The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center of New York won't drop state capacity restrictions until the fall, and maybe not then, despite pressure from convention organizers who complain the restrictions are driving trade-show business out of the city.
“They will be looser than now, but I can’t tell you how loose they will be,” Alan Steel, the president and CEO of the Javits Center, said of the gathering restrictions. The governor has not yet indicated a change to the limitations on occupancy for events in which not all attendees have been vaccinated.
This matters for an industry in which events for hundreds of thousands of people are regularly planned a year in advance. Full capacity, in particular, would make it clearer to organizers how many exhibitors they can accept, how many tickets they can sell, and whether it’s profitable to hold an event for fewer people.
The Advanced Manufacturing East Show, which includes MD&M East, Plastec East and Eastpack, is scheduled for Dec. 7-9 at the Javits Center.
Even as Broadway works toward an opening date with 100 percent of seats filled and 15,000 fans fill Madison Square Garden to root for the Knicks, the events industry has felt unnecessarily restricted by the state's rules.
On May 3, Gov. Andrew Cuomo indicated that indoor events could be held at 30 percent of capacity beginning May 19. But when the guidelines came out, they allowed for 100 percent capacity and zero restrictions at events where everyone shows proof of vaccination, a state of affairs that organizers say is unlikely to happen.
Instead, organizers have to set up events to allow for 6-foot social distancing. Everyone must wear a mask and show proof of a recent negative Covid-19 test result.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said in April that all restrictions on businesses would be gone by July 1. The 3.3 million-square-foot Javits Center is operated by the state, via a public-benefit corporation, and Cuomo’s executive orders are still setting the terms. The May 19 rules do not have an end date.
The past week the city saw an average of 12 daily deaths attributed to the disease and 34 hospitalizations, compared with 19 deaths and 47 hospitalizations a week earlier.
A group of event organizers has been lobbying for months, arguing that their large-scale conferences demand clarity at least three months in advance.
“Thirty days isn’t enough time to make changes,” said Paul Miller, the chief executive of Questex, a city-based event organizer. “By then we have sunk a lot of costs.”
Miller canceled the New York International Beauty Show at Javits scheduled for July, after it became clear that the event, which already had 20,000 registrants, would not jibe with current restrictions. The event brings together salons and spa owners with beauty products. Three other annual beauty events — in Las Vegas; Orlando, Florida; and Chicago — will go on as planned. Miller said that some exhibitors were booking those instead of waiting until 2022.
The exhibitors and attendees at many trade events tend to be small businesses that make significant deals in the halls of convention centers, said Hervé Sedky, the president and chief executive officer of Emerald, the largest U.S. events organizer, which is behind the NY Now show, which will be held in early August at Javits.
Sedky and others said they took no issue with the state’s strict safety measures and had already put in an industrywide standard for masking, cleaning and distancing that was at least as cautious.
Rather, it was capacity limits and lack of clarity around when and how changes would happen that drove Vision Expo East, a gathering of 9,000 ophthalmic professionals typically held at Javits during the spring, to Orlando. Javits CEO Steel said he had the group’s assurance that it would be back in the city in 2022, although he knew it had chosen Orlando because of the confidence that the event would not be canceled there.
But for other organizers, Steel’s assurances and the positive public health news have been enough to go on. The Auto Show, which used to attract close to 1 million visitors, is on for late August.The SALT Conference, a financial gathering, has moved to the city from Las Vegas. The New York Building Congress is planning its centennial gala in November, in the new ballroom space recently finished at the Javits Center.
The Armory Show, which connects galleries and collectors, is planning its first show at Javits, a move that was initiated before the pandemic.
Now its main contingency is how many fairgoers will be allowed into the space at one time. In March 2020, there were 20,000 total attendees, and Nicole Barry, the executive director of the show, said there are even more galleries booked than normal — 200 compared with 180 in the past. Because international exhibitors and collectors may not be able to come, most attendees will be U.S.-based collectors and galleries. Usually half of exhibitors are from abroad.
It’s not going to be a problem, said Berry. The executive director said she would be able to change the flow of the event to accommodate everyone who wants to attend, but individual time-slot attendance might be limited.
Berry said that on Sept. 9, when the show starts, the rescheduled Met Gala would be days away and the U.S. Open would be winding down to the finals.
“We feel like we are part of this movement that gets New York back for visitors,” she said.
There’s a lot at stake. In 2019, 6.2 million people — about half of all business tourists — came to the city for various business events. Though Steel said Javits has not lost any longtime shows, any event that leaves New York is another state’s gain in a competitive, profitable industry whose economic impact extends far past the exhibition tables and out to restaurants, activities and shows in the host city.
“When other destinations weren’t able to give positive affirmation to their event planners, we were their first choice,” said Mark Tester, the chief executive officer of the Orlando Convention Center, referring to 14 shows that had relocated to Orlando from elsewhere, bringing $187.5 million in business to that city.