Convention centers reopen for events as states lift COVID restrictions

World Today

It’s been a while since people have lined up to get into the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. But there they were the other day, a bunch of 17-year-old volleyball players getting ready to take their sport back indoors. More than 5,000 athletes from 440 teams took part in the Crossroads 2021 competition, in a vast hall that’s been dark virtually all of the past year.

“It is wonderful, was not sure it was going to happen,” said Kay Rogness, Crossroads 2021 tournament director, laughing.

The annual tournament was the last event held at the Convention Center in 2020 before the pandemic interruption and, perhaps appropriately, is the facility’s first big event this year.

“It’s a great day today,” said Richard Scharf, VisitDenver President and C.E.O. “You know it’s really a tipping point of our recovery.”

His nonprofit tourism organization reported $1 billion in lost business due to canceled conventions and meetings over the past year, a financial blow that’s been felt all across the convention and tourism industry. For cities like Denver, the pandemic has meant empty sidewalks and largely empty hotels and restaurants. But as things start to open up, that’s gradually beginning to change.

“I think what we’re going to see is the leisure market is really going to take off this year,” Scharf said.

The volleyball tournament, which could bring a $13 million economic impact, is the city dipping its toes back in the convention waters. Elaborate procedures are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Fewer teams were invited this year so courts could be spaced apart. Participants must take COVID-19 tests before they arrive in Denver. Masks, of course, are mandatory.

“I hope that we’re doing our part to prove that you can have larger gatherings and still keep people safe,” Rogness said.

The general manager of the Hyatt Regency hotel next to the Convention Center is crossing his fingers. He laid off a number of employees when the pandemic hit.

“As the business comes back, we are starting to bring some of that staff back,” Greg Leonard said.

He knows conventions may go more online in the future.

“But I don’t think it will eliminate the need for that face-to-face connection forever,” he said.

For the young volleyballers, that face to face was overdue.

“Getting something that we all do on a daily basis taken away cause of Covid was really detrimental to everyone’s mental health and stuff, so to come back out here and travel and have fun with my teammates is really exciting,” said Abby Teel with the Roots Volleyball team from Austin, TX.

“To see all of these volleyball players out on the sidewalks, walking to the convention center, it’s just exciting to see people out on the streets and that’s what we need,” Leonard said. “It makes a city a vibrant place.”

And a thriving one. That Denver of “old” may be back soon.