Charles Beirne, General Manager of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, stands on the main front floor of the center as they prepare to reopen in Long Beach Tuesday, August 3, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

When Eric Johnson opened his Downtown Long Beach pub in 2004, its location across the street from the Long Beach Convention Center was a main selling point.

Convention attendees make up roughly half of the Auld Dubliner’s business, Johnson said. He receives regular emails about events coming to the center and plans his inventory purchases around them.

After a tough year in which Johnson estimates he lost $1.5 million in business, he’s ecstatic for the return of large events.

“If I could do a cartwheel, I’d do it down the halls,” he said.

Restaurateurs like Johnson, along with the owners of hotels, retail stores, and attractions are elated now that the convention center is reopening and its patrons are returning to Long Beach. The first convention—after 15 months—is set for Aug. 12.

The Convention Center brings over $1 billion to the local economy, drawing in hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city each year who eat, sleep and shop at local establishments.

The Convention Center was shuttered on March 12, 2020 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It has since served as a mass vaccination site, and more recently as an emergency shelter for more than 1,000 migrant children as they waited to be reunited with family or sponsors in the United States.

In the absence of events, the center saw its core staff drop from 125 to 15 during the height of the pandemic, leaving the remaining workers to pick up new skills to fill in the gaps. At one point, everyone—including General Manager Charlie Beirne—learned how to drive a forklift.

As the event calendar begins to fill up again, Beirne said the center has been hiring back staff, with 47 employees on the job so far.

At the facility, furniture has been wheeled in from storage, walls have been repainted and new exit signs have been installed.

“Everything’s been cleaned, shampooed, dusted,” said Beirne, fresh off the first in-person site visit with potential clients since the start of the pandemic. “We’re ready.”

After more than a year of restrictions on gatherings large and small, people are eager to meet in person again, said Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Across the board, what I’m hearing from people is that they’re just excited to be out again.”

Most recurring events, like Complex Con, a two-day event centered around music, culture and food, and regular gatherings of Jehovah’s Witnesses will be returning next year, promising tens of millions in associated spending.

Smaller events with less lead time are returning as early as this month. The first event, the Graphics Pro Expo, takes place on Aug. 12. Another 13 conventions are on the books so far for this year.

In August alone, conventions will bring an estimated $6.9 million and 10,600 visitors into town, according to the convention and visitors bureau.

One of the events returning to the convention center this month is the Long Beach Home and Backyard show on Aug. 20.

Charles Beirne, General Manager, and Samantha Mehlinger, Director of Communications, both of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, are seen in a mirror on the main front floor of the center as they prepare to reopen in Long Beach Tuesday, August 3, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

With large, in-person gatherings on hold during the pandemic, the company behind the show, Jurupa Valley-based Home Show Consultants, had to lay off its entire 12-person staff last year. Now, their office is bustling again, with planners booking shows across Southern California.

“We got them all back, every one of them,” said Jim Williams, general manager of Home Show Consultants.

Coming back to in-person events was key for the company.

“If you’re engaging someone to do the tiles in your house, you want to meet them,” he said. “You want to touch and feel the products.”

Some challenges remain

As hotels and restaurants ready themselves for conventions to return, they’re running up against a national labor shortage in the hospitality industry, making it difficult to staff up in time for conventions to return.

“It’s not a light switch,” said Peter Hillan, spokesperson for the Long Beach Hospitality Alliance, an advocacy group representing several Downtown hotels.

According to an Oxford Economics study, hotels cut nearly a third of their staff during the pandemic—90,977 jobs lost—and many of those workers haven’t answered the call to return to duty.

Some may have moved out of state or changed professions, said Hillan. “We’re pretty confident that we lost the bulk of those employees.”

Still, he said, hotels are doing everything in their power to raise staffing levels before conventions return in full force, offering more scheduling flexibility and paid time off to attract workers and cross-training those already on staff.

“Hotels are going to be as ready as we possibly can,” said Hillan.

The emergence of new coronavirus variants is another cause for concern among business owners.

“I think there’s heightened uncertainty right now about our ability to contain the virus,” said local economist Robert Kleinhenz. “We’re by no means out of the woods.”

Still, Kleinhenz and others remain cautiously optimistic about the future of conventions—and the local economy as a whole. “There’s no doubt there’s a comeback,” he said. But, “it’s going to be a deliberate recovery.”

Even smaller groups of convention guests returning represent a silver lining for local business owners.

“That little sense of normalcy of some people being here, some conventions being here, keeps everyone upbeat,” said David Maskello, general manager of Parkers’ Lighthouse, which relies on convention traffic to fill in during the winter months, when tourism slows down.

“We generate a lot of business from the conventions so we look forward to them coming back,” Maskello said. “We’re absolutely excited.”

At the Convention and Visitors Bureau, new leads for business have tripled every month since January, with a major convention booked every two weeks according to Goodling.

While keeping an eye on the emerging coronavirus variant, the bureau president isn’t worried about another shutdown. “I don’t think anybody wants to revert back to where we were,” he said.

Meanwhile, over at the convention center, the smell of food wafts through the soon-to-be-filled ballroom—the reopening also marks the hiring of a new culinary director, a position recently created at convention centers managed by ASM Global nationwide.

On the bottom level, the polished floors of the 224,000 square feet exhibition halls gleam under neon lights. Heavy leather couches and wooden tables have returned to their place in the lobby facing the Hyatt hotel. Custom-built hand sanitizer stands were set to arrive the next day.

“I think we’re in great shape,” Beirne said.