Skift Take

Covid-19 has shaken up the meetings and events industry. But with preparation and quick action — and safety top of mind — Houston First Corporation has set up the city for a bumper calendar of events in 2021 as the country looks toward recovery from the pandemic.

There’s no doubt, as we reach 12 months of impact from Covid-19 in the U.S., the last year has been challenging for the tourism and events industries. Travel of all types was brought to a standstill across the country. People lost their jobs, and organizers canceled events and lost money. EventMB’s State of the Event Industry report reveals the widespread nature of such impact, with 79.5 percent of companies in the event industry reporting loss of business — and nearly one-third (30.5 percent) of all respondents reporting a loss of 75 to 90 percent of revenue.

But for those who have reacted swiftly, doing the maximum to ensure the safety of their visitors and preparing for the new world as it begins to recover from the impacts of the virus and its associated restrictions, 2021 brings the promise of a new start. And for Houston First Corporation, it’s already looking to be a year with a full roster of meetings, conventions, and events.

ON THE CUTTING EDGE OF PREPARATION 

“We are open for business,” said Michael Heckman, acting president and CEO of Houston First Corporation. “Part of our value proposition here is we’ve already been able to successfully hold events. Not a lot of cities or communities have been able to do that.”

Right from the beginning of the pandemic, Houston First was at the forefront in reacting to changing market conditions, government restrictions, and reluctance for people to travel. The company, which is the official destination marketing organization (DMO) for the city of Houston, Texas, quickly applied the highest standard of health and safety protocols to all its events, attractions, and venues.

They were sure to mobilize across the city’s events and hospitality industries in order to adjust to the new Covid-safe way of doing business, as well as prepare for the eventual slow return to normal.

“Houston Clean was a collaboration between the Houston events and venues task force,” said Heckman. “It was a baseline of agreements across all of those participants that said, ‘Here’s the minimum that we’re all going to do.’”

houston meetings and events covid-19 health and safety

But the DMO’s approach went beyond this, extending to installing state-of-the-art anti-viral systems in the city’s key George R. Brown Convention Center.

“We spent a lot of money at our convention center, covering sanitization, temperature checks, touchless payments, and touchless door entry,” said Heckman. “And our integrated viral protection system creates an extra layer of health and safety for the attendees.”

He said it’s all about ensuring that potential attendees feel comfortable visiting. As 2021 progresses, the vaccine rollout becomes more widespread, and restrictions begin to lift, a key part of holding events and conventions is how comfortable people feel with getting on a plane, attending a meeting in person, or staying in a hotel.

“When will visitors feel comfortable with traveling again?” asked Heckman. “That’s the number one component that will be important [for events] in 2021.”

EventMB’s State of the Event Industry report confirms that Houston First’s efforts have been in the right place, with “safety standards” (36.8 percent of respondents) being the top priority for the events industry in choosing a destination to hold their event, followed by “no travel restrictions” (31.7 percent), and ”low cases” (18.9 percent).

A FULL ROSTER OF EVENTS

Even with the industry and vaccine distribution still in flux, the folks at Houston First are optimistic that people are ready to go out and attend these events. The city is preparing for a bumper second half of 2021, with a record amount of conventions already scheduled.

Houston, TX – OTC 2018. Photo by © OTC/Matt Herp 2018.

“We look like we’re going to have a very busy, record-breaking number of city-wide conventions in the second half of the year,” said Heckman. “So from a meetings and convention perspective, that’s a little bit of what we see for 2021.”

Some of these include the Offshore Technology Conference in August, the International Quilt Festival in October, and the 23rd World Petroleum Congress in December.

In addition, the International Trademark Association announced its 2021 Annual Meeting will be relocated from San Diego to Houston and take place in November. The event will offer a mix of hybrid and in-person programming and signals how Houston is poised to welcome events previously scheduled to happen at other destinations.

HYBRID IS THE NEW NORMAL

An increasing amount of these events will also be some sort of hybrid between in-person and virtual events, with the George R. Brown Convention Center now being home to a virtual studio, giving event planners even more flexibility in how they operate their conventions.

“Hybrid events are here to stay. We don’t believe they replace in-person meetings, but they will be a component going forward,” said Heckman. “That’s why we developed our virtual studio inside the George R. Brown Convention Center that can hold live-stream events. It will be an opportunity to — if organizers do it the right way — reach more people.”

Avenida Houston Virtual Studio

Avenida Houston Virtual Studio. Image: supplied

It’s teamwork across the events and hospitality industries that has really helped the city be in a position to welcome events and conventions back as soon as possible. Houston First has been in close communication with organizers, hotels, attractions, and facilities to ensure the approach is universal. Whether that’s with the Houston Clean safety protocols, communication across the sector, investment in new technology, or remaining nimble when events do need to change, Houston First has been prepared.

“A lot of the reasons why people want to travel remain,” said Heckman. “They want to see great hotels. They want to learn about diverse communities. They want to see green spaces. Those things will continue to be the case even as we go throughout 2021.”

*Disclaimer: On March 2, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an Executive Order lifting the mask mandate in Texas and increased capacity of all businesses and facilities in the state to 100 percent. 

Houston First Corporation is committed to the health and safety of event patrons, visitors, and front-line workers and will continue to follow the protocols and enhanced protective measures developed by the City of Houston and the city-wide Houston Clean program.

This content was created collaboratively by Houston First Corporation and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

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Tags: covid-19, hybrid events, hybrid meetings, meeting planners, meetings and conventions, meetings and events, SkiftX Showcase: Destinations, SkiftX Showcase: Meetings and Events, travel recovery

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