CLEVELAND, Ohio — Thousands of NCAA tournament-bound men’s college basketball players will descend on Indianapolis in March, plus coaching staff, family, media and more.
It’s an event that couldn’t occur in Cleveland, or anywhere in Ohio, which remains under strict coronavirus-related mass gathering limits. In Ohio, indoor gatherings are capped at a maximum of 300 people, no matter the size of the venue.
Numerous leaders in the state’s travel and tourism industry have been lobbying Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to raise the limit — or at least to link the size of the gathering to the size of the venue — so that event planners have better guidance heading into the summer and fall, when the meeting and event industry is expected to slowly resume.
Ron King, general manager of the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland, said meeting planners are canceling events in Cleveland, in part because of state restrictions and uncertainty about how many people will be permitted to attend.
“I have over 200,000 square feet of exhibit hall — to say I can only have 300 people is a little odd to me,” said King. “There’s a lot of the frustration in not knowing what the future holds.”
Admittedly, not all of that frustration is directed at state regulations. There’s frustration, too, in not knowing when the pandemic will ease, how quickly vaccines will be distributed, and when people will want to start attending large events again.
King, however, is sure of this: The convention center will be ready to host safe events, as soon as it is permitted to do so.
Empty convention centers
Cleveland’s convention center — and centers in Columbus, Cincinnati and other Ohio cities — have been largely empty since last March, when they were forced to abruptly shut down due to COVID.
The same is not true for convention centers in other states.
Some states — Michigan, Maryland and Illinois, for example — have even tighter mass gathering restrictions than Ohio. Others have no restrictions at all, including Florida, Georgia and Iowa, according to data from Northstar Meetings Group.
In Indianapolis, the Marion County Public Health Department must approve plans for large events. The department has not yet decided whether spectators will be allowed when the NCAA brings its entire March Madness tournament to town in March, including 68 men’s teams plus coaching, staff and more.
Games and practice sessions will be held at venues throughout the region, including at the Indiana Convention Center.
And before the basketball tournament begins, the center is scheduled to host several volleyball tournaments, with thousands of attendees, plus a gymnastics event.
In Cleveland, all events at the convention center have been canceled through March, although several events are still on the books for April, including Today’s Bride Cleveland Wedding Show.
Jennifer Fyffe, vice president of Today’s Bride, said she is hopeful that the state’s mass gathering rules will be eased before her event on April 10-11. If they aren’t, the event may need to be split across multiple days and venues to comply with the 300-person limit.
Last year, the event drew 8,000 attendees to the I-X Center over two days. This year’s event will be smaller and simpler, with timed tickets, one-way aisles and absent popular features like fashion shows.
“We have the experience to do it safely,” said Fyffe, equating the event more to a retail experience than large gathering.
A spokesman for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine did not directly respond to a question about whether the state was considering any changes to its mass-gathering limits. “There is a variance process that can be applied for by entertainment venues,” said spokesman Dan Tierney.
Last month, the Cleveland Cavaliers were successful in getting a variance from the state to admit 1,944 spectators to Rocket Mortage FieldHouse for home games.
The Cavs this week asked the state to increase that limit to nearly 5,000.
King, however, said it’s not practical for every potential event planner to seek a variance to state rules. “Having to go through this process and not knowing the outcome does not give convention clients assurance that their event would be able to be held,” he said.
King is confident that the center — with more than 400,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space — can safely accommodate a group larger than 300. He is in favor of limits tied to the size of the venue — perhaps a percentage of maximum capacity, as numerous other states require.
“All of us want a safe environment,” he said. “I don’t want to be a facility that gets tagged with hosting a super-spreader event. Clients don’t want that either.”
He added, “I’m putting my reputation and my facility on the line. You better believe it’s going to be done in an extremely safe way.”
He noted that the facility recently invested $2.2 million in equipment to make the center safer, including HVAC upgrades, antimicrobial handrails on escalators, touchless restroom door openers and more.
In recent months, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court has been holding trials at the Global Center for Health Innovation, which is part of the convention center.
King said he’s grateful for the income and the activity — “they’re keeping our lights on” — but conventions and meetings are needed to restart the region’s economy.
In 2019, the economic impact of the facility’s 204 events was estimated at $186 million — that’s hotel nights, restaurant meals, cab rides and more.
“The ability to open and safely host larger meetings and events is going to be the key to economic recovery,” said Joe Savarise, executive director of the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association.
He added, “We’ve got to be thinking ahead. We’ve got to give meeting planners the opportunity to do this safely.”
Hotel occupancy in the city, particularly in downtown Cleveland, plummeted last year, in large part because of the near-complete loss of group travel. Downtown hotel occupancy was 31% in 2020, down from 68% in 2019.
King said he is hopeful for a turnaround starting in the third quarter, perhaps spurred by a successful NFL Draft, to be held in Cleveland from April 29 to May 1.
Details of the draft event, including visitor information, have not been released, although it definitely will not be the 200,000-plus-person party that previous drafts were in Nashville and Philadelphia.
Still, said King, it will put Cleveland in the limelight. “It could be a real launching point for the city of Cleveland to get back to business,” he said. Assuming, of course, that more than 300 people are allowed to attend.