Orange County Convention Center Invigorates Central Florida’s Economy
An almost-forgotten air of excitement fills the once-empty and echoing grand exhibit hall. Attendees file in, and any lingering silence is quickly replaced by sounds that room hasn’t heard for months: Old friends spot each other and, beaming with warm smiles, go in for a handshake or an elbow bump. “Good to see you!” and “How have you been?” can be heard throughout the crowd, along with plans to grab a cup of coffee or meet for drinks later in the day.
Those are the moments that Mark Tester, executive director at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), missed most in the months of inactivity spurred by COVID-19 closures.
“I’ve always loved the opening day of an event,” Tester says. “In virtual meetings, you don’t have that chance conversation in a line to get a cup of coffee, or get to introduce yourself organically to someone you don’t yet know. Virtual meetings just can’t replace the need to get together and develop those relationships. But walking through a trade show or convention, on an elevator, in a hotel lobby, those connections can happen.”
Tester believes in those connections. He believes in the relationships and chance discoveries that strengthen industries, and ultimately strengthen Central Florida’s economy. And he believes that the convention center’s strength lies in its role as a hub for all of that connection.
A Sudden Shift
Tester joined OCCC as executive director in February 2020, just a month before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most business in the United States. He quickly pivoted in his role in March of that year, turning his focus to a plan to prepare for future events, respond to event cancellations with his team and meet customers’ immediate needs.
With the support of Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings and the Board of County Commissioners, as well as county administration, the convention center pulled through a four-month pause without having to furlough any of its full-time employees.Through a medical concierge program with Orlando Health and third-party certifications on cleaning, disinfecting and disease prevention through the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) and its Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC), the OCCC came out on the other side with the tools to host shows that were up to par with the “new normal.”
“We were one of the first convention facilities to get this GBAC star accreditation, and we were the first to renew it,” Tester says. “We’ve been doing these protocols for well over a year now, and they’ve become the daily routine.”
A “one entrance, one exit” model was implemented for traffic on the trade show floor, in meeting rooms, and in bathrooms. Wider aisles made room for social distancing. More than 3,000 signs throughout the space carry reminders of health and safety precautions.
In July 2020, OCCC became the first convention center in the country to start hosting modified events, beginning with the American Athletic Union (AAU) Junior National Volleyball Championships. Just one year later, the same AAU event brought 135,000 attendees and $173.3 million in economic impact.
In July 2021, the convention center anticipated being back to full strength, with a calendar as robust as any year before. It seemed the OCCC and its guests had adapted to the new order.
Then the Delta variant arrived.
“We had what I would call a blip,” Tester says. “We had eight trade shows and conventions cancel — all that were planned from August to December 2021. We were poised to have a record number of events. Now we were faced again with retooling, and we were asking ourselves: “How do we make people feel comfortable? How do we get everyone together? Where are the opportunities to grow within these precautions?”
Conventions look different as they move into 2022, Tester admits, but like the rest of the world, OCCC finds itself working to strike a balance between keeping people safe, and keeping them sane. Attendees prioritize safety and health, of course, but they also are eager to get back out there on the convention floor to find those connections that happen only when the air is buzzing with that excitement.
“People are relational,” Tester says. “They want to sit down face to face with somebody and have a casual conversation, or look at a new product and feel it. We have absolutely seen that manifest, beginning with the first B2B trade show we had back. Everyone in every industry was very conservative in the beginning because of those unknowns. They were asking themselves, ‘Do we buy more equipment? Do we launch a new product? Do we buy more services?’ Now they’re ready to go do that. There’s pent-up demand.”
Despite a change in appearances, that intangible excitement on the floor is still there, maybe more so than in a pre-pandemic world.
“Generally people judged a convention with their eyes,” Tester says. “If they walked in and saw fewer people in the room, they might have thought it wasn’t a good event. But now, generally numbers are slightly down. Companies are sending five people where they might have sent 10, for safety reasons. And the booths are much more spread out, so the aisles don’t look packed. Now exhibitors are not judging by how packed something looks, but by the leads they generate on the floor.”
What they’ve found, he explains, is the chance to spend more one-on-one time with a buyer, in some cases leading to more business being done on the trade show floor.
As conventions continue in their new forms, the OCCC and Tester expect to be back to pre-pandemic levels sooner rather than later. And all the better, he explains, not just for the health and business of the attendees, but for that of the community built on the relationships they forge.
The International Center for Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) returned to OCCC to hold its annual conference in November 2021, after COVID precautions led the Orlando-based trade association to cancel its event in 2020. IAAPA’s total registration hit 28,229 for an economic impact of approximately $79.6 million. “Their numbers really accelerated short term, and the opening of the borders allowed them to even get some international traffic in,” Tester says.
Later that month, the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) explored the latest in technology. Military and tech organizations from all over the country converged right on Central Florida’s doorstep.
“The key to those events is what they mean to our community as both the ‘Theme Park Capital of the World’ and the ‘Augmented Reality Capital of the World,’” Tester says. “It means more people are coming here for professional development and opportunities to learn. It may even result in a company adding a regional office in Orlando. Our mission is not only to drive economic impact for the county through the events that we have, but to support the industries that are here and help them grow and diversify.”
For Tester as a self-described “trade show junkie,” the potential of these events is ever-evolving to fit the new normal — and growing by the day, with new groups making plans to hold events in Central Florida.
“Mayor Demings’ guiding principles are innovation, collaboration and inclusiveness,” he says. “That’s also where we’re focusing. Orlando’s reputation as an outdoor destination, and for cleanliness and safety, puts us in a really good position to compete nationally and globally.”