As Alaska faces a wave of COVID-19 that has swelled in recent weeks, several local groups have canceled or postponed conferences and meetings during Anchorage’s generally busy fall convention season. As the coronavirus continued to hamper international travel, an international group also canceled.
The changing plans have done more harm to the top of Anchorage’s event industry, is experiencing its second consecutive year of difficult times after the pandemic called off travel and social gatherings.
And it could continue.
Alaska organizations that recently rescheduled conferences say they are considering COVID-19 figures in the state and could delay events again if things don’t improve.
Meetings and in-person events this year were on the rise in midsummer as the economy rebounded, said Greg Spears, general manager of the Egan and Dena’ina convention centers.
The Foo Fighters’ show at the Dena’ina Center in mid-August sold out quickly and saw strong merchandise sales, he said. It has shown that people are ready to go out and be together.
Cancellations and postponements for 2021 have occurred year round due to COVID-19, Spears said
But the number rose from August as COVID-19 cases in Alaska increased due to the more contagious delta variant, he said. Events scheduled until December, or even early next year, have been canceled or postponed, he said.
Across Anchorage, at least 114 meetings or events have been canceled or postponed this year due to the pandemic, said Jack Bonney of Visit Anchorage. Cancellations affected hotels, convention centers and other venues. The events are said to have generated around $ 39 million in spending in Anchorage, he said.
Twenty-four of them have been canceled or delayed since August 1, he said.
“Travelers’ enthusiasm and optimism is starting to wane as COVID once again raised its ugly head,” Bonney said.
“Ready to meet in person, but not until it’s safe”
On the plus side, at least 60 meetings, conferences and events have taken place in Anchorage this year, pumping roughly $ 12 million into the economy, Bonney said. The figure does not include small meetings organized by local groups on short notice, he said.
Things have improved since March 2020, but the number of events is still well below 2019 levels, Bonney said.
Visit Anchorage was able to book most major events and groups for years to come, Bonney said.
The canceled and postponed events have hurt restaurants, food vendors, event support companies and others, said Bill Popp, director of Anchorage Economic Development Corp.
“It’s disappointing for a lot of companies,” Popp said.
The Alaska Oil and Gas Association had planned to hold its annual one-day conference at the Dena’ina Center in early September after a year-and-a-half postponement, said Kara Moriarty, president of the group.
But with the increase in COVID-19 cases in the state, she contacted Alaskan health officials and Providence Alaska Medical Center for advice. There was no way to keep 500 people socially distanced, she said.
“I realized, ‘Yeah, that’s not sure,’” she said.
The meeting is now reset for January 12. This plan will be reassessed shortly before the event to make sure it is safe, she said. The date can be postponed again if necessary.
“We are ready to meet in person, but not until it is safe,” she said.
The Alaska Native Federation has delayed its annual convention by two months, moving it Dec. 13-15 at the Dena’ina Center.
The group took the plunge after consulting with medical experts, including Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer of Alaska, said Sheri Buretta, chair of the AFN convention committee.
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The Alaska Native Federation convention is usually the largest in the state. Thousands of delegates and loved ones flock from all over Alaska, spending millions of dollars on hotels, stores and grocery stores.
In particular, AFN does not want its delegates to contract COVID-19 in Anchorage and bring it back to villages without hospitals or a lot of medical support, she said.
“We have a vulnerable population and medical facilities, ”she said. “Getting together (in October) would really increase the risk, so we didn’t want to do that to our people. “
The convention took place almost last year for the very first time.
The Alaska Native Federation convention brings together friends and family from all over Alaska, so it was hard not to meet in person, she said.
This year’s plans for an all-in-person meeting may change, she said. The group’s board of directors will meet again to decide whether a virtual or partially virtual event will be safer.
“There is hope that the numbers may come down in December,” Buretta said. “There’s something about being together that everyone wants so much. But we have to do the right thing and protect our people. “
Impact on small businesses
The idea that the AFN convention will be canceled again this year is “terrifying,” Karin Johnson, owner of Dark Horse Coffee, said in front of the Dena’ina Center.
The business of this convention, along with holiday bazaars and other fall events, usually provides a financial boost for the winter, she said.
“AFN is like my Black Friday,” she said. “And it’s like a family reunion so we were sad to miss it last year.”
After a surge in tourists to Anchorage this summer, business has fallen again at the cafe, she said. Small civic and community meetings seem to be the only thing happening in the Dena’ina center, she said.
Dark Horse sales are about half of what they were in 2019, she said. But Johnson said she understands the reason for the cancellations as they keep people safe.
“I can suffer from it, but it’s the right thing,” she said.
The Alaska Chamber planned to hold its annual three-day forum late last month at the Alyeska Hotel in Girdwood. But he canceled those plans.
It is now hosting the online policy forum on Tuesday to set its annual advocacy agenda.
The group is still planning a business conference on December 8 and 9 at the Alyeska Hotel with around 200 participants.
Plans for the December event could change if the stress on state hospitals from COVID-19 does not ease, said Kati Capozzi, president of the Alaska Chamber. The group will contact state health officials before making a final decision.
“If we’re like what we have now, we don’t have it,” Capozzi said of the current high number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Alaska.
If the December event is to be canceled, it will be postponed until it can be safely held in person, she said. People want to network and interact personally, she said.
“We have been running conferences and virtual meetings for 18 months,” she said. “It becomes difficult to be sitting in front of computers.”
The Alaska Miners Association has canceled its five-day conference, which was scheduled to begin Nov. 1 at the Dena’ina Center. It attracts more than 1,000 people, said Deantha Skibinski, executive director of the group.
A new date has not been set, she said.
The event’s cancellation last fall was no surprise, given that there was no COVID-19 vaccine available at the time, she said. But this year’s cancellation is frustrating as many Alaskans haven’t taken advantage of the vaccines, she said.
“It is very disheartening that we are here again,” she said.
International events have also been canceled or postponed.
The IEEE Signal Processing Society has canceled its major international technology conference on image processing, scheduled for four days in mid-September at the Dena’ina Center, said Kenrick Mock, group member and event organizer.
Rather, the conference took place virtually. It is now scheduled for Anchorage in 2025, said Mock, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The group decided in August to cancel, he said. COVID-19 rates were increasing nationwide at the time. More than 1,000 people from around the world were expected to visit Anchorage, but pandemic travel requirements made flights difficult for many participants.
“It was disappointing,” he said.
The Resource Development Council still plans to hold its annual conference Nov. 17-18 at the Dena’ina Center. But plans could change depending on how the pandemic progresses, the group site says.
“While we are doing everything we can to bring our members and supporters together in November, we may be forced to switch to a virtual or hybrid event,” the website says.