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NRA meeting cancellation widens economic gap

Nearly 75 events set for 2020 have been called off in light of the coronavirus

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The cancellation of the National Rifle Association member meeting this fall has given yet another blow to local industries during a time of economic strife.

NRA officials cited health and safety concerns from the coronavirus pandemic when calling off the meeting, which would have brought up to 1,200 people to downtown Springfield and booked up to 1,400 hotel rooms nights at University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center, according to the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc.

“We were looking forward to having a big convention here in September and thinking that might be a nice comeback for us,” said CVB Sales Director Dana Maugans. “Most groups have canceled for the rest of the calendar year.”

The NRA meeting would have created an estimated economic impact of $850,000, said Maugans. The annual membership meeting originally was planned for Nashville, Tennessee, in April, but that also was canceled due to the pandemic. In June, the NRA tweeted the meeting would be held at the Springfield Expo Center.

By press time, 74 events booked through the Springfield CVB that would have generated $36 million in economic activity were canceled this year, with COVID-19 as the culprit. The names of events released by the CVB include Wing Ding 42, an annual motorcycle rally by the Gold Wing Road Riders Association; National Christian HomeSchool Basketball Championships; and the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church.

The events would have brought nearly 179,000 attendees to Springfield, generating 62,000 room nights at local hotels, according to the CVB.

The restaurant, retail and transportation sectors also would have gotten a much-needed boost from this years’ planned events, said Maugans, though the CVB did not have data available of the economic breakdown.

“People thought group events in the late summer or fall would start to take place, and I think now … it will probably be second or third quarter of 2021 before things start to turn around,” she said.

Hotel activity
Local hotels have been reeling from canceled events and travel since March, though occupancy numbers are starting to slightly increase.

According to CVB data, city hotel occupancy in June was 49.3%, down by nearly a third from the same month last year. But that’s up from March, which recorded a rate of 36.5%. Through July 18, occupancy for the month continued on the upward trend and eclipsed 52%, according to the data.

Cara Walker Whiteley, president of the Springfield Hotel Lodging Association, attributes the occupancy increases to a slight bump in leisure travel. She said the local tourism industry needs a boost from business and event travel to see healthy sales and rates.

“When the NRA announced they were going to have their meeting here, that was a sign to us that there may be some group business returning,” Whiteley said of the June announcement. “At least we would have one big event for 2020 and that would be indication that groups would try to reschedule for fall.

“I’m not shocked that it was canceled because of everything that’s going on. We’re trying to navigate in this new environment, and while occupancy is going up, it’s nowhere near where it used to be.”

Representatives of University Plaza Hotel, where the NRA members were scheduled to stay, declined to comment on the impact to the hotel.

Whiteley said she doesn’t anticipate hotel activity will reach normal levels until first quarter 2021.

“It will all be driven by consumer confidence, and if that’s having a vaccine that’s widely available, that will help,” she said. “The leisure travel business has upticked over the last few months, but that’s not enough to keep everyone in business and profitable. We need corporate, business and group events, too.”

Rusty Worley, executive director of Downtown Springfield Association, said 2020 was supposed to be a banner year with downtown debuting new hotels Tru by Hilton and Hotel Vandivort’s V2 expansion.

“We’ve been disappointed that we didn’t see the fruits of that, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt,” he said. “The new hotels we had opening would have brought more overnight guests to downtown. We see major upticks in people dining at our restaurants and shopping at our stores.”

Worley said the largest hit to center city was the cancellation of the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival.

“That’s the event with the most economic impact because we have 60,000 people here for those two days in August,” he said. “It brings folks from across the country in.

“We felt it was prudent for this year to hold off.”

Planned events
Maugans said a handful of events are still on the docket for this year, though she remains cautiously optimistic.

For instance, the National Street Rod Association’s Mid-America Street Rod Nationals was rebooked for October from its initial May date. This year’s event originally was expected to bring 6,000 visitors and $1.1 million in spending, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

A few local events not booked through the CVB were slated to continue this year by press time.

The Springfield Regional Arts Council’s Artsfest, which was canceled in May, is now joining the annual Cider Days festival in September for a combined event. Artsfest typically generates 30% of the SRAC’s annual revenue, according to past SBJ reporting.

“We’re closely monitoring case counts and other conditions,” Worley said. “We plan to make a call on that in early August.”

Queen City Shout also is planning a virtual event in August for its 10th annual music, film and art festival. The festival is slated to include over 90 musical acts virtually Aug. 17-23.

Worley said the DSA is planning ahead for holiday events and beginning to consider the 2021 calendar.

“It’s been a challenging year to try to deal with these changing conditions and strike the right balance between public safety and economic vitality,” he said.

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