Several months from now when the curtain goes up on a post-pandemic stage, it may reveal an entirely new scene, especially when it comes to the meetings and expositions that help drive our local tourism and tourism industry.
Based on insights from Tourism Economics, a leading expert in travel and tourism research, it is likely to be 2024 before Cuyahoga County’s travel and tourism industry returns to visitation and economic impact levels experienced in 2019, which was the ninth straight year of growth at a rate greater than that of domestic travel overall, says David Gilbert, president and CEO of Destination Cleveland.
“Discounting 2013, which was when we opened, we have averaged between $125 million and $150 million in terms of annual economic impact,” says Dave Johnson, director of public relations and marketing for the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland.
“2019 was by far our record year, with more than $170 million in economic impact,” adds Ron King, general manager of the exhibition facility. “I am optimistic that by the end of 2022, we’ll be back to those levels.”
Certainly, the NFL Draft, a scant few months away, could act as a springboard for a return to normalcy for travel and tourism moving forward, says Gilbert. However, it will likely be at least a few years before we get back to an aggressive growth path.
“We certainly hope the 2021 NFL Draft will serve as both an economic boost and as a launching point for renewed consistency in visitation to Greater Cleveland,” says Gilbert. “While experts indicate that community immunity through vaccination is not likely by spring, we do see light at the end of the tunnel and anticipate that travelers will be more open to trips this summer and fall as more people choose to be vaccinated. “
“We are optimistic that the recently released vaccines will eventually lead to a return to normalcy. The 2021 NFL Draft, which will incorporate many health and safety protocols, will help both Clevelanders and visitors see that travel is possible in the COVID-19 environment,” Gilbert adds. “With some luck and consistent uptake on the vaccine, we could see more consistent visitation in mid to late 2021.”
Business meetings and exhibitions held at the Huntington Convention Center, which is attached to Public Hall, will likely remain a key driver for the downtown economy in the years and months ahead. Crowds should come back in fairly short order. But, the larger consumer shows, which have been allowed to balloon up to regional and even national size at Cleveland’s I-X Center, may be forced to find new venues, change dates or morph back in size to adapt to a totally new stage.
“We have already been in conversations with several of the large consumer shows from the I-X Center,” says King. “It was a combination of them reaching out to us and us reaching out to them.
“We were very happy with the I-X Center being there and having it serve as a valuable asset for the city and county,” adds King. “They have a huge facility more than four times the size of ours, and they have plenty of parking on site.”
So the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland and the I-X Center had something of a symbiotic relationship, with the covention center handling business meetings and expositions downtown, while the I-X Center handled larger consumer shows.
CONSUMER SHOWS FIND A HOME
Offering more than 2 million square feet of exhibition space and ample parking, Cleveland’s I-X Center has been home to the I-X Indoor Amusement Park, the I-X Piston Powered Auto-Rama and other shows with rights owned by the I-X Center Corp., which handled day-to-day operations and leased the mammoth facility from the city. However, the I-X Center also hosted shows produced by outside organizations, such as the Cleveland Boat Show, Cleveland Auto Show, Ohio RV Supershow, Great Big Home + Garden Show and Cleveland Home + Remodeling Expo — shows that often take up 750,000 square feet of exhibit space or more, with indoor attractions and displays that are so large the I-X Center is one of the few venues in the nation that can accommodate them.
In what may be perceived as a further distancing between large show producers and the I-X Center, at least two show producers sued the I-X Center Corp. in December in a bid to have the organization honor contracts that run through 2024. The Automobile Dealers’ Educational Assistance Foundation, the group behind the Cleveland Auto Show and an arm of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers’ Association, wants access to the facility and the ability after 2021 to stage its show there in subsequent years until 2024 from late February to early March. The Great Lakes Recreational Vehicle Association filed a similar suit to hold its Ohio RV Supershow at the I-X Center in 2022, 2023 and 2024 as well.
The suits came just months after the I-X Center Corp. announced that it was shuttering its doors due to Ohio’s imposed restrictions on large gatherings. While the I-X Center Corp. asked the city for rent relief and about terminating its lease, it was reported in November that 700,000 square feet of the I-X had been leased for two years to Akron-based GOJO, makers of Purell hand sanitizer, which needed the space for warehousing and distribution operations.
Representatives of the Cleveland Auto Show and the Ohio RV Supershow declined to comment about any future litigation. The I-X Center Corp., an affiliate of the Park Corp. conglomerate, also declined. However, it has been reported that rent on the facility is current.
That still doesn’t solidify the doubt show producers have on whether the I-X Center can return to its status as a viable large show venue. Already, large consumer shows have been adapting and evolving, as have other major shows across the nation. For instance, auto shows in Kansas City and Minneapolis are testing outdoor formats in summer months.
“But, let’s face it, an indoor venue is simply stronger,” says Louis A. Vitantonio, president of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers’ Association and the Cleveland Auto Show. “How can you ask an exhibitor to put up a major display, and then have it subjected to elements like rain or snow? Would you tent it?
“There’s also an issue of timing. If you move the auto show to outside in summer, now you would be competing against all of the other activities in Cleveland like the concerts at Edgewater Park,” he adds. “And, if you delay the auto show until June, you could soon be asking exhibitors and manufacturers to come back in December or January and reinvest for another show. It doesn’t seem practical.”
Then, of course, there are the issues of space and parking, the latter of which, as Vitantonio says, “is always free at the Cleveland Auto Show.”
It’s also one of the show’s main selling points.
“You’ve identified the two biggest existential challenges,” says Tom Baugh, CEO of Marketplace Events, which produces the Great Big Home + Garden Show and Cleveland Home + Remodeling Expo.
Headquartered in Solon, Marketplace Events is the largest producer of home improvement consumer shows in North America, with 76 annual events in 38 markets in the U.S. and Canada. It’s already scheduled the Home + Garden Show at Huntington Covention Center of Cleveland for March 2022.
“Convenient parking, frankly, is insufficient, particularly for weekdays,” Baugh says of the downtown facility. “And, display space is limited by comparison. At the I-X, the Home + Garden Show footprint is the largest in the U.S. At Huntington, even if we use every inch of that building will still have to shrink the show by 35%.”
There are other logistical concerns even with the vast improvements made to the Huntington.
“The Huntington Convention Center downtown has undergone some amazing remodeling from the days when our boat show was first staged there for 29 consecutive years from 1957 through 1985,” says Michelle Burke, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association (LEMTA), which produces the Cleveland Boat Show. “Our preliminary planning for a relocation back downtown beginning in January 2022 indicates the Huntington can accommodate our boat show and many of its features.”
But there still are some concerns.
“There are indeed complexities with Huntington Convention Center, mainly from the logistics of moving in and out with the boats,” says Burke. “There is one door! Yes, one door! All traffic must come in and go out the same door. The Huntington Convention Center was not necessarily designed to host shows like the boat show. However, if a forced move out of the I-X happens, we are thrilled to make Huntington our possible new home.”
The Cleveland Boat Show went virtual this year. It was a hybrid experience featuring dealers from throughout northern Ohio showing the newest models and equipment, plus live and pre-recorded seminars, contests, live zoom discussions from dealer showrooms and more, according to Burke.
Boat shows are the single most productive marketing events for recreational boats in northern Ohio, she adds. Many dealers attribute up to 50% of their annual boat sales to prospects they first met at a boat show.
“Statewide, the industry accounts for 19,000-plus jobs and has a $3-plus billion economic impact,” says Burke. “About 50% of that impact is attributable to the boating industry in northern Ohio along the Lake Erie region. Overall, more than 3 million Ohioans go boating each summer in the 550,000 registered power and sailboats in Ohio, ranking the state the sixth largest in pleasure boats in the nation.”
The Cleveland Boat Show will return live again in 2022, says Burke. Hopefully, it will be at the I-X Center, although the Huntington Convention Center has offered dates and a contract for 2022. However, Burke is still on the fence.
A similar online show is being planned for the 2021 Progressive Akron Boat & Water Sports Show normally held in Akron’s John S. Knight Center in late March. The show will return to the John S. Knight Center as a live show in 2022, Burke adds.
LOOKING FOR A DATE?
In addition to the sheer size of the I-X Center and its abundance of parking, another stumbling block for moving shows downtown is the availability of dates.
“The real issue for the convention center is that we have bookings all the way out to 2028,” says King. “Of course, we want to do all of them, but the real issue is finding the time and space to fit them all in. However, December, January and February are our slowest months.”
Another stumbling block is the business model of the convention center, which is not geared to large consumer shows, King admits.
“But, the company we work for [ASM Global] runs over 300 facilities worldwide,” King adds.
Two of these include Cobo Hall in Detroit and McCormick Place in Chicago.
“So, consumer shows are nothing new to us,” King says. “It’s just something that hasn’t been in the model for the downtown convention center.”
It should be noted that the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland has a strong attraction, especially for our local economy. Its location in the city’s core offers easy access to both hotels and restaurants, which could really benefit from holding large consumer shows downtown.
“Our first priority is to help the economic impact to the city, county and region,” says King. “We do that by bringing in people from out of town who stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and rent our cars.”
For most of the large consumer shows, concerns lie with a clock that continues to tick.
“I have not given up hope on I-X reopening for shows, but time is running out,” says Baugh. “Every major exhibition venue in North America is planning on reopening as soon as public health authorities allow and, if I-X doesn’t, it will be a prominent outlier.
“Ray Park [who heads the Park Corp.] and I have been business associates and friends for decades. I have great respect for what he has done for Northeast Ohio through his stewardship of and passion for the I-X Center,” he adds. “We talk frequently about the importance of the I-X Center shows to the regional economy, as well as the long-term contractual commitments the shows have in place at his venue. Hopefully, he decides to reopen.”
If not, the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland is the only viable option.
“Thanks to the support of convention center management (and the city of Cleveland for Public Hall), we have future dates in 2022 onward,” Baugh says. “This is good news for all of us who love the Home + Garden Show and want to see it continue, as well as for other large consumer shows that intend to move downtown as well.”
At the same time, after 30 years at the I-X, people’s expectations and lifestyles have changed, Baugh admits.
“So, we have to adapt,” Baugh says. “Parking is a good example. At least for the first year downtown, to ease weekday parking concerns, we are reducing the show from 10 days to six.”
Naturally, there will be shuttles, parking apps with real-time information on availability, as well as other features to make the transition easier.
“When it comes to display space, we’ve already started conversations with our exhibitors,” Baugh adds. “The hard truth is not all will be able to move downtown with us, so we think it’s only fair to face that reality now, not later.”