COLUMBIA — Last year was brutal for the meeting industry, but organizers of conventions already are looking toward reviving their in-person events in Columbia, especially later this year and in 2022.
The pace of meetings has been increasing throughout the year after the spring brought a wave of cancellations, Experience Columbia CEO Bill Ellen said. Most weekends this winter, there are events happening in the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, he said.
This weekend, the convention center is hosting a regular event, the Columbia Home Building & Remodeling Expo.
Some of the events coming onto the center's calendar have moved from smaller venues. To meet the need for social distancing, events have been booking larger rooms at the convention center that in normal times would not have been necessary, he said.
A venue in a hotel that would usually host 300 people only now is only sufficient room for about 50 if social distancing is observed, Ellen notes, so some events are scaling up to use convention center spaces.
"We are seeing some very positive trends," Ellen said.
In the longer term, event planners have begun to book more of the usual gatherings that fill the convention center, increasingly choosing dates later in 2020 or in 2021. Some of those might need to bump onto later dates depending on the COVID-19 situation, he said.
The beginning of rollout of vaccines against coronavirus is prompting people to look ahead and make plans, even if they themselves have not received it yet. Mindsets are changing, and optimism about a new normal on the horizon is growing, he said.
Experience Columbia is trying to encourage those thoughts with a marketing campaign aimed at event planners, which focuses on the added safety and cleaning precautions that the venue is undertaking for visitor safety.
Also driving the bookings: a strong interest in getting back to face-to-face meetings once conditions improve, Ellen said.
"I have had so many people tell me that they are getting tired of Zoom meetings," he said.
An increase in convention center business would be good news for the hotel industry, which continues to suffer for a lack of business travel, said Bobby Williams, chairman of the board for the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Occupancy continues to be lower than usual in the Midlands, according to data from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
Columbia-area hotels were down 18.5 percent in occupancy for the first full week of the new year compared to 2019.
The 2020 numbers overall are rough. The first 11 months of the year saw hotel occupancy in the area decline 28.5 percent from the same period in 2019.
Hotels in the Midlands count on two events that help fill rooms on weekends when the Gamecocks aren't playing football, Williams said: graduations and the Masters golf tournament in nearby Augusta, Ga.
Most graduations have limits on visitors or no attendance at all. The Masters will allow some fans to attend this spring, a change from last fall's delayed tournament with no spectators.
The Augusta National Golf Club has not announced how many fans will be allowed on the grounds in April, however.