Convention Centers Pivot to Offer a Shot of Hope

Andrea Doyle, Senior News Editor
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When the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2020, there wasn’t a trade show executive around who could have predicted what the next year would bring. They certainly couldn’t have guessed that convention centers — the lifeblood of their shows — would become hospitals, testing centers, and, eventually, vaccination centers. Yet, with ample space, experience with logistics facilitating large crowds, and stringent health and safety protocols in place, these venues offer the ideal setting for safely vaccinating large groups of people.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many convention centers have been invaluable in the fight against this contagious virus. At the start of the pandemic, many were converted into makeshift medical facilities to help relieve hospitals to provide better care for their more critically ill patients. And many, such as Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), also stepped up as vaccination sites.

“We have the logistics and facilities in place and are ready to ramp up,” said Mark Tester, Executive Director of the OCCC. “We’re only limited by the number of vaccines on hand available for distribution.”

The OCCC isn’t the only venue being used as a vaccination site. “Convention centers across the country have been utilized as COVID-19 patient hospitals as well as PPE storage and distribution facilities,” said Jamie Lee, Interim Executive Director, Gateway Convention Center in Collinsville, Ill. “Being selected as a vaccine distribution center is an excellent opportunity for Gateway Convention Center to also offer our help during this pandemic.” The center became the location of Madison County’s Health Department’s vaccine distribution starting January 14.

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center has transformed into a vaccine distribution center.
The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center has transformed into a vaccine distribution center.

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, too, has transformed into a vaccine distribution center.

It was the first in the country to convert into a hospital with 1,000 beds, along with a nurses’ station and pharmacy.

Today, it is a venue where New Yorkers are going for a shot of hope. “The Javits Center is proud to play a role in New York State’s vaccination efforts and continue to support New Yorkers during these unprecedented times,” said Alan Steel, President and CEO of the Javits Center.

Across the Hudson in New Jersey, a temporary hospital with 250 beds was set up at the Atlantic City Convention Center to house residents battling COVID-19 infections. Today, the convention center is also being used for vaccinations.

“We are honored that the state has chosen our convention center as one of New Jersey’s mega vaccination sites,” said Larry Sieg, President and CEO, Meet AC, Atlantic City’s group sales and marketing organization. “The opportunity to be part of a vast administration of the vaccine will certainly be a catalyst in the restart and recovery of the meetings and convention industry.”

Related. Convention Centers Step Up to Meet Community Needs During COVID-19 Crisis

Shot In the Arm the Industry Needs?

Kelvin D. Moore, CMP, Regional General Manager/ASM Global, Pennsylvania Convention Center, thinks COVID-19 vaccines represent the beginning of the rebound the trade show industry desperately needs.

“The recovery for the industry will ultimately come down to attendee confidence, and a successful vaccine roll-out is a critical part in building that confidence,” Moore said. “Being able to participate in the vaccine rollout process is a source of pride for the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Over the past 10 months, we’ve made it a priority to be part of the solution when and where we have been able to do so.”

The OCCC, which has offered coronavirus testing to tens of thousands of people for months, is now also a large-scale vaccination site. And trade show organizers know how adept convention centers are at handling large groups of people. “Folks can drive in, get the vaccine while in their car, drive 100 yards to a holding area to wait 15 minutes to ensure they have no adverse reaction, and then go,” Tester explained.

Nursing students receive vaccination training at the Pennsylvania Convention Center
Nursing students receive vaccination training at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

“We are testing in one area in a remote parking garage — 2,000 nasal swabs a day — and this will continue for the foreseeable future. We started vaccines on December 26 in the docks of our NS building,” Tester added. “This is a game=changer, certainly, for our industry.”

This isn’t just a U.S. undertaking. Convention centers across the globe are heeding the call to help with distribution of the one truly effective tool there is to fight the deadly virus. For example, two of Copenhagen’s largest venues, Bella Center Copenhagen and Oksnehallen at DGI Byen are currently serving as COVID-19 vaccination centers.

Convention center officials hope this is the last transformation they must undergo in the fight against COVID-19 and that this will soon open their doors to trade shows.

“Providing vaccinations to the public will help give confidence to corporations to lift travel bans, and with wide-scale vaccinations, people will start to feel comfortable about travel once again,” Tester said.

Reach Mark Tester at (407) 685-9800 or mark.tester@occc.net; Larry Sieg at lsieg@meetac.com; and Jamie Lane at jlane@gatewaycenter.com.