BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — In April 2021, we were hoping to earn more about plans for a new, improved Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. But the COVID-19 pandemic has put those on hold, and canceled all events at the center for now.
"It's completely shuttered at this point. We had to lay off all of our employees except for eight," said Patrick Kaler, President & CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara. "It's taken a very big hit this year."
The convention center is typically booked almost 270 days out of the year, and Kaler says events are responsible for roughly 30,000 hotel room bookings each year. Visit Buffalo Niagara says the lack of events is having a major impact on the WNY economy.
But story is the same no matter where you look. LaToya Williams is based in Buffalo, but books conferences across the world. She's had to cancel or rebook more than 75% of her events.
"They went virtual, they went hybrid, they were reduced by number or they've been canceled," she explained.
But with the vaccine rollout underway right now - what will a rebound look like for large-scale events like conventions?
In Buffalo - Kaler isn't expecting to see huge mass gatherings for some time.
"We might see a little bit of recovery post Labor Day, then going later in to the year. But really we won't see 2019 levels of meetings and conventions and business travel until 2024," he said.
The center is hoping to begin by hosting smaller events that might have virtual components. The convention center released some mockup photos of what future conventions might look like - they include visitors spaced apart during presentations, traffic flow patterns on the floors, and smaller breakout rooms.
Williams says, as she's working to rebook events, those are exactly the types of things her clients want to see.
"They're also looking to see what specifically that location has in place as far as hand sanitizer. And stations you can wash your hands in. Are you temperature checking?" she explained.
She says there's also an emphasis on safely exploring an area and finding smaller local businesses, like restaurants and coffee shops, that are following guidelines, utilizing them, and helping make a local impact.
"You don't have to be here in this hotel in this bubble,"We can go here and meet we can go there and meet, and we're also impacting while we're there," she said.
Experts are hoping leisure travel will pick up again as we head into the summer months. Business travel is expected to take longer. But even if it takes a few years to get back to normal, Williams is convinced that we'll get there.
"The human connection is so important. So you want to be face to face with someone. You want to be able to feel their vibe, and have conversations without pause and silence and you're muted. So we do need and want that, but we also want to be safe," she said.
Right now plans for development at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center are on hold. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz says he's still interested in moving forward, but that the county would need funding help from the state. He's hoping to have a better idea of what might be possible after the state passes its budget this spring.
Statement on the future of the convention center from Erie Co. Executive Mark Poloncarz:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a necessary realigning of priorities as time, resources and funding are now wrapped up in stopping the coronavirus and protecting public health. The economic effects of the pandemic are also undeniable and have caused distress across many sectors, especially the tourism and convention business. The Convention Center project remains of interest and would bring more visitors and conventions to our area in a post-COVID world, but Erie County would need funding support to advance the project. We will have a better idea of what the future holds in terms of funding for the project after New York State passes a new budget this spring.”