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Move Over Meetings — Convention Centers May Shelter Migrants

Holding hands outside migrant camp

Skift Take

Hospitals, vaccination sites, now overflow shelter sites. That is a possibility for some convention centers as cities struggle to provide housing for incoming migrants and asylum seekers.

Talks are underway about using the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, overseen by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, as an overflow shelter for migrant families.

As Massachusetts’s shelter system nears capacity, the center is among the locations being considered for temporary housing for these displaced families, according to The Boston Globe.

Boston’s situation is complicated as Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey instituted a cap on emergency shelter slots. It took effect last week when the state crossed Healey’s limit of 7,500 families in emergency shelters. 

Hynes is not Boston’s primary gathering site. The newer Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC) is significantly larger. Hynes has 176,480 square feet of exhibition space, including the Hynes Auditorium, which seats more than 4,000 people. The BCEC, the other hand, is approximately 2.1 million square feet and is located on a 60-acre site. This makes using the Hynes for housing a bit more palpable.

Convention Centers Have Been Used for Humanitarian Purposes

This wouldn’t be the first time a business event venue houses those in need. The San Diego Convention Center was used for three months to house unaccompanied immigrant minors. This was in March of 2021, during the Covid pandemic, and as a result, no scheduled events were impacted.

Another, the El Paso Convention Center was also transformed into a migrant shelter in December of 2022.

During the Covid pandemic, the government turned some convention centers into emergency hospitals and vaccination sites. That transition was made easier because of the lockdown. No groups were meeting at the time.

The Case Against Using Convention Centers to Shelter Migrants

The Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO) doesn’t support transforming convention centers into shelters. Vinnie Polito, CEO of SISO, says their viewpoint is entirely apolitical and explains that he lives in New York City, a sanctuary city, and supports incoming migrants.

However, using business event venues as shelters will harm the industry, Polito says. “We believe that the potential of canceling scheduled events would significantly negatively impact both local economies and the business events industry. The entire events ecosystem would be disrupted,” he says. 

Among those affected will be organizers, exhibitors, local suppliers, venues, and city economies. In addition, some cities are still recovering, and group business is not yet at 2019 levels.  

“We also believe this action would likely only partially ameliorate the current situation. Plus, it will create additional challenges,” says Polito. “We encourage, and would be willing to participate in, designing solutions that address the urgent needs. But at the same time, they need to allow our industry to continue to help power local, national, and international economies and those that participate at all levels in the events industry.” 

Chicago Convention Centers Won’t Be Affected

In Chicago, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot turned down the idea of turning McCormick Place and Navy Pier into migrant shelters in May. She stressed how business flow can’t be disrupted to solve this housing challenge. 

That sentiment continues today. “Our local, state, and federal leaders recognize the importance of McCormick Place to the economy of the city and state. We remain focused on our statutory mission to bring trade shows, conventions, meetings, and events and serve as an economic engine for our community,” says Larita Clark, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA).