Miami Beach Convention Center: "Uncharted Territory" After COVID-19

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach Convention Center: "Uncharted Territory" After COVID-19:

Rebookings and finding a "new normal" while awaiting decision on temporary hospital

This was supposed to be its “breakout year” following a long period of construction but, instead, the Miami Beach Convention Center like most other businesses and facilities is closed while the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic. General Manager Freddie Peterson said, “We were looking at north of 50 events” of varying sizes this year.

Now, Peterson is balancing event rebookings with the potential the Convention Center could be used by the Army Corps of Engineers as a temporary hospital to augment local hospital beds. [Update April 6: An announcement is expected Wednesday that it will be used as a makeshift hospital.]

There were 13 events scheduled between March 2 and May 15. Five of those cancelled, two of them larger events – Seatrade, the world’s largest cruise industry gathering, and ZenDesk’s tech conference. Peterson said about 68,000 total participants were expected for the five cancelled events, most of them at the two larger events.

The revenue impact to the venue from the five cancellations is "roughly about $2.6 million,” he said taking into account room rental fees and food and beverage and other ancillary service revenue. But that number doesn’t tell the complete economic story of the cancellations, Peterson said, from people who would have worked the event – “You’re putting a lot of folks to work here” – to lost hotel rooms. There’s also the impact to off-site venues such as the local restaurants and cultural institutions that would have benefited from the out of town visitors.

The news is not all bad. Three events have already rebooked for August while six remain on the calendar for July. Peterson, who has been at the Convention Center since September 2018 as part of the Spectra team that manages the venue, said he’s “keeping everybody upbeat and everyone positive. We’re going to come out on the other side of this… that bounceback is going to be incredibly important for morale.”

In the meantime, he has not had to lay anyone off. A portion of the team is telecommuting while essential on-site staff is “keeping the building healthy as well.” 

Peterson and the sales teams from the Convention Center and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau are now doing what he calls “calendar gymnastics” as they work with event planners to rebook. “We’re literally stacking things right on top of one another,” he said. 

“Honestly, it’s just such uncharted territory. You don’t know. You have folks coming in for upcoming events from everywhere in the world and there are things people need to think about – travel arrangements, shipping – there’s all these different variables that go into it” when it comes to scheduling.

What he’s noticed, however, is everyone asking how they can adapt their schedules to help others who are also trying to book. “We’re seeing people kind of pull together to try and support one another,” Peterson said. “It is about economic impact and survival of the industry.”

One of the big unknowns – besides when it’s safe to reopen – is the potential for the Convention Center to be used as a temporary hospital. Earlier this week, the Army Corps of Engineers and City officials “did a walk-through of the venue.” Peterson emphasized he couldn’t speak for the Army Corps but he said he believes “they’re going through their paces” looking at facilities in the event certain areas require additional beds to augment local hospitals. “There’s no decisions that have been made.”  

Once the venue can begin operating again, Peterson said, communication and messaging will be key. “You not only want your guests to know they’re in a safe, secure, healthy environment,” he said, “but it’s my employees, anybody that comes into the venue, to say that this is what we’ve done to ensure that we have not only healthy people coming into the building but that we have a healthy venue [following] the standards and protocols as they are dictated.”

What those standards and protocols look like are yet to be determined. Could it involve taking everyone’s temperature upon entry? While noting the need to respect individual rights, he said, “These are the things you start to think through with the client. What is the best practice, the best approach for folks coming into the venue?”

“Going into any place – a supermarket, a movie theater,” is going to be “a whole new world and how do you adapt to it?” he asked. He used 9/11 as an example of people adjusting behaviors. “There’s going to be new norms out there. If it keeps you healthy, at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Despite the unknowns, Peterson said, in his 18 months here, he has come to understand how prepared and “adaptable” the City is. “The way that this city has been able to adapt and move fairly quickly into the emergency preparedness piece… it’s just been absolutely incredible,” he said.

One of the advantages of the downtime this month? The City has been conducting fire alarm testing necessary to obtain the building's Temporary Certificate of Occupancy (TCO) leading to final Certificate of Occupancy (CO). Since fully reopening in December 2018, the facility has been operating with special events permits which require additional safety measures while groups are in the building.


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