For three weekends between late March and early April, high school athletes filed into the Pennsylvania Convention Center for their annual tournament, East Coast Volleyball’s Northeast Volleyball Qualifier.
Last year, the pandemic forced organizers to reschedule the event. Now tourism officials say the spring tournament — held with guidance from the city’s public health department — offers lessons for how to balance safety protocols with gatherings worth millions in economic activity.
Among five major Northeast cities — the others are Washington, Baltimore, New York and Boston — the volleyball tournament in Philadelphia was the first large event to be held in a convention center in more than a year, according to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. The event generated $14.3 million in overall economic impact, and an estimated $1.3 million in state and local taxes, the visitors bureau said.
In total, 21,650 people attended at some point during the event’s three weekends, leading to more than 11,000 nightly hotel room stays at 27 hotels. Attendees reported five cases of COVID-19 to East Coast Volleyball.
“The health and safety protocols that were developed kept everyone safe and we stand ready to leverage what we learned with [the tournament] to safely host future meetings, conventions and events,” Gregg Caren, president and CEO of the visitors bureau, said in a statement Tuesday.
The pandemic devastated the tourism industry last year, causing thousands of hospitality workers to lose jobs, as business travel for meetings stalled, would-be travelers stayed home, and many hotel rooms sat empty. Now, with more people getting vaccinated, local officials and industry leaders alike are eager to jump-start this segment of the economy, and are showcasing plans to do so during the ongoing National Travel and Tourism Week.
At the state level, New Jersey announced reopening plans Monday, while Pennsylvania officials on Tuesday said the state will lift capacity restrictions for restaurants and businesses starting May 31. Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the city will review both states’ policies, and was not yet announcing changes at the local level.
The visitors bureau released a case study of the volleyball tournament Tuesday, outlining the rules for game play and viewing — including mandatory masks for players and spectators — as well as protocols for reporting cases of COVID-19.
“No more than 2,000–3,000 people were permitted inside the [Convention Center] at one time with 50 individuals per court including athletes, officials and one spectator per player,” according to the case study.
Only the athletes were permitted to have food on site, limited to snack bars, and players had to remain six feet apart when eating and drinking. Teams were required to leave the building as soon as they were finished playing.
“In addition, players, families, and teams were asked to not meet or congregate between games at any location (including hotels, restaurants, meeting rooms, vehicles),” the case study said.
If an attendee tested positive for coronavirus, teams were supposed to alert tournament organizers. “Per event protocols, individuals who had the potential to come in contact with the infected individual were notified and asked to monitor their health,” visitors bureau spokesperson Alethia Calbeck said.
During the tournament, the Convention Center continued to operate as a FEMA vaccination site for the public.
Health department spokesperson James Garrow said organizers had to agree to “complete separation” between the tournament and vaccine clinics. The site is large enough to allow both “to operate without ever coming into contact with each other,” he said.
“To ensure everyone’s safety, we worked closely with the PCC and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to develop a physical layout that would clearly separate the FEMA site from the spaces being utilized by” the tournament, Calbeck said.
The Convention Center is able to host multiple events simultaneously with separate entrances and exits, she said, and “no co-mingling between attendees and the vacation site was possible.”
Health officials “would not have allowed the tournament to be held if we felt there was a significant risk of exposure and spread,” Garrow said.
The tournament was considered a “citywide” event, meaning one that generates at least 2,000 hotel room stays on the busiest night.
Through the end of 2021, nine citywide events — in addition to the Northeast Volleyball Qualifier — are scheduled at the Convention Center, Calbeck said. She declined to identify the others, saying planning remains “fluid.”
The Convention Center has invested in upgraded air filtration, sanitization measures for escalator handrails using UV light, and touchless technology in restrooms.
David Nash, dean emeritus of the Jefferson College of Population Health, has served as chief health adviser to the visitors bureau during the pandemic. “There’s no question that science is hastening the return of in-person meetings and events,” he stated in the new case study. The tournament, he said, “has set a benchmark for Philadelphia’s tourism industry and stands as a strong example of how we can leverage science to continue gathering safely and recover from this crisis.”