Roughly 800 people will converge in Pittsburgh this week for the NAFA Fleet Management Association’s 2021 Institute and Expo.
It’s the association’s largest event to occur since 2019 and the first convention to be held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center since the pandemic began roughly 18 months ago.
“We’re excited. We’re seeing hope. We’re seeing people that want to come back and want to meet in person,” said Tim Muldoon, the convention center’s general manager, who noted the facility has hosted various smaller events during the last year and a half.
While the city’s tourism market still has a way to go to rebound from the effects of COVID-19—industry leaders expect a full recovery may not occur until 2024— the trajectory is positive now. All of this means more business and hotel guests staying in the city.
“I think we’re going to continue to see gradual growth,” said Jerad Bachar, president and CEO of VisitPITTSBURGH. “Once we get through the winter and into the spring of next year, we’re expecting to see even stronger growth.”
The organization uses multiple indicators to determine how the city is faring, including looking at hotel occupancy, which Bachar said was at a record high since the onset of the pandemic. In Allegheny County, hotel occupancy averaged 66.5 percent from Aug. 8-14, which is just marginally less than non-pandemic affected years. The number of people going through TSA checkpoints nationwide is also near pandemic highs.
“Both of those are really good indicators that we are on the right path,” Bachar said.
The Steel City Draw
Pittsburgh relies on events to bring outsiders to the city. Bachar said the three main types are leisure events like the recent highly attended pickle-focused festival appropriately named Picklesburgh, sporting events like a Steelers game or a P3R race like the marathon, and business events, such as conventions and meetings.
Each area has its own draw, Bachar said.
Businesses choose Pittsburgh for the city’s central location and easy access via Pittsburgh International Airport, both Bachar and Muldoon said. Many also host events here because of ties to the city’s energy and technology industries.
The convention and trade show industry was growing in Pittsburgh prior to the pandemic, Muldoon said. Most of these events are scheduled for April or later, meaning in 2020, only a handful got underway before the pandemic hit.
In 2019, state numbers tracked tourism numbers for Allegheny County, showing that 33.3 million people visited for tourism purposes, spending $6.57 billion and supporting more than 43,000 jobs, Bachar said.
“All of that basically dried up in 2020,” he said. Between March 2020 and the middle of August 2021, VisitPITTSBURGH tracked 520 business or sporting events that it was directly involved with that were canceled or postponed, representing a loss of $375 million in direct spending in the local market.
“It’s been devastating,” he said.
But things are starting to turn around. Sports tourism has seen the quickest rebound thus far. Youth sports bounced back this summer, Bachar said. Pittsburgh’s stadiums are already back at full capacity and, by next summer, he predicts, sports tourism and attendance will be back to normal.
Leisure tourism also is on a gradual uptick. Opening the theaters and having concerts back at their regular frequency will help that market recover. Bachar estimates that leisure tourism will see a strong rebound by the end of 2022, if not earlier next year.
Business events rebounding slowly
The longest return to normalcy in the Pittsburgh tourism industry will be business events, Bachar predicted.
“A lot of conventions depend on corporate sponsorships, on corporate attendance, and a lot of corporations still have bans or restrictions on travel,” he said.
Still, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which typically hosts about 50 conventions or trade shows in a non-pandemic year, has 10 scheduled between August and year’s end.
Even at the convention center, youth sports events were the quickest to come back. Of the events at the convention center that were unable to happen over the last year and a half, 85 percent were able to be rescheduled.
Local experts predict that the return of events will play a key role in the return business and leisure travel to Pittsburgh. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)
Muldoon predicts that there will continue to be an increase in business meetings in the region in 2022, and he said there’s a very strong schedule already planned for 2023. While attendance at the conventions for the remainder of this year likely will be less, Muldoon said that in recent months you could sense the confidence starting to return as companies began to start scheduling events again.
“Everything that we’re hearing is that people want to come back and need to come back,” he said. While Zoom and Teams meetings can be effective, there’s still a need for those in-person connections, he said.
This week’s NAFA Fleet Management Association’s trade show was originally scheduled for April, but organizers opted to push it back to later in the year, said Bill Schankel, the association’s CEO.
With the Delta variant and rising case numbers in recent weeks, organizers continued to evolve their plans to ensure attendees’ safety, including implementing safety protocols. “We feel very confident that our organization is in good hands and our partners in the city have been more than accommodating in making the necessary updates to event schedules, formats and guidelines,” Schankel said.
VisitPITTSBURGH has yet to see tourism numbers affected by the latest rise in cases. However, there often is a lag between case numbers rising and people or businesses deciding to cancel or postpone their plans.
“It’s going to be important that we keep this under control so that we keep moving forward,” Bachar said.