Return of San Diego conventions could complete reopening puzzle

Posted at 12:55 PM, Jun 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-18 20:09:47-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — San Diego's reopening could hit its highest gear in August, with the return of conventions. However, attendance remains the wildcard.

While much of the region will see social distancing restrictions lift June 15, the San Diego Convention Center will not host an event until Aug. 1, when the SPIE Optics and Photonics Convention kicks off.

"People just want to see their friends again," said Kent Rochford, SPIE's CEO. "To have your first meeting back in San Diego, that's not a bad place to be at all, so we think people who can attend will be there."

The pandemic forced the cancellation of 150 conventions at the center, costing the tourism industry hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic activity.


Hoteliers say leisure travel has largely recovered -- leading to 90-percent plus occupancy on weekends -- but that dips into the 60s during the week, with conventions gone and in-hotel meetings severely lacking.

"I think the last piece of the puzzle will be the conventions, and once the first one is done and we get that in the books and we learn from what might or might not have happened well, or not so well, we then can improve on the next one," said Jeff Burg, general manager of the Gaslamp Marriott.

The venue is currently being used as a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, which Health and Human Services plans to close July 15. HHS says it expects a majority of the children will be unified with vetted sponsors by that date, and that any remaining would be moved to another facility in its network.


Events at the center will begin with the SPIE Optics and Photonics convention two weeks later.

The center has 30 conventions on its calendar starting Aug. 1, a typical load. Those with 5,000 or more attendees through Oct. 1 will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.

Still, venue CEO Rip Rippetoe cautioned the events won't translate to pre-pandemic economic impact, noting some travel restrictions remain.

“Attendees will be lower in the near term as we continue to go through a recovery for the next several months,” he said.

Case in point: SPIE expects about 1,500 people this year, down from the 4,000 it hosted here in 2019.