The CVB’s Joseph Jenci, center right, stands beside PCMA Chair Kirsten Olean during the 2021 Convening Leaders Conference in Las Vegas Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Courtesy of the CVB.

The Professional Management Association, the largest network of meeting and business events professions, awarded the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau the 2021 PCMA Chairman’s Award for the North American Region, the CVB announced today.

The organization received the award in recognition of its operation of a controversial migrant center used to house unaccompanied children who arrived at the U.S. border last year. The prestigious award is given each year to an organization or individual for “unique contributions” to the meetings industry, according to the CVB.

“As events and meetings professionals, we practice hospitality every day,” CVB President and CEO Steve Goodling said in a statement. “It was our honor to extend that same hospitality in service of children in need, and we feel privileged to have been a part of that experience.”

The award was presented by PCMA Chair Kristen Olean during the annual Convening Leaders Conference in Las Vegas.

In April of last year, the Long Beach Convention Center became a temporary housing facility for migrant children as they awaited being connected with family or sponsors. No conventions had taken place in over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making the multi-million dollar federal contract a welcome revenue source.

“While the federal government worked to reunite these children with family or sponsors, the Long Beach hospitality community opened their doors and their hearts at the request of Mayor Garcia,” Olean said during the award ceremony. “A toy and book drive launched by the Long Beach CVB resulted in 100,000 toys and books in just two weeks.”

From April through late July, the Convention Center was home to 1,538 children, who stayed an average of 19 days. One temporary resident of the Convention Center, a then-pregnant 17-year-old from El Salvador, estimated she was housed at the facility for around 30 days. Despite the amenities, she said she was “really sad” being at the facility.

The migrant center closed one week early on July 23.

While many local and state politicians hailed the Long Beach migrant center as a model, the use of the Convention Center as a migrant center was polarizing. Activists gathered outside the Convention Center ahead of the children arriving, demanding transparency and access to the shelter.

Days later, the facility was vandalized with graffiti such as, “There’s blood on your hands,” “concentration camp,” “No Kids in cages” and anti-ICE slogans. Red paint was also splashed down the steps to the Convention Center on Pine Avenue.

Mayor Robert Garcia, though, said at the time that the center was a necessary step in the process of reuniting children with family members.

“We could not have been more proud to have played our part in a much larger national effort,” Garcia said when the facility closed.

The CVB wasn’t the only agency to assist with the facility; medical care was provided for the children courtesy of doctors and nurses from UCLA Health, and the Immigration Defenders Law Center gave the children legal counsel through their immigration process.

For its part, the CVB—with limited Convention Center staff—outfitted the facility with age-appropriate decor and lounge areas. The site also included a full-service kitchen. CVB and Convention Center staff also worked to provide the children with various experiences, including a Fourth of July celebration, a meet-and-greet with Dodger’s baseball players and more.

The ability to provide the children a welcoming experience as they awaited more permanent housing was the primary reason local leaders supported the effort.

“To me it’s a no-brainer in terms of what our options are in regard to these children,” Councilwoman Suzie Price said when the City Council voted to move ahead with the shelter. “In my opinion this isn’t a partisan issue, it’s an American issue. It’s a moral issue.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.