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The $100 billion conventions industry is starting to reopen after a months-long coronavirus shutdown

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An Orange County Convention Center employee replaces a sanitizer station ahead of the center’s reopening in July 2020.

Source: Orange County Convention Center

Today it might be hard to imagine a mass, indoor gathering with thousands of attendees. Yet that is the bread and butter of the convention and events industry, which was brought a screeching halt due following the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year. 

As states such as Florida and Texas take further steps to reopen, the industry is trying to bounce back, with some centers preparing to host events as soon as next month using safety measures that are becoming commonplace: temperature checks, social distancing, reduced capacity and contactless registration.

“I’m very excited to be getting groups back,” said Mark Tester, executive director of the Orange County Convention Center. Located in Orlando, Florida, it is the second-largest convention site in North America.

Tester said the center is prepping for its first event since the shutdown: a 10,000-person high school volleyball tournament in July. The center plans to host 12 events in July and August and expects a “ramp up” in the fall to its normally busy schedule, he added.

In Texas, the Sunbelt Builders Show is going on as planned for next month at the Gaylord Texan, just outside Dallas. Despite the state’s recent record spike in coronavirus hospitalizations, organizers said in an email to CNBC, they are encouraged by the registration numbers and attendance is trending similar to last year’s 2,300-person event.

It is a critical moment for a massive industry and the economy. The Center for Exhibition Industry Research estimates conferences, which drive business for hotels, airlines and local restaurants contributed more than $101 billion to U.S. gross domestic product last year.

Since March through the end of the year, 64% of conferences tracked by the International Association of Exhibitions and Events have been canceled.

“Shows are watching closely to see what each is doing,” said Cathy Breden, the organization’s executive vice president.

Just this week, McCormick Place in Chicago, the largest center in North America, was notified by organizers of the International Manufacturers Technology Show that its 129,00-person conference scheduled for September would be canceled. The estimated economic impact, which McCormick calculates using a dollar figure per attendee, is nearly $247 million.

On its website, IMTS cited Illinois’ reopening plan, which puts conferences in phase 5, as the main driver for the decision, stating, “The conditions that must be met for the implementation of phase 5 feature either the availability of a vaccine for the COVID 19 virus or a highly effective treatment protocol, neither of which are expected to occur in the coming months.” 

Still, event organizers and operators are looking to the fall as a return to normal. 

“Based on what we are hearing, it sounds like September is when we’re hoping shows will start being held again,” said Breden.

So far, there have not been any cancellations for 2021, she added. Orange County Convention Center and the Las Vegas Convention Center also say they have no cancellations in 2021.

“While this could suggest meeting planners are still holding out for a potential return to normalcy post-vaccine, we could see cancellations accelerate as the scheduled event date approaches,” Barry Jonas, an analyst at Sun Trust Robinson Humphrey, wrote in a note published Thursday.

Tester said, in Orlando, event organizers are waiting until the last minute to decide whether to go ahead with their plans.

One August event just decided to move into the fall.

“They really held off to see what was happening and received a lot of feedback from exhibitors and attendees that they would prefer it to be moved back in the fall, so we accommodated that,” he said.

With concerns of rising numbers of coronavirus cases in states that are reopening as well as fears of a possible second wave later this year, there’s no telling how many more last-minute cancellations may come or for how long they will last.

In the meantime, some companies are using convention space to drive profits in other areas.

The MGM Grand in Las Vegas is hosting boxing matches — without spectators — twice a week.

Legendary boxing promotor Bob Arum said MGM has allowed them to use the empty convention space to accommodate the fights, the training, dining facilities and the production crews and equipment required to air the matches. Arum said it creates a bubble of protection from coronavirus.

“The people once they get tested and go into the bubble, can’t go out of the bubble. They have to eat the meals in this dining area and the convention center,” he said.

For the convention industry itself,  the real fight will be reassuring clients, vendors, exhibitors and attendees that it’s safe to return.

—CNBC’s Jessica Golden contributed to this report. 

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