022.”

The challenge for Thorpe and his team will be to get back to what was, before March 2020, an extraordinary pace. “People are looking at 2019 as the benchmark and that’s tough, because it was a high-water mark,” he said. “Still, we’re making steady increases every month.”

Upcoming highlights include the August conference of the International City/County Managers Association, which is expected to bring more than 4,400 attendees and be the first event to use all 1,000 rooms of the expanded Hilton and an additional 2000 hotel rooms across downtown Columbus. In January, PCMA (formerly the Professional Convention Management Association) will bring a similar number of guests with unique value as the people who decide where to hold conventions and conferences.

“That’s such a huge opportunity for Columbus,” Thorpe said, adding that Columbus “got lucky with the timing.” Such events typically are booked 10 to 15 years in advance; had Columbus been chosen for 2021 or 2022, it easily could have lost the chance.

Later next year, the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors is expected to bring as many as 8,000 attendees, with the potential for $8 million in direct visitor spending.

The region already was on the rebound in 2021; Experience Columbus reported recently that city bed-tax collections topped $33 million, a 57% increase over 2020.

The resurgence is especially gratifying for Thorpe, who spent as much time as anyone in the Convention Center during height of the pandemic. “It was just really surreal, how quiet it was for how long,” he said. “I’ve been in the industry more than 20 years. You have a dark day here and there in any building that you’re in. But not like that — it was really weird to see the lights and escalators off.”

Thorpe considers himself fortunate to have participated in the center’s temporary repurposing as a potential overflow hospital and, later, a site allowing Franklin County Municipal Court to carry on its vital functions with social distancing. “We felt fortunate to be part of the team doing that,” he said.

Having that operation in place for 14 months also gave Columbus a post-pandemic head start. “When it came time to start ramping back up, we already had people in the building,” Thorpe said. “It was only truly closed for three months.”

He’s even happier to see the rapid pace of new bookings. “Call soon if you want space for your event,” he warned. “We’re booking events literally every single day for this year and beyond.”













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