Nearly three years after the onset of the pandemic that shuttered the nation’s travel industry and dealt a specific blow to convention-heavy Anaheim, Orange County’s tourism epicenter expects a full rebound to pre-pandemic levels this year.
The Anaheim Convention Center anticipates bringing in 1 million visitors to its events planned for this year, the first time since 2019.
That million mark was the standard number of attendees pre-pandemic, but the rebound has been somewhat slow as the center attempts to renew prior business and sign new conventions during ever-changing travel trends.
Last year was the start of the full comeback, according to Anaheim spokesperson Mike Lyster.
In the fiscal year ending last June, the 1.8 million-square-foot center drew in about 950,000 visitors, hosting close to 100 meetings and conventions.
The city’s marketing organization Visit Anaheim, which represents the area’s 80 hotels, convention center, base of restaurants and larger tourism industry, has 114 meetings and conventions on the books for 2023.
This includes a return for its major annual shows such as the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) in April and the upcoming Natural Products Expo West in March.
The events are expected to generate more than $1.2 billion in economic impact for the city of Anaheim and Orange County, according to Visit Anaheim’s Chief Executive Jay Burress.
“There’s really not a good substitute for that face-to-face meeting,” Lyster told the Business Journal.
The Year Ahead
Visit Anaheim is already ahead of its event expectations for 2023, officials note. One of its newest shows slated for this year is the Premier Beauty Show, hosted by beauty network Premiere Show Group, in April.
“The industry is excited to get back in-person and this is reflected in attendance numbers as we’re seeing most events headed to 2019 attendance levels,” Visit Anaheim Communications Director Lindsay Swanson told the Business Journal.
The tourism firm also confirmed a recent gain of business from neighboring markets and cities looking to Anaheim for its convention space and hotel room offerings.
What Doesn’t Kill You
The convention center—the largest exhibition facility on the West Coast—lost nearly 350 events because of the pandemic, resulting in $2.6 billion in economic losses, according to Visit Anaheim.
Sporting events were given the go-ahead to return prior to conventions and meetings, which are usually planned between six months and 10 years in advance.
As such, the first event to take place following the pandemic shutdown was a dance competition in April 2021. That 500-person event was booked by the Orange County Sports Commission (OCSC), created in 2019 as a unit of Visit Anaheim.
The comeback continued in 2022 with all types of industries represented at the center, from fan conventions to corporate meetings to consumer shows.
“We came back a little bit stronger than we expected in 2022,” Lyster said.
According to Visit Anaheim data, the city’s tourism figures were topping 2019 levels as the number of visitors reached 25.5 million last year—a 13% increase from 2020.
Business travel, albeit slower to rebound, made notable strides last year too.
“Zoom can’t take the place of a conference,” he said.
The center heavily utilized streaming and broadcasting to reach larger crowds during the pandemic, showcasing larger events that were otherwise canceled, like VidCon and BlizzCon.
Still, many shows worked toward an in-person return, wanting to show off products and allow collaboration between businesses and vendors.
“There are things that people will always want to come and see,” Lyster said.
He pointed to NAMM and its many displays and musical demonstrations, and the Natural Products Expo, which relies on the distribution of food and beverage items.
Anaheim’s tourism officials want the convention center to emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.
Visit Anaheim—which handles booking for most events at the convention center—aims to do this in part through consistent customer feedback. The organization established a customer advisory board that offers feedback to the center, with members including representatives from entertainment companies, healthcare groups and education committees that have done—or might—hold events at the center.
In a September meeting in which members met to discuss the challenges and opportunities of bringing meetings and conventions to Anaheim, several pointed to a change in priorities among clients.
Employees are more intentional with their time in the wake of the pandemic, according to member Sara Haukap from Smithbucklin, which provides association management administrative services.
That has led to companies taking a closer look at the types of meetings they invest in, with some preferring the accessibility of virtual events.
Some, however, still prefer the benefits that in-person events supply.
Kevin Brown of the American Hospital Association noted conferences are essential for educational opportunities, and his participants want “to be a part of the community the program brings them to.”
Both exhibitors and business partners are looking for opportunities to network and reconnect outside of their booths, Brown added.
Josh Adams from corporate event planner Streamlinevents Inc. noted investors and clients were asking for more data and benchmarks in advance of events in order to manage expectations for metrics like attendance and revenue.
Event planners and trade organizations are also placing more emphasis on the experience of the convention—rather than just the tangible products—touting the energy of in-person gatherings and the impromptu connections that occur there.
Such feedback “helps Visit Anaheim better understand the needs of our customers and partner with them to shape the future of the destination,” Swanson said.
“Experience is one of the hallmarks of Anaheim as a destination,” the meeting’s moderator, Terri Breining of the meetings consulting firm Breining Group, said.