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How the Biggest Convention Center in the U.S. Survived the Pandemic

Skift Take

What did it feel like to be in charge of McCormick Place for the past two years? Learn how the biggest convention center in the U.S. survived the pandemic.

Photo by Susan Blair – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District

In a normal year, approximately three million people would walk through the doors of Chicago’s McCormick Place, one of the biggest convention centers in the U.S. The past two years, however, have been anything but normal. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a tidal wave of trouble for the world, and convention centers like McCormick Place – designed for the sole purpose of bringing large crowds together – have been some of the hardest-hit businesses.

As vaccination numbers rise, fears of the Omicron variant fade, and in-person events return, we caught up with Larita Clark, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA). Clark, who took over the leadership reins at MPEA in late January 2020, is uniquely positioned to assess the ups, downs, and surprising turns of the past two years.

Through her conversations with EventMB, Clark offered a glimpse into the first signals of the pandemic, the alternative uses of the 2.6 million square feet of space in the building, and the outlook for the future.


A Convention Center’s Timeline: February 2020 to Present


While the World Health Organization didn’t declare Covid-19 a pandemic until March 11, the virus had begun sending small shockwaves through the hallways at McCormick Place by mid-February.

“Our first sign that Covid-19 might impact us was when The Inspired Home Show needed to decrease their exhibit space because of shipping delays from China,” Clark said. “That was in mid-February. The rest of February was normal operations. In fact, we hosted several great events including the Chicago Dental Society’s Midwinter Meeting, C2E2 and the NBA All-Star Alumni and Celebrity Game.”


As the virus spread around the world, the shrinking exhibit space at The Inspired Home Show – scheduled to begin on March 14 – turned into no exhibit space at all. The show, which attracted more than 2,200 exhibitors and over 60,000 attendees in 2019, was officially canceled on March 1.

At the time, Pittcon, an annual laboratory science gathering with attendees from more than 90 countries, was moving ahead as scheduled in the building, and Clark remembers thinking that everyone “expected to return to ‘normal’ in a few weeks.” However, Pittcon’s move-out schedule would prove to be a lasting memory for every employee at McCormick Place. No convention attendees would set foot in the center again until July of 2021.


The doors were closed for business events, but a surprising group was in the building. The Army Corps of Engineers started construction on an alternative care facility at McCormick Place to help deal with the expected surge in people needing medical attention. By April 3, 500 beds were available with plans to build out 2,750. The entire makeshift hospital was completed by April 24. Ultimately, Chicago’s healthcare community managed to expand its capacity at the same time, which limited the need for McCormick Place. The beds were only in use for a few weeks, ultimately serving fewer than 40 people.


With shelter-in-place orders still in effect, there were no events on the horizon for McCormick Place – or any convention center. The building – along with Wintrust Arena and both campus hotels – began pursuing the Global Biorisk Advisory Council’s STAR accreditation.

“We invested considerable time and resources into enhancing our health protocols and in communicating these enhancements to our clients and guests,” Clark says. “Our goal was to instill confidence that we were committed to providing a safe and healthy environment once we reopened.”

In addition to implementing new hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, the building used the lack of crowds as a time to prepare for their eventual return. Clark said they took the time as a chance to invest in the future, including a multimillion-dollar lighting upgrade project for enhanced sustainability, restroom renovations, two exhibition hall re-paintings, a complete HVAC upgrade with hospital-grade filters, and other maintenance projects.


With the building still empty, many who rely on the convention industry for their livelihood were out of work. Clark notes that McCormick Place took “every step possible to help our employees”, including maintaining as many positions as possible with healthcare benefits during the shutdown. Still, layoffs and furloughs were unavoidable.

In November, the building participated in a Thanksgiving food drive to aid hospitality workers in collaboration with the Chicago Federation of Labor. In addition to that food drive and a follow-up event for trade show and event marketing employees in April 2021, the building donated more than 15,000 pounds of food, including produce from a rooftop garden.


When the first phase of vaccinations rolled out to essential employees, McCormick Place played an important role: Employees from nearly 20 federal and state agencies, including Illinois State Police and Illinois Emergency Management personnel, received their first doses at the convention center. And while the building was still months away from returning to convention action, the MPEA worked with Choose Chicago to launch a new digital platform – Healthy Meetings Chicago – to help educate event organizers on new safety initiatives in place throughout the attendee journey.


While vaccine numbers were looking promising, the full impact of pandemic-related cancellations came into view. With 230 canceled events, the city’s tourism numbers suffered an unthinkable year-over-year blow – resulting in more than two million lost room nights, more than $3 billion in lost economic impact, and nearly $239 million lost revenue in state and city taxes.


After an empty 16-month stretch on the calendar, McCormick Place officially reopened in July 2021 with a full schedule, including the Advertising Specialty Institute, Nike National Invitational and a Special Edition of the Chicago Automobile Show. Things felt different – at the auto show, for example, part of the experience was held outdoors for the first time in the show’s history – but any activity felt like a big win.

Credits: Scott Winterroth

The summer momentum carried throughout the rest of the year, too. Between July and December 31, Clark says the building hosted 77 events that attracted nearly 675,000 participants and generated more than $500 million of economic impact. Additionally, more than 2,200 employees – not including the show contractors – are now back at work.


While vaccine mandates have created challenges in certain areas of tourism and hospitality, McCormick Place managed to implement a requirement for every employee on site to be fully vaccinated without any hiccups – a response to a request from the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) for its annual event in December. Clark credits labor union relationships for the easy vaccine rollout.

“Collaboration has been critical to a successful reopening,” Clark says. “We have been fortunate to have a strong partnership with the labor unions on campus which resulted in a smooth return to work.”


As the two-year anniversary of the call to cancel The Inspired Home Show approaches, the atmosphere in McCormick Place is much more hopeful – particularly because that same event is now set to return. After two years of cancellations (attempts for an August 2021 edition were also scrapped), the show will kick off on March 5. It’s part of the reason that Clark says she is “very optimistic about the future.”

“The sales pipeline is strong,” Clark says.

“The combined sales teams have seen an increase in lead volume this month. They are looking far ahead, booking multi-year shows out into the 2030s, as well as short-term events. The event cancellations that occurred during the last two years provided opportunities for near-term bookings. Plus, with support from the state of Illinois, McCormick Place is able to offer up to $15M in incentives for new citywide conventions over the next few years.”

– Larita Clark, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA)

In the immediate future, there are more than 150 events on the calendar, with an anticipated draw of approximately 1.6 million participants.


The Long-Term Outlook

Those are winning numbers when compared with the most recent memories of a silent building with no booths, no breakout rooms, and no attendees, but they are a far cry from the pre-pandemic business figures – a reminder of how far McCormick Place and the entire industry have to go for a full recovery from the fallout of the past two years. The building is prepared for an extended period of slower-than-normal business with a financial plan that estimates hitting full capacity in 2024.

Full capacity – for McCormick Place and all large convention centers – will require heavy lifting from event organizers: Among other hurdles, they will need to convince attendees that face-to-face gatherings are worth the extra investment of time and money otherwise avoided through digital participation. While it’s safe to say that every professional has dealt with a decent amount of Zoom fatigue in the past two years, the pandemic has also shined a light on the convenience and cost-effectiveness of tuning in from home versus boarding a plane and spending three nights in a hotel room.

Covid-19 has fueled a seismic shift with millions of people quitting their jobs and reevaluating their lives. Will they make room in their schedules to crowd the hallways of convention centers again? Time – potentially more time than the convention industry would like to wait – will tell.