Cleveland Convention Center does a COVID-19 pivot, looking to fill empty space by booking local businesses for meetings

Noble Horvath

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland, built in 2013 to attract out-of-town visitors, is changing its pitch, at least for now, in an attempt to fill its mostly empty halls. © Chuck Crow/Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com/TNS When a Zoom meeting just won’t work: The Huntington Convention Center […]

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland, built in 2013 to attract out-of-town visitors, is changing its pitch, at least for now, in an attempt to fill its mostly empty halls.



a tall building in a city: When a Zoom meeting just won't work: The Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland is pitching its space to local businesses.


© Chuck Crow/Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com/TNS
When a Zoom meeting just won’t work: The Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland is pitching its space to local businesses.

The center launched a new marketing campaign last week that promotes the facility as the perfect place not for out-of-town groups but in-town gatherings.

Dave Johnson, the center’s director of public relations and marketing, said the new campaign is a dramatic shift for the center, a result of the coronavirus pandemic that has decimated the convention and meetings industry.

Instead of waiting for the convention business to return, the Cleveland facility is trying to drum up local interest from companies that have tired of virtual gatherings.

“When a Zoom meeting just won’t work,” says one advertisement, running in Crain’s Cleveland Business and the Cleveland Jewish News. “We’ve got the largest, safest meeting space in Northeast Ohio. With more than 325,000 square feet of space, we’re big enough for your event to safely social distance.”

The county-owned building, on Lakeside Avenue downtown, has been largely empty since mid-March, when large gatherings were banned in Ohio.

It is unclear when traditional conventions in Ohio will be able to resume. While most businesses have reopened in Ohio, large groups are still restricted in most settings, according to rules established by Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health.

Johnson noted that the center can host groups of up to 300 people if food is served. He pointed out that the center has its own in-house food service and state-of-the-art technology for hybrid gatherings that include both in-person and online attendees.

He also stressed that the new campaign is a “very, very short-term plan.”

“Our building has traditionally been marketed, with Destination Cleveland, for citywide conventions and trade shows. It was built to bring in out-of-town guests, have them stay in our hotels and spend money in our communities. That’s what it was built for and that’s what we do.”

Even so, he said, “It’s nice to get back in the game a little bit. I’m excited for it.”

Laurel Keller, senior vice president with Newmark Knight Frank in Cleveland, said convention centers nationwide are struggling. “The center is supposed to accommodate groups that will fill hotel rooms, send people to restaurants, to the Rock Hall,” she said. “Is this ideal? Perhaps not. But any revenue is hard to come by. I applaud the creativity.”

The campaign has been well-received so far, according to Johnson, with numerous inquiries and leads, though no firm sales.

Johnson said there are no large groups scheduled to use the center this year, but several are on the books for early 2021.

In addition, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court last month started using the convention center and adjacent Global Center for Health Innovation for trials and other court proceedings.

Read more:

Destination Cleveland lays off nearly half its staff, refocuses tourism campaign

Hotel occupancy in downtown Cleveland is a dismal 32%, with no improvement in sight

24 hours in downtown Cleveland: the Flats, Rock Hall, walking tour and more in overnight staycation

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