What local business owners are hoping to see as Austin Convention Center ramps up events

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For months at a time over the last two years, you would see cots and makeshift rooms for COVID-19 patients at the Austin Convention Center.

It was designated as an alternate care site, if local hospitals needed help taking care of COVID-19 patients. But now, convention officials said it’s time to move forward, getting back to hosting events.

There have been more than a dozen events planned this month, and leaders said they know they’re critical to bring in revenue for local businesses.

“There is little question that the road to economic recovery, development and growth involves the meeting and convention industry,” said Trisha Tatro, director of the Austin Convention Center Department, in a press release Tuesday. “In the months ahead, we are focused on bringing back meetings, conventions, festivals and expos to our buildings.”

“This store in particular, part of the reason why it’s in this location was the convention center,” explained Craig Staley, co-owner of Royal Blue Grocery, as he stood outside his location off Brazos and East 3rd Streets.

When the center went dark in 2020, he said sales at that location were cut by 60% overnight.

They started rebounding when the facility started slowly reopening last spring.

Staff transitioned back to hosting conferences and large-scale events at the Palmer Events Center (PEC) in April and the Austin Convention Center (ACC) in May 2021, but at 25% capacity and with mask and social distancing requirements. They were authorized to expand to full capacity in July 2021, according to the press release.

“We’re very anxious and excited about spring hitting, South by Southwest, and the convention center coming back,” Staley said.

That return is also huge for bar and restaurant owner Ryan Garrett in the Red River Cultural District.

“Before the pandemic, the fastest element of operations that we had, the fastest growing operations, was private event hosting,” said Garrett, who owns The Green Jay and Stubb’s Bar-BQ. “We had tons of conventions coming through, people utilizing the amphitheater at Stubb’s, smaller spaces like The Green Jay, come in, sit down, have dinner a few drinks, socialize, give a presentation.”

Garrett said they had about 200 private events in 2019.

He said inquiries are coming in quickly this year, and, like Staley, he’s looking forward to the biggest event yet to come back to the area: South-By.

“Really, that always kind of marks the advent of hitting full swing of concert season. What comes after South-By in months like April and May, huge concerts, great shows tons of people coming back down to see it,” Garret said.

“Oh it is, our Christmas. It’s not the second one, it’s the only one,” said Staley, who is already staffing up and stocking up his kitchens to prepare. “It’s all hands on deck for our entire staff.”

Staley said bringing convention center business back is one of the last economic elements for which they’re waiting.

“We feel like we have two more pieces of the puzzle to go, it’s the office, return to office, and the convention center,” he said.

Here’s a look at the impact the pandemic had on the convention center, by the numbers:

  • In 2019, the facility hosted 99 events, according to a spokesperson there.
  • In 2020, they only had 25 events — that’s because they shut down in March.
  • In 2021, there were 44 events.
  • And so far this year, staff said they have 79 definite and possible events on the schedule.

Visit Austin said convention centers nationwide are seeing a spike in demand and bookings.

Steve Genovesi, executive vice president of Visit Austin, said this graph shows demand for group conventions and events across the US “Relative to a base index of 100 in 2019, the group demand benchmark average is estimated to reach as high as 74.5 in 2022, 94.5 in 2023 and fully back by 2024,” he said.

Steve Genovesi, the executive vice president of Visit Austin, said demand for convention center business here has jumped to 67%. That’s higher than the pre-pandemic average of 44%.

“We’ve seen very encouraging signs in the last 3 to 4 weeks of an increase of visitors arriving into Austin specifically to attend large meetings and sporting events. Starting this month, approximately 6,500 visitors attended the Texas Association of School Administrators, along with over 17,000 with the Austin Marathon and now this week, the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons is arriving with their organization’s record attendance (even when comparing pre pandemic ) of over 2,500 of attendees, exhibitors, and speakers.

People are ready to get back to learning, networking, making a sale and seeing their colleagues and friends. That’s what face to face meetings and events can do best.”

Steve Genovesi, Visit Austin executive vice president

Expansion plans moving forward

In 2019, Austin City Council unanimously voted to approve the creation of a Palm District master plan, essentially putting their support behind expanding the Austin Convention Center.

KXAN wanted to know where those plans are today.

A spokesperson said the convention center is in the final stages of the request for qualification development and approval process, which includes selecting an architect firm.

They hope to be able to move forward in the coming months.

The expansion could cost around $1.2 billion.

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