New York has just spent $1.5 billion to entice very large groups of people to gather under the same roof. When will that seem like a good idea again?
Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a major expansion of New York City’s main convention hall, the Javits Center. By early summer, it should be ready again to host trade shows, corporate meetings and public events.
But the pandemic wiped out mass gatherings more than a year ago, and it is not clear when or if most of them will return. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still warning people to “avoid large events and gatherings.”
New York is expanding the Javits Center “just in time to see the absolute collapse of the convention and trade show business,” said Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who studies the convention business.
The biggest annual events at the Javits Center, including the New York International Auto Show, Comic Con and trade shows like Toy Fair, have been canceled over the last 13 months. Some, like Book Expo, an annual gathering of publishers and booksellers, have been shelved for good.
“Event activity has fallen off the cliff nationally,” Professor Sanders said.
The Javits expansion, funded primarily by a $1 billion allocation in the state budget backed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, was intended to make New York more competitive in the escalating competition for trade shows and the crowds they attract.
Then the pandemic struck.
When the outbreak brought nonessential travel to a halt, Orlando, Fla., suspended the latest expansion of its convention center, which already was more than twice the size of the Javits facility.
Many big convention centers remain closed, though in some states, including Florida, Georgia and Texas, they are hosting events again, said Brad Mayne, chief executive of the International Association of Venue Managers.
Mr. Mayne said his own organization planned to hold its annual meeting in Atlanta in early August but expects only about 900 socially distanced members, compared with about 2,300 attendees in past years.
“To really start getting back to normal, I think that you’re going to see that happening in 2022,” he said.
The work on Javits was also suspended last spring, but it resumed after two months, putting the project only slightly behind schedule, said Alan Steel, chief executive of the New York Convention Center Operating Corporation.
Since New York went on lockdown in March 2020, the Javits Center has been a giant health care facility. In the early weeks of the pandemic, it was converted into an emergency hospital with 2,500 beds. Then, after remaining empty for several months, it reopened as a public vaccination center, providing more than 10,000 shots per day.
It is unclear when the Javits Center will stop serving that role and revert to its normal purpose. Construction, which had been scheduled for completion in March, should be finished by late May at the budgeted cost of $1.5 billion, Mr. Steel said.
The first in-person events on its posted calendar are not until late July.
They could begin with an Amazon corporate event, but Mr. Steel said it was too soon to know what restrictions on capacity and rules on social distancing would still be in place by then.
“We’re expecting them to change over the next couple of months,” he said. “We’re kind of in a little bit of uncharted territory.”
The additions, which will increase the total space for events from about 2 million square feet to 3.3 million, will add meeting rooms, a ballroom, a rooftop pavilion and a staging area for the trucks that deliver the exhibits, Mr. Steel said.
The auto show, which routinely drew more than 1 million people to see the latest models automakers had to offer, has reserved several days in August but has not committed to holding the event.
There are also questions about how comfortable people will be attending conventions and how annual indoor events will be altered permanently by the pandemic. “Will they be as big?” Mr. Steel asked. “Will they be as well attended?”
Mr. Steel expects the level of activity at Javits to rebuild slowly into next year, with fewer events and lower attendance until 2022. “In the short term, we are going to see a diminishment in the size of events,” he said.
That will make it harder for the state to reap the benefits of its investment. The rationale for spending so much on Javits was the enhanced impact on the local and state economy from luring more conventioneers who would spend money on hotel rooms, restaurant meals and Broadway tickets.
The link between the convention center and the thousands of hotels in the city is symbiotic: The visitors patronize the hotels, and, for each night’s stay, the state collects a fee of $1.50 that goes to the corporation that built Javits.
When tourism was booming before the pandemic, that formula paid off. The city’s hotels sold more than 38 million nightly stays in 2019, when the city drew an all-time high of 66 million visitors.
But that number sank to 22 million last year, most of them arriving before the lockdown, according to NYC & Company, the city’s tourism promotion agency.
Still, the expanded center was built to last more than 25 years, leaving “plenty of time” for the state to recoup what it has spent, Mr. Steel said.
The pandemic has cost the Javits about $200 million in lost revenue from canceled events, Mr. Steel said, and it was unclear if the operating corporation, which is meant to be self-sustaining, would need financial help from the state.
Once more travel restrictions, including from overseas and by some employers still barring workers from getting on planes, are lifted, Mr. Steel said, he expects the Javits’s overhaul to attract groups — especially gatherings of medical professionals — that have bypassed the center in the past.
Some of those lucrative gatherings have not chosen New York because of the lack of a hotel next to the center, which sits on the Far West Side of Manhattan in an area that until recent years had been mostly industrial.
Mr. Cuomo recently announced that the state would seek bids for a lot just east of the convention center that could be developed into a hotel.
In the meantime, Mr. Steel and his staff are busy trying to coax more organizations into holding big gatherings at Javits so that it can play a leading role in the recovery of New York’s economy.
They have at least one high-profile example to promote: Anthony Scaramucci, the financier who famously worked in the White House for President Trump for just 11 days, is moving his SALT conference from Las Vegas to Javits in September. The conference attracts about 2,000 hedge-fund managers and other investors and treats them to appearances by political leaders and celebrities.
Mr. Scaramucci was credited with helping Las Vegas bounce back from the Great Recession by holding his conference there in 2009. He said he would like to repeat that in New York.
“Because of what’s gone on in our home city, we thought it would be a really good opportunity to send the same message,” Mr. Scaramucci said. “We want to be one of the first people to put a flag in the ground and signal that it’s OK to come back to the city.”
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