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Philadelphia’s conventions are recovering, and hotel owners are optimistic about the future

After many group events were canceled during the pandemic, conventions are now on the rebound.

Workers in the Ford Motor Co. display wipe down vehicles as the 2022 Philadelphia Auto Show gets installed at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets, on Thursday afternoon March 3, 2022. The show opened on March 5.
Workers in the Ford Motor Co. display wipe down vehicles as the 2022 Philadelphia Auto Show gets installed at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets, on Thursday afternoon March 3, 2022. The show opened on March 5.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

This year, the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB) has 19 “citywide” events on the books — gatherings that generate 2,000 or more hotel room stays on its peak night — matching the number of citywides held in 2019 before the pandemic.

The marquee events include the NCAA Division I men’s basketball east regional in late March at the Wells Fargo Center, which is expected to fill more than 8,000 hotel rooms. The return of the Army-Navy football game this winter, projected to attract 50,000 visitors, will “really help our December and help us finish the year out strong,” said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.

Still, the 498,000 hotel nights from all 152 events booked by PHLCVB will be down about 50% from one million room nights in 2019.

“We still have a ways to go, however, we’re very optimistic about our future,” Grose said.

PHLCVB also says it’s expecting events this year to generate $371 million in economic impact, compared with $600 million worth during 2019.

“Without question, this is definitely a pivot point,” said Gregg Caren, president and CEO of PHLCVB. On Wednesday, the city ended its indoor mask requirement, signaling another shift toward normalcy for convention planners.

“We’re not going to be back to 2019 levels within one year,” Caren said. But, he noted, worst-case projections put a full recovery at 2025 or 2026. Now it’s looking like business levels could return by 2024, and possibly 2023.

“Our job is to accelerate that,” Caren said.

When pandemic shutdowns began two years ago, travel plummeted, events large and small were canceled, and many people in the region lost work tied to tourism.

In Philadelphia alone, employment in leisure and hospitality fell from 72,500 workers in March 2020 down to 29,200 by the next month, according to federal data. As of December, employee numbers in the sector were up to 54,300.

“The livelihood and the incomes of tens of thousands of people basically rise and fall on the effectiveness of what we do,” Caren said.

During the pandemic, the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority invested $25 million in health and safety-related improvements, from air filtration systems to UV lights that sanitize escalator handrails to swapping out carpets.

Those improvements put Philadelphia in a “strong position” to compete for business, said John McNichol, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority. “We were able to assess the situation and invest wisely in things that will matter to our customers.”

In addition to meetings that guarantee large blocks of hotel bookings by out-of-town visitors, events like the Philadelphia Auto Show this week bring a steady stream of people to Center City. “You get a lot of foot traffic so the economy does get buoyed from it,” McNichol said. The Philadelphia Auto Show is projected to draw 250,000 attendees from March 5 to 13.

The convention center played host to ballot counters during the 2020 election and served as the first mass vaccination site in the U.S. A handful of large-group events went forward in 2021, too — such as the Northeast Girls Qualifier volleyball tournament, which will return to Philadelphia next week and during two weekends in April.

“We’re looking at 1,345 teams coming to the area over the course of the three weekends,” said Tom Pingel, chief operating officer of East Coast Volleyball.

Under pandemic protocols in spring 2021, courts had to be more spaced out, the number of spectators was limited, there were restrictions on eating and drinking indoors, and everyone had to wear a mask.

This year, masks will be optional, and the tournament will feel “more like it was pre-pandemic,” Pingel said. “People are going to be excited about coming in and experiencing the [Reading Terminal] market and everything else downtown.”

The Natural Products Expo East, for businesses that specialize in natural and organic foods and other products, also managed to hold its trade show in Philadelphia last September — with over 15,000 registered attendees — and will be back again later this year.

Last year’s expo “was more successful than we could have even imagined given what was going on at the time,” said Lacey Gautier, vice president of events for natural products at Informa Markets, which puts on the expo.

The 2021 event had many cancellations in the midst of the delta variant, and Gautier is expecting a “significant increase” in attendance this year. The planning process in 2022 “does feel different, and lighter, when there is that broader receptivity when places are opening up a bit more,” she said.

When the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. opened registration last month for its upcoming national convention in Philadelphia, more than 3,000 people signed up in the first week.

The sorority, one of the “Divine Nine” historically Black sororities and fraternities, was founded at Howard University in 1920 — and had to cancel the in-person celebration of its centennial in 2020 because of the pandemic.

“We really missed having this major celebration that we had planned for that time, and it’s been very hard on my membership because you don’t turn 100 every day,” said Valerie Hollingsworth Baker, the sorority’s international centennial president.

This year will be special, she said. Zeta Phi Beta is planning a service project in the city during the July convention, along with a lineup of entertainers, at their first face-to-face gathering since 2018. “We’re just excited to have business and pleasure come together, and as we fellowship with each other,” Hollingsworth Baker said.