Indianapolis loses another big convention to coronavirus pandemic

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INDIANAPOLIS — Mayor Joe Hogsett has proposed spending $70 million of CARES Act money appropriated by Congress to make the Indiana Convention Center safe for visitors and big money conventions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the first 72 hours after the pandemic was announced in mid-March, Indianapolis lost more than $150 million in 2020 convention business.

“Despite the great efforts of PRI staff, the city of Indianapolis, and industry members from around the world to produce a first-class event for motorsports professionals, PRI made the tough decision this week to cancel the 2020 PRI Trade Show,” read a letter from PRI President Dr. Jamie Meyer on the trade show’s website. “While we certainly respect the tough job that local public health officials have in keeping their community safe, it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to provide a trade show environment in 2020 with the business and networking opportunities you’ve come to expect.”

Visit Indy officials watched another $25 million or so slip away this week when Performance Racing Industries, one of the top five annual meetings at the Indiana Convention Center, announced it was calling off its December convention.

“Despite the great efforts of PRI staff, the city of Indianapolis, and industry members from around the world to produce a first-class event for motorsports professionals, PRI made the tough decision this week to cancel the 2020 PRI Trade Show,” read a letter from PRI President Dr. Jamie Meyer on the trade show’s website. “While we certainly respect the tough job that local public health officials have in keeping their community safe, it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to provide a trade show environment in 2020 with the business and networking opportunities you’ve come to expect.”

PRI was willing to pare down its show to 25,000 attendees, said Visit Indy Senior V.P. Chris Gahl, but in the end, that was 10,000 more people than the Marion County Public Health Department was willing to approve.

“PRI was still debating 15,000 on whether or not that was worth their while knowing they are normally at 67,000 attendees. They were also considering 25,000 and if we could push the ceiling up to 25,000,” said Gahl. “This was really the ceiling, 15,000, in December, knowing many things can change, that was really the ceiling that the Health Department in particular felt comfortable in having enough people and resources in having a safe meeting inside the Convention Center.”

PRI also indicated it needed a decision now to bring vendors and attendees together starting December 10th while health officials preferred to finalize plans two weeks in advance in order to take advantage of the latest COVID-19 outbreak information.

The Marion County Public Health Department issued the following statement:

For this particular event, MCPHD offered a number of recommended actions:

Based on the current COVID-19 data trends, the capacity for conference visitors at the Indiana Convention Center is limited to 15,000, excluding any exhibitor staff or convention personnel. These attendees can include international visitors. This guidance is set with expectation that the numbers of visitors could be expanded at a later date if there is continued improvement in our COVID 19 cases. 

An extensive number of staff serving as monitors would be required to ensure proper social distancing of 6 feet between guests at any exhibit booth, common area, concession stand or bathroom to ensure that no area becomes overcrowded.

To prevent large crowds in any one space, MCPHD also recommended three separate areas be spaced out so no more than 5,000 spectators would be located at each collection of exhibit booths.

To help control the flow of guests, we also asked organizers to consider providing a particular color of badge to participants to direct them to visit exhibit booths during different times of day and to specific entry and exit points for a room or exhibit hall.

Downtown business owners shared an email this week lamenting PRI’s decision to cancel because of restrictions on the size of the potential convention.

“Its one of the biggest economic boosts in our community and to hear that the difference maker was eight thousand people, PRI needed 23,000 people and the Health Department said 15,000, and it was gonna take a couple weeks to make that final decision and get them here, we need to get them here,” said George Stergiopoulos of Giorgio’s who received that downtown business email. “I think a good faith move would be to bring PRI here and get them here with the 23,000, get the Health Department off their behinds and get them moving on this. This is a big deal for us and it could start that turn getting back to normal.

“If we handle this thing responsibly and, again, it all backs up to leadership. Leaders have had time to work on this. Time to think about it, time to process it, its time to make decisions on behalf of the people who elected them.”

Gahl said despite the pandemic health restrictions, the Indiana Convention Center, with the assistance of MCPHD, has hosted more than 20 events with 50,000 attendees since mid-July, a record he said is unmatched by any other convention center in the country.

The next big convention slated to visit Indianapolis is the Archery Trade Show in early January with an estimated 25,000 attendees.

Stergiopolous said neglect by city leaders of downtown during the COVID-19 spring and the aftermath of riots during social justice protests in late May has finally turned around with the addition of more street cleaners and IMPD patrols.

“One thing that frustrates me is I watch a lot of the social media warriors every day talking about how downtown is unsafe, but the only way that you can truly find out what downtown is about is to come downtown,” he said. “Come support local business, lets stop being social media warriors, lets start  being people that are part of a movement to help turn our city back to where it was.”

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